Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty – Channel 5

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Channel 5 don’t always do the best job of making programmes on serious subjects, and I was prepared for either a load of drivel about Game of Thrones or else a lot of waffle about Rosamund Clifford’s bower, but there was none of that.

All right, the language was a bit flippant, and Dan Jones did tell his story in a way that seemed intended to make it sound like a cross between a soap opera and a blood ‘n’ guts adventure movie, but I think sometimes we need that to get people interested in history. Nothing like a bit of royal drama for doing that … and, unfortunately, there’s not enough of it on school history syllabuses (syllabi?) I remember once having to draw a pie chart showing how much time of each day medieval monks spent praying, working and eating! I’ve been a historian pretty much from birth onwards :-), but I was 20 before I got really into the Middle Ages. A bit more about Henry II, the wonderful, fascinating Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their “Devil’s Brood”, and a lot less about the daily life of monks and the construction of motte and bailey castles, and I’d’ve been devouring books on the medieval period a lot sooner.

Of course, this period certainly wasn’t all about royal drama – although it’s a period in which royal drama had a huge impact on what was going on. The reign of Henry II, which was what this first programme in a series of three covered, saw England recover from the trauma of the war between Stephen and Matilda, important legal reforms implemented, English intervention in Ireland and all sorts of issues resulting from the establishment of a Plantagenet Empire which included much of what we think of as France. However, it has to be said that Dan Jones focused a lot more on the “headline” stories of Henry’s conflicts with his family and Thomas Becket than with law and finance, and I can’t recall Ireland, or for that matter Wales, being mentioned at all.

All a bit lightweight, then. But I think there’s room for programmes like this. Not all the time, and not instead of more serious and heavyweight programmes, the sort which BBC 2, BBC 4 and Channel 4 do rather better than Channel 5 does, but room all the same.

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The King’s Sister by Anne O’Brien

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Elizabeth of Lancaster was the second of John of Gaunt’s four daughters and, until now, the one I knew the least about. It was rather comforting that Anne O’Brien admitted that she didn’t know very much about her either, until she was asked to give a talk at the place where she’s buried. Then she found out more about her and decided to write a novel about her … and I’m very glad she did, because it’s fascinating!

Philippa of Lancaster married King Joao of Portugal, and became the mother of the “Illustrious Generation” of Portuguese royals. I read quite a lot about her before going to Portugal on holiday last year. Catherine of Lancaster married King Enrique III of Castile, and was the great-grandmother of Catherine of Aragon. Joan Beaufort, John of Gaunt’s daughter by Katherine Swynford, married into the Neville family and was the grandmother of Edward IV, Richard III and Warwick the Kingmaker. I well knew all that. I must confess that I didn’t know about Elizabeth … about how, at 17, she was married to an 8-year-old earl, and about how she had to get a rapid annulment and hastily marry John Holland, Richard II’s half-brother (the younger son of Joan of Kent’s first marriage), considerably less than 9 months before their first child was born!

So Elizabeth was half-sister-in-law to Richard II, who was also her first cousin. And sister to Henry IV. And, therefore, caught right in the middle when Henry took Richard’s throne. The book depicts Elizabeth as being in the middle of events and having to make the difficult decision to tell her brother about a plot against him which involved her husband: maybe that happened and maybe it didn’t, but Elizabeth was indisputably caught up in at all, in a horrifically impossible situation – and, in the end, her brother had her husband put to death.

Elizabeth comes across as a very feisty character. She must’ve been, to’ve got her love life in such a tangle! & John Holland comes across as a bad boy hero, irresistible to Elizabeth … as she seems to’ve been to him. Two fascinating characters. And there are a lot of other fascinating characters too. John of Gaunt. Katherine Swynford, very sympathetically portrayed. Richard II, rather unfavourably portrayed. The wonderful Joan of Kent. Elizabeth’s sister Philippa. And Henry IV – who, despite attracting attention from Shakespeare, seems to attract surprisingly little attention generally. Everyone’s got an opinion on Richard III overthrowing Edward V, Henry VII overthrowing Richard III, and William and Mary overthrowing James II, but Henry’s deposition and murder (because it must have been murder) of Richard II is far less well-known. Possibly because of Shakespeare, I tend to think of Henry as a rather guilt-ridden character, but this book shows him as supremely confident and self-assured – as I suppose he must have been in 1399 and 1400, whether or not he was later on.

For all that, this book’s actually quite an easy read. It isn’t full of complexities, deep analysis, symbolism, anything like that. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. I’d like to see Anne O’Brien write something that does go a bit deeper, but I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed all the books of hers I’ve read so far, and this one was particularly interesting because it was about someone I honestly didn’t know very much about until now.

The Imitation Game

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Winston Churchill said that Alan Turing made the single biggest individual contribution to the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany. Manchester’s incredibly proud of the work that Turing did on developing computers at the University of Manchester. Yet he committed suicide, aged just 41, after being put on a “chemical castration” programme of hormonal treatment because he was gay. What an amazing man, what an amazing mind, and what a tragic end … and what a travesty that a man who did so much should have been treated in that way. You couldn’t make it up. You don’t have to, because it’s true.

I’ve seen this film described as a “thriller” and a “spy film”. It isn’t really either. It’s mainly about Turing’s work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, the breaking of the Enigma code and the lesser-known fact that, horrifically, Turing and his colleagues had to decide which signals to act on, because acting on all of them would have made it clear to the Nazis that the code had been broken. However, it also shows a little of Turing’s life after the war, quite a bit about his schooldays and the important relationship he formed with another boy, who sadly died of TB, and a lot about the issues he had in forming relationships with other people. The film is about Alan Turing.

This is my specialist period of history, but I understand that there have been some criticisms made of the film. One is that it focuses too much on Turing’s relationship with his colleague Joan Clarke, to whom he was engaged for a while, and that it romanticises it too much. I don’t think that it does. They were indeed engaged for a while, and the film makes it clear that it wasn’t a great romance and that it wasn’t about physical/sexual attraction. There’s also been some criticism that it doesn’t focus enough on his identity as a gay man, but how could it? He couldn’t have formed a romantic relationship with another man whilst he was at Bletchley, otherwise he’d have been … well, not just sacked, but probably prosecuted as well. Horrifically wrong as that seems now, it is how it was at the time. There’ve also been concerns raised about the fact that the film shows that Turing was suspected of being a spy, but I understand that there were concerns about spies infiltrating Bletchley Park.

My own one moan is the use of expressions such as “You’re fired,” “We should talk” and the Americanised “talk with” (rather than “talk to”)! That’s not a very big moan. There isn’t much to moan about, but there’s much to praise. It’s an excellent film, about a man who sadly only received the recognition he so richly deserved many years too late. And it’s not just him – let’s remember all of those who did such important, and unacknowledged, work at Bletchley Park, and also all of those who were prosecuted, and either imprisoned or subjected to the treatment which Turing went through, just because they happened to be gay.

This is an important film, and also a very entertaining one. Don’t miss it.

Queen Victoria’s Letters, part II – BBC 2

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Ah, this was more cheerful! Whilst A N Wilson really does seem to have it in for Prince Albert, this second programme was far more positive about Queen Victoria herself … even if the presenter did make his pet point that Victoria had been repressed by her marriage to Albert and only found her true self after his death rather too forcefully and repeatedly.

There was an unfortunate lack of royal family gossip. Where were the extracts from Victoria’s letters and diaries about the Kaiser’s treatment of his mother, about Louis of Hesse’s second marriage, about the Romanovs and about Princess Beatrice’s marriage? Then again, the programme was meant to be about Queen Victoria herself, and we got a thoughtful and pleasantly nudge-nudge-wink-wink-free portrayal of her relationship with John Brown, which Wilson described as a “loving friendship”, and of her relationship with the Munshi and fascination with India … although it does have to be said that the Munshi does seem to have been a bit on the dodgy side. As Wilson rightly pointed out, Queen Victoria’s lack of both snobbery and racism, at a time when both were rife amongst certain elemebts at court, is one of her most praiseworthy qualities.

Napoleon III, someone else with whom Victoria had a close friendship wasn’t mentioned, but Disraeli was. I’m rather fond of Gladstone and the contrast between the way in which Victoria treated him and the way in which she treated Disraeli is really a bit shameful, but all credit to Disraeli for managing to work so well with the Queen … and all credit to Victoria, too, for successfully portraying herself as the symbol of the era and the Empire.

Her involvement in the politics of German unification was mentioned too, but quite honestly I think it was overplayed and that A N Wilson was partly trying to play up her German side and partly trying to prove his point about her being “liberated” by the death of Prince Albert.

I do think that he was too hard on Prince Albert, but this second programme was still a pleasantly positive portrayal of a great Queen who is all too often portrayed as being uptight and stuffy when in fact she was nothing of the sort. Much more enjoyable than the first episode.

Nazi Occupation (of) the Channel Islands – Channel 4

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The five year Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands was something which never seemed to be talked about very much, but has, deservedly, received much more coverage in recent years. I first came across it in fiction – in the Chalet School books, which see the school temporarily set up shop in Guernsey in 1939 but then flee to England in 1940. They very much focused on people leaving in the face of Nazi occupation, and some people did indeed do that, including many children who were evacuated to the British mainland (a lot of them to Stockport or Bury). However, most of the Channel Islanders stayed and endured the occupation, and this programme, presented by Tony Robinson, was about what life was like for them.

The Nazis seem to’ve been keen to try to make a good impression in the Channel Islands, especially in 1940 when they must have genuinely expected that soon they’d have been in control of the United Kingdom itself. However, they didn’t. Locals were forced to work on their building projects and, horrifically, slave labourers were brought in from Poland and Ukraine. 250 Channel Islanders who worked against the Nazis were deported to prison camps, some of which were concentration camps, and 29 of them died there. There was also horrible evidence of some people betraying their neighbours.

It’s horrific to think that this was going on within the British Isles … but what struck me the most was the apparent lack of resentment that more wasn’t done to liberate them sooner. After D-Day, the Channel Islands’ food supply lines (i.e. from France) were cut off, and it was decided to … well, effectively to try to starve the Nazis out. That, however, meant that the Islanders were starving too. It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve 1944 that the Red Cross were allowed to take food in, and it wasn’t until the day after VE Day that British troops arrived. In the horrific wider context of the Second World War, it’s understandable, but the fact that the Channel Islanders don’t seem to hold this against the British government is nevertheless very admirable.

Now, as Tony Robinson pointed out, the physical signs of Nazi occupation, and the commemorative statues and the museums relating to the Occupation, are major tourist sights – and, whilst that’s strange, it’s important, because it is so important that we never forget what happened. This happened in the Channel Islands, British Crown dependencies, part of the British Isles. It’s a story not nearly as widely-known as it should be, and one which must never be forgotten.

Dancing Cheek to Cheek – BBC 4

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The era in which I grew up can’t really be described as a golden age of dance. We’re talking the Time Warp dance, the Kylie Minogue version of The Loco Motion and, most cringeworthily of all, Agadoo. There was even “dancing round your handbag”, but people who did that were looked down on as being very uncool indeed. It was no better when I got a bit older: that was the era of the Whigfield dance and the Macarena. And it was even worse when I was very young – I hate to admit this, but I can still remember all the actions (I hesitate to call them “steps”) to the Birdie Dance.

I always rather envied my grandparents, who grew up at a time when everyone, regardless of their social class, seems to’ve mastered the art of “proper” dancing, and dance halls were the places to go. Last night’s first episode of Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate Era of Dance went back well before their time, though. Presented by historian Lucy Worsley and Strictly Come Dancing’s Len Goodman, it started off with the seventeenth century – the country dances of the early part of the century, the clampdown on dancing by Oliver Cromwell & co, who considered it sinful, and then the revival of dancing during the Restoration. It then moved on to the eighteenth century, when dancing became a crucial social accomplishment for the upper and upper middle classes, accompanied by a whole load of rules of etiquette and clothing designed more around the dances of the time than any other rules of fashion.

It could and should have been very interesting. Unfortunately, and this sort of thing does seem to happen with practically every single historical programme in which Lucy Worsley’s involved, it just degenerated into a depiction of two ill-matched people dressing up in Georgian clothes and making fools of themselves by trying to do a Georgian dance. It was the sort of thing which might have been a bit of fun to try on a family day out at a stately home, but which just didn’t work ‘n what was supposed to be a historical documentary. Please lose the dumbing down, BBC. You’re more than capable of making excellent historical documentaries which manage quite well to be thoroughly entertaining without including any of this rubbish. Leave the dressing up and messing about out of it in future, please? Thank you!

Queen Victoria’s Letters – BBC 4

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This programme, the first of two, didn’t say anything new, but any programme about Queen Victoria’s personal life is by its nature interesting :-). The very fact that Queen Victoria wrote so many letters and that she kept a diary for so long is fascinating too, although it’s rather a shame that her daughter Beatrice edited what were probably the “best” bits out of the diary!

I’m not sure about the presenter, though. A N Wilson. Why doesn’t he use his first name?! It’s not as if it’s anything really weird/embarrassing – it’s Andrew. And did he seriously think it was funny to put on an ‘Allo ‘Allo style German accent every time he was reading out anything said by Prince Albert? Also, he seemed determined to criticise everyone. Victoria herself came in for a lot of his whingeing because of her difficult relationship with her mother – but, whilst it wouldn’t have hurt Victoria to have made a lot more effort in her mother’s later years, she was given a very hard time by Victoire of Saxe-Leiningen and Sir John Conroy before she became queen. (Incidentally, why were Victoire’s two children by her first marriage never mentioned?)

As for Prince Albert, he was dismissed as a “cold fish” and a “control freak”. All right, he was – his reaction when the Prince of Wales was caught in flagrante with Nellie Clifden’s a prime example of that! – but he had his good points too. He worked very, very hard – look at the Great Exhibition, and the Trent Affair – and there’s no questioning the fact that Queen Victoria adored him.

Give them all a break! Queen Victoria’s letters and diary – and she does seem to have accepted that people would read the edited versions after her death, so it doesn’t seem inappropriate to be discussing them – tell us so much and are so interesting. There are much better things to do in a prime time TV programme about them than whinge and moan!!