Archives for posts with tag: history

How much of a liberty should you take with history when producing a work of fiction? I suppose it depends on what you want the end result to be. A serious period drama needs more attention to detail, and besides, real historical events rarely need extra dramatization adding. A more fluffy drama (e.g. Downton Abbey) needs less of this, as your audience is essentially wanting a soap in period costume. The social changes are merely a jumping off point for characters rather than being the tale you want to tell.

But what about comedy? Yes, again your audience is hardly going to bristle at 21st-century values being imposed on a historical figure, but you still want to feel as if the writer knows what they are talking about. Satirical jabs at our ancestors can become inane if not handled carefully. Quacks trod this line quite well. Upstart Crow, less so.

You see, the big problem with Upstart Crow is that it tries too hard. The veiled, or not so veiled, references to Brexit, Trump and other problems of our down are heavy-handedly transposed into a late 16th-century context. This is surprising, as Ben Elton did this so well in Blackadder.

In fact, the problems with Upstart Crow are laid bare when you look at Blackadder. Having a background cast that hams it up is fine if there is someone central that keeps it level, as Rowan Atkinson did as Edmund Blackadder. But in Crow, David Mitchell is as OTT in his performance as everyone else. It leaves you feeling as if you are being bashed over the head by a group of toddlers chanting ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’.

And then you have the tricky biographical details. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare was an idiot, entirely dependent on his sensible wife and uber-feminist friend to give him inspiration? I know we can stretch our imaginations a little, but this characterisation of Shakespeare borders on the unbelievable. If the whole point is to show how someone from a modest background rose to be one of our greatest writers, isn’t this rather dulled by making him a stupid man with ideas above his station? I don’t believe in hagiographies, but nor do I like this rather ‘know your place’ attitude the show seems to have.

Another example is the representation of Christopher Marlowe as a caddish womaniser when more and more evidence is showing he was actually as close to being an openly practising homosexual you could possibly be for the time. It’s 2017, viewers won’t demand heads on sticks if you write him as such.

Overall, what felt like a novelty in series one is feeling old and tired now. Most of the jokes are recycled from previous episodes bar the plot specific ones and the characters remain one-note. If you are going to satirise history, you need to show some teeth, especially if you are going to stretch the past to its breaking point. Taking liberties is only worth it if the end product is good enough. In this case, it feels like it is not.

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Historical comedy is probably one of the hardest to get right. The balance needs to be found between mocking our ancestors’ beliefs on a subject without making it a history lesson, whilst also spearing some of our modern-day pre-occupations. Blackadder did it near perfectly, particularly season 3, but it is easy to see why it has often been avoided. For every hit there is a Let Them Eat Cake.

Still, one crops up now and again, and recently we have seen the launch of Quacks. This is a sitcom based around three Victorian medicine men – surgeon Robert, William the alienist (psychologist) and John, a dentist. There is also Robert’s wife, Caroline, who is keen to become a medical professional herself, and Dr Hendricks, the head of a medical school.

Naturally, most of the humour is about how backwards medical practice was: the high mortality rate of surgery, the dangerousness of early anaesthetics, the lack of any psychological understanding at all. Many of these are used as set ups to the plots of the episode, rather than the plot itself, which is a relief, as this is the weakest strand. Which is awkward, as this should be where a historical sitcom shines.

Instead, it is the surreal pin-wheeling off that is driving force behind the humour. Take episode two, where William and Caroline take a drug-addicted Charles Dickens to John’s shop to try his drugs, leading to Caroline and Charles being locked in a cupboard with a comatose boy who suddenly comes round.

Which brings to me another strength of the show, which is the guest characters. Andrew Scott was delightfully horrid as the attention seeking and sex obsessed Dickens, playing the character exactly as his worst critics had written him. Of course, the problem with guest appearances being the root of a show’s success is that if an episode has a duff one or not one at all, then you are left with a central cast that offers little.

This is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody feels a little underdeveloped as characters. For example, John is rarely stretched beyond being a drug-loving dentist. There is also a cloying subplot of William’s love of Caroline while Robert ignores her. I do wish someone could make a sitcom where men and women are just friends and stay that way. I doubt this plot will add to anymore laughs to the show – it hasn’t done so far anyway.

Despite this, I want the show to find its feet. It is too easy for channels to ditch sitcoms after one season if they don’t quite work nowadays, rather than letting them adjust as time goes on. Blackadder only really worked series 2 onwards, for example. There is a kernel of something good here, but rather than labouring how terrible medicine was back then, it needs to focus on the more surrealist elements. Don’t just raise a smile, make me laugh. It’s what I’m paying a licence for.

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.

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.