Monday, 8 February 2010

Palliative history,

Sunday evening television is traditionally deemed to be a time for comfort viewing - Lark Rise To Candleford, Midsummer Murders, Kingdom and Doc Martin. A reassuring and cozying taste of a Britain that never was and never is. 

The latest big historical project from the BBC - David Dimbleby's Seven Ages Of Britain fits very  comfortably into this slot. More appropriately titled 'Dimbleby looks at some old stuff' the series has shamelessly pinched its name from a Channel 4 series of a few years ago: 

The earlier series was proper history - looking behind the familiar British  landscape to reveal its man-made changes from the end of the hunter gatherers of the Mesolitihic to the enclosures of the Eighteenth Century. It reveled in the not immediately apparent; that the 'wildernesses' of Dartmoor and the Shetlands were once economically  thriving regions, that the quintessentially English countryside of fields and hedgerows is a comparatively recent artificial and highly poiliticised construct; and that the great forests were equally artificial proto-theme parks for the leisure class.

Dimbleby's series on the other hand reveled in restating the bleeding obvious. A middle ages that was all about knights and ladies, castles and chivalry. So Dimbleby  trots about looking for  examples of objects that confirmed that indeed this is what things looked like in 'days of yore'. And for some reason interviewing a present day Knight Of The Garter, a delusional retired major who seems to think he is a successor to the handpicked henchmen of Edward II. Or a sweet elderly couple who are equally delusional in thinking that they are just like Edward I and his queen Eleanor. 

Tellingly, Dimbleby's main focus was on Richard II and his role as patron of the medieval arts. Undeniably Richard was responsible for a lot of the nice things that Dimbleby clearly likes looking at, but significantly no mention was made that, by the standards of medieval kingship, he was a complete political disaster. He might have invented much of the courtly tradition that makes up the popular image of the middle ages but he failed in the main job of a monarch at that time - keeping a precarious balance of power with the  nobility on whom the entire fabric of feudal society rested. The political turmoil that resulted  from this failure was a factor in the peasants' revolt and  was then  expressed over a couple of generations as the Wars Of The Roses. Richard II's  failure ultimately resulted in his being held hostage in Pontefract Castle by these nobles - and  a decidedly unchivalrous  end when he was starved to death. But clearly this wasn't deemed a suitable thing to mention on a Sunday evening.

A better understanding of the period could probably have been had from watching the first series of Blackadder or Monty Python's Holy Grail. Terry Jones is at least a proper medieval scholar and showed his fundamental insight into those times with the immortal line 'he must be a king - he isn't covered in shit'...

1 comment:

Plumbers chiswick said...

Haha that truly was a superb line,but I agree what you say about the programme, it seems instead of a warts and all expose they opt for the good pretty content, some of us would like to know the good the bad and the ugly...