Back to the Future — How Epic History TV is Re-inventing the War Documentary

“I don’t think these are just the best, most exciting, dramatic stories ever told, I think they’re also our best guide to help us make sense of the modern world and all its complexities. History matters.”

TOBY GROOM IS the driving force behind Epic History TV.

The 38-year-old London-based television producer specializes in short and remarkably addictive Youtube documentaries about the defining moments of the past.

The Battle of Waterloo, the rise of Imperial Russia and the early years of World War One are just some of the topics covered since Epic History TV launched last summer.

The forces arrayed against Napoleon at Waterloo. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

A screen grab of Epic History TV’s first episode: Waterloo. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

The 15- to 20-minute films, which come out monthly, seamlessly blend map-based graphics with archival photos and illustrations. All are narrated by veteran BBC radio broadcaster Charles Nove.

Reaction to Groom’s videos, which he finances entirely through donations and his own pocket, have been overwhelmingly positive.

“Thank-you Epic TV,” commented one Youtube viewer. “Your videos are fantastic and give a great visual representation of what was happening in the wars.”

“One of the best history channels,” wrote another. “Please produce more amazing videos.”

We asked Groom about how and why he started Epic History TV and where he plans to take it in the future.

Here (in his own words) is what he had to say:

The war in 1915. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

The war in 1915. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: Tell us about what you did before launching Epic History TV.

Since leaving university in 1999, I worked for History (formerly The History Channel) in the U.K. for 13 years, helping to produce documentaries on a range of subjects from a history of military medical care to the history of the U.K. and Irish lifeboat service to the story Auschwitz. As many of your readers will know, some years ago History began to focus more on ice roads and swamp people than actual history, which is when I decided to go freelance. I now work as an independent producer/director on history documentaries for broadcast in the U.K. and abroad.”

A lesson in Medieval Russian history. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

A lesson in Medieval Russian history. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: What made you start Epic History TV?

“First, I’m absolutely passionate about history, and want to share that passion with as wide an audience as possible. I don’t think these are just the best, most exciting, dramatic stories ever told, I think they’re also our best guide to help us make sense of the modern world and all its complexities. History matters.

“Secondly, working in television can be frustrating. Narrative history has fallen out of fashion. The emphasis now is on ‘making the past relevant’, and personalizing and dramatizing history. So you get a lot of biography, a lot of history ‘from the bottom up’, and a lot of process (principally archaeology). None of this is bad in itself, and partly it’s a reaction to too many years of documentaries about generals, wars, and prime ministers (the ‘dead white men’ school of history). But it means that big, epic narrative history series are now few and far between. I think that’s a shame, because there’s definitely an appetite for that kind of program. I meet a lot of people with a thirst for the ‘bigger picture’. They may have seen a few documentaries about the Tudors, or aspects of World War One, but no one’s helping them fit all these pieces together. So that’s what I’m hoping to do, in my own small way: fill that gap by providing grand, epic, narrative histories of nations, wars, revolutions and dynasties, to provide a kind of scaffolding on which the audience can hang all their other information.

“Lastly, Epic History TV is great fun to do. I learn so much about each subject as I make the video. The creative process is very fulfilling, and it’s great to get so much feedback from your audience. And of course it’s great to be your own boss!”

Opposing forces at Waterloo. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

Opposing armies at Waterloo. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: How long does it take you to produce an episode?

“It’s getting quicker! The Battle of Waterloo took about six weeks. I do everything myself, from the script, to the animations to the sound effects and voice direction, so it is a long process. But now economies of scale are starting to kick in – you only have to make an animation of a fluttering Tricolor once – and I’m always learning new shortcuts. One thing to say on this subject is that I aim to create content that will have a long shelf-life – with Waterloo, my goal was to produce the best short history of the battle anywhere, and one that will stand the test of time for several years. And that takes a lot of work.”

MHN: Can you comment on the response so far? 

“Better than I could have imagined. Knowing YouTube and social media, I thought there would be a lot more abuse! But 99 percent of my comments are from people excited about history with something positive to say. You don’t get that kind of direct, personal feedback in TV. It definitely gives me confidence that I’m doing something worthwhile, and heading in the right direction. It’s really encouraging.”

(Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

(Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: What are the challenges involved in producing these short films?

“Number one challenge is time. I get a lot of comments wanting to know when the next video’s coming out, and I don’t want to test my viewers’ patience! But Epic History TV doesn’t pay any bills yet, so I have to balance it with the day job. Hopefully, as the channel becomes more popular, and particularly as Patreon pledges increase, the channel will start to cover its costs and I can do it full-time.

“Other challenges: finding good quality images that are either public domain or can be licensed for a realistic fee. Music, same problem. And constantly finding ways to be original and creative with maps, which form the basis of all my videos.”

MHN: In general, what periods of history fascinate you in particular?

“So many! The Iliad was bedtime reading from an early age, which I’m sure is why I’ve always had a deep fascination with Ancient Greece. Napoleon was a childhood obsession – I even had a poster of him on my bedroom wall! I think there was a smaller print of Wellington in the other corner. Both World Wars have loomed large in my studies, work and family history – one grandfather was torpedoed off Malta and I had an uncle who flew Spitfires. The list goes on and on – medieval military history (stemming from another childhood obsession with knights), the French and American Revolutions, and I’m currently going through quite a major Russian phase (which I regard as a sort of ‘extreme history’).” 

The Waterloo campaign. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

The Waterloo campaign. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: Who is your inspiration? What shows/producers/outfits are doing the subject justice in your eyes. 

“I’m inspired by anyone who successfully brings history to a popular audience, particularly if they can do it without glossing over history’s inherent complexity and ‘messiness’. In terms of television, the greats for me will always be Ken Burns’ Civil War, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, and The World at War. None are faultless, but they’re incredible achievements. I’m a huge fan of any Michael Wood series in the U.K. – I re-watched his In Search of the Trojan War recently from 1985. Other inspirations would include three great writers of historical fiction: Patrick O’Brian, George MacDonald Fraser and Bernard Cornwell. In the U.K., Antony Beevor, Max Hastings and Andrew Roberts continue to write great stuff about military history.

“And finally, I think computer games continue to do an amazing job of drawing kids, young and not-so-young, into history. It definitely worked for me. In the early ’90s, Sid Meier and MicroProse released a string of brilliant historical games – Civilization being the most famous. But my own favourite was probably Pirates! – my own Blackbeard video is in some ways a homage to this legendary game. More recently, the Total War franchise features incredible detail about military history, and the way Assassin’s Creed allows you to explore, for instance, a fictionalized version of Renaissance Rome, is awe-inspiring. Hopefully these would be starting points to get people to read up on ‘the real history’, but in terms of popularizing history, I think gaming must be unrivalled today.”

Action in the South Atlantic. (Image source: EpicHistoryTV.com)

Action in the South Atlantic. (Image source: EpicHistory.TV)

MHN: Where would you like to take the project in the future?

“My immediate goal is to finish the stories I’ve already started – my history of Russia, and my year-by-year, blow-by-blow chronology of World War One. Then, as many have already asked, I’ll probably move on to World War Two, with a few digressions along the way – I’m keen to do something on the Irish Famine, the Black Death, and a history of the Congo and its civil war, as just a few examples.

“I also want to begin to focus on subjects covered by school history curricula in English-language countries. This not only makes sense in terms of growing the audience, but my favourite feedback is always when a student tells me my video helped them pass a test or complete an assignment. So I want to do more of that.

“Hopefully, if Epic History TV continues to grow, I’ll be able to make it a full-time job. Who knows, maybe one day I can even expand the operation – we’ll certainly never run out of subjects to cover.”


Click below to watch an episode of Epic History TV.

1 comment for “Back to the Future — How Epic History TV is Re-inventing the War Documentary

  1. Laurie Mannino
    10 March, 2017 at 7:34 am

    I teach world history (in the US). I LOVE these videos! they are so excellent and the perfect length to use in class. Thank you Mr Groom for making these!

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