Archives for category: history

If I was to make a list of my favourite people, I would have to place Ian Hislop near the top. I think Private Eye should be read by everyone, especially around election time, to help them make educated decisions as to how genuine the parties and individual MP’s are being. Beneath his satire on Have I Got News For You, he also offers some searing insights.

Hislop is also a great documentary maker. In the past he has covered the Welfare state, railways and philanthropy. His most recent one is Who Do We Let In? Britain’s First Immigration Row. It positions our current obsession with immigration within the context of Britain’s move from open doors in the mid-Victorian era to the first pieces of peacetime immigration legislation in the early 20th century.

Along the way there were some interesting stories. How Britain was so open doored, it even harboured terrorists to prove its liberalism (the fact said terrorist was French perhaps helped). How Winston Churchill was so incensed by the anti-immigration rhetoric of his colleagues in the 1900’s, we switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals. How Britain became the proud home so thousands of Belgians fleeing the German army during the First World War.

The most interesting moment though was Hislop’s interview with Katie Hopkins about the media’s role in fuelling immigration fear. Hopkins seemed to take pride in her role, claiming that two things sell papers – Maddie McCann and immigration. She also pushed back strongly on the idea that she was pedalling hate, claiming to be merely defending a country she loved, which is strange, considering most of her journalism involves talking the country down in a way that if it was done by a Leftie, would be seen as unpatriotic. Most chillingly though, she laid the blame for her and other right-wing commentators at the feet of Hislop, positing him and the ‘liberal elite’ as Frankenstein, she as their monster.

One of the things that came out repeatedly in the documentary was that history is often a cycle. In this case, a surge of immigration creates fears of crime, cultural clashes and threats to employment. Then those immigrants assimilate, aping their hosts’ habits, before the next generation sees a new set of immigrants, and the fears rise up again.

Hislop did leave us with a lesson, albeit a slightly theoretical one. Although open door immigration wouldn’t work (although other than going against popular opinion he doesn’t say why), open mind would. In other words, be cautious but compassionate. Welcome those who can and will contribute regardless of their background and reach out to those who are without support. Keep out those who are obviously dangerous and try to ensure individual communities don’t get overwhelmed. Most importantly, stick to the facts and don’t get wrapped up in rhetoric. Britain’s history will always make it an asylum of nations. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one that doesn’t function.

Regular readers will know I am not averse to a bit of fluff when it comes to TV. Whether it is high-camp horror Scream Queens or OTT urban fantasy Grimm, a bit of daftness is rarely a bad thing. Of course, if you are trying to create some deep, meaningful tale of sin and redemption while musing on the existential qualities of humanity, daftness is not a quality you want. But then, I wouldn’t watch that show anyway.

Timeless is a great example though of how a bit of silliness lifts a show rather than sinking it. Now, no doubt its creators and starts would be very hurt by this thought, but, let’s face it, it is a bit silly. The premise suspends your disbelief for a start – a corporation designs a working time machine which is stolen by a terrorist who is trying to change history, and a band of plucky adventurers are tasked with preventing him.

If I was the kind of guy who flinched at plot holes, I would probably find this show unwatchable. Thankfully, I’m not. Instead, I find myself sitting back and enjoying the ride. This is helped by my love of history and the fact I often find myself asking ‘what if?’ about historical events. It’s amazing how much of our modern world is dependent on details that seem to be quite small. For example, what if a top German rocket scientist during WWII had defected to the Soviets rather than America? Could the Cold War have ended differently?

One of my tiny niggles with the show is that it is very America-centric. Of course, it is an American show, so this shouldn’t surprise me. But there are some moments in British history that could be worth the show exploring. What if Lord Halifax had been made prime minister in 1940 rather than Churchill? Would Britain have withdrawn from the war, leaving America to fight alone when Japan made its move on Pearl Harbour? What if Britain had never turned away from the Catholic faith, or if one of the founders of the Industrial Revolution not been born?

What I do love about the show is that it reminds you of the comparative stability we have now. I say comparative, obviously we have ISIS, not to mention Russia gearing up to become the Soviet Union v.2. For instance, episode 2 reminds us just how important the Civil War was to setting the tone for race relations. The right people being alive ensured the creation of important institutions.

There is a background mystery in the show, one that is only just starting to build. How much this enhances or detracts from the show remains to be seen. Even so, this is a highly enjoyable hour. One that is not as daft as it first may seem.

One of the iconic programmes in British comedy history is Blackadder. It had an unusual concept for a comedy, in that it was set in a bygone era of English history, a different one for each series, with central figure being a distant descendent of the previous central character. Each time the figure of Blackadder fell slightly down the social ladder, from prince to courtier to servant to mid-ranking army officer.

What was so good about it was that it delivered such brilliant satire. Not only did it skewer the times it was set in, but it also mocked the modern world as well. It also skewered major figures of the era, my favourite being Elizabeth I being written as a petulant sociopath. No doubt many would argue this perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth.

There have long been rumours of a fifth series, but to no avail. Instead, its creator, Ben Elton, has written Upstart Crow, a comedy satirising the life and works of Shakespeare. It shares that skewering of historical figures, not least Shakespeare himself, as well as the modern myths that we have created around him. We are introduced to a man who leads a fairly normal family life, who don’t quite get his apparent genius.

Yet despite this, I struggle to actually laugh at this show. I think part of the problem is that, having got so used to watching comedies that are understated and about the subtleties of life, watching something where the jokes are more in plain sight requires a gear change that I cannot manage.

I quickly here want to add a note about the use of live audience laughter – some people thinks this kills comedy dead, but I disagree. Graham Linehan uses it in his comedies, and they don’t detract from anything there. Rather, it is the heavy-handedness of Elton’s writing in Upstart Crow that is to blame.

For example, Helen Monks plays Susannah, Shakespeare’s teenage daughter. This could have been handled any number of ways, but instead we have the well-worn trope of the sulky teenager. You would have thought that after Kevin and Perry, this characterisation would have died a death. It feels like a waste of Monks’ talent, certainly in comparison to her role as Germaine on Raised by Wolves.

There are some bits I like. The occasional joke lands quite well. There was a particularly good recurring one in episode two revolving around where are you supposed to put the coconuts down a woman’s vest if she already has breasts. But they are few and far between. Couple this with a feeling that everything is being slightly overdone in terms of the acting, and you have something that lacks any cohesion.

Despite this, there seems to be some love for it amongst the critics. Maybe if I accept it for what it is, I will enjoy the ride more. Still, I can’t help but feel this is an opportunity missed.

The biggest problem with any series that is set in the recent past is the tendency for the lifestyle of whichever era is being recreated to be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles and, in some extreme cases, to be fetishized. Downton Abbey falls into this trap, with viewers believing the early 1920’s was all picnic’s and jazz bands. Of course, in this case such romanticism is deliberate, as the creator Julian Fellowes seems to treat the past not just as ‘another country’ but a better one. There may be political turmoil around the world which is only just clambering out of a devastating war, but at least everyone dressed properly for dinner.

The Bletchley Circle almost falls into the same trap. Again, we find Britain picking itself up from the hammer-blows of international conflict, although this time in the 1950’s as opposed to the 1920’s. Yet it also neatly avoids many of them, and certainly denies many viewers the opportunity to wish themselves there. This largely down to the premise and genre. Four former Bletchley Park code breakers reunite to rescue a friend from being wrongfully convicted of murder. This is a sequel to the original series where one of the group (Anna Maxwell Martin, who seems to be currently living in period costumes) spotted the pattern of a serial killer far faster than the police did. With crime and the behaviour of bad people at the forefront there is naturally less of a desire to wish yourself in a time machine to join them.

Likewise, the social environment appears far more cruel than we find in Downton. It is telling that of the three women who are all still in work, all are single, and mainly in menial roles. The fourth, Martin herself, is married with children and is therefore obligated to be a housewife. There is a telling scene when she is visiting boarding schools for her daughter where she is brusquely informed by the headmistress that girls in general are not to be encouraged to study maths, as the arts and languages are much more appropriate, with Martin using every fibre of her soul to not tell the teacher exactly where to stick her education. And with it being the 1950’s her husband doesn’t understand this frustration, after all his daughter’s future husband is the one who needs skills to succeed in the workplace. Ditto his breezy comment about being promoted to a post abroad, with the subtext that his wife can say no, but they will go anyway so she can go with a smile on her face or sulking, either way the boat leaves soon.

In fact, underneath the grisly crimes and the jolly hockey-sticks banter, what appears to be most at the centre of Bletchley is what does a society do with woman when their skills beyond producing babies and running a home are surplus to requirements? As terrifying as World War Two was, it gave women social and economic freedoms. A whole generation of bright, young girls found doors opening and a ‘purpose’ only for 6 years later to be gently eased or shoved back out of them again when the men came home.

Yet as Martin’s character demonstrates, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. A generation of ‘pushy’ mothers who found there talents going to waste ensured their daughters got a better education and could compete with men. They literally gave birth to the second-wave of women’s lib activists. It was a slow path, and still is, but we should all be thankful it is one that was started.

There are some genres of television that I watch with trepidation, for instance adaptations of novels I loved, or those highly praised US imports like Damages or Homeland, neither of which I have watched yet for fear of it all going over my tiny little head and sounding like a numpty when discussing it with fans of the shows.

The genre I most fear to watch is TV history. Which is odd, as history is a great love of mine. A well-written article about any era or topic grabs my attention, and if forced to make a list of 10 favourite books at least 3 would be history, most notably Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians. So why do I dodge televised history programmes like the plague?

The reason is consistency. I have missed many a no-doubt-amazing series fronted by Mary Beard or Lucy Worsley after a few traumatic experiences at the hands of other programmes. Because for every series that is impeccably researched and beautifully presented, there seems to be about a dozen dodgy relatives clogging up the schedules. The biggest cardinal sin is the need for mainstream history to be presented by people who aren’t historians, but rather by minor celebs who have a passing interest in a subject and then front a documentary, or a segment on a magazine-type show, about it. Sophie Dahl’s exploration of the life of Mrs. Beeton last year was one example of this. We were distracted from a fascinating biography of one of the most important women in history by Dahl’s insistence on throwing a Victorian dinner party for all her friends. Yet that is a piece of academic virtue compared to shows like Britain’s Hidden Heritage or National Treasures: Live, which seemed to have as its sole aim to make everyone at home go “Oooh, isn’t Britain lovely?” whilst Larry Lamb or Paul Lay dragged us round something-or-other.

So should TV history be left to academics? Well, actually, no. Sometimes, if exactly the right person is picked, you can give a non-academic a challenging brief. Ian Hislop bridges the gap between the two worlds perfectly. This is because, and I think this key to anything to do with history, he has a genuine passion for it. Stiff Upper Lip, exploring how Britain became stoic and unmovable, and if we are beginning to reverse that trend post-Diana, is a wonderful account, with an engaging main narrative and little side-stories. It’s hard to pick one fact of choice, such is the feast we are offered. Maybe that Mary Wollstonecraft’s wish for women to be seen as rational as men was undone by a series of, shall we say, misadventures with men and suicide attempts. That Wellington’s icy nature held Victorian imagination’s more than Nelson’s passion, to the extent where the latter’s dying words had to be changed to prevent him sounding too fey. Or maybe that the fashion for ‘sensibility’ was kicked into touch after a few revolutionaries went a bit mad in France.

There are some quibbles I have. Hislop opened with one of my pet hates, which is vox-poxing the public on the topic. We also had a scene where for some reason he was surrounded by silent schoolchildren, that looked like a boarding school equivalent of Children of the Corn. But these are minor issues in what is otherwise a brilliant programme. I await parts 2 and 3 with expectation, but, rather appropriately considering the topic, a quiet, resolute one.