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.

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!!

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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I’ve had the 7 “Little House” books for over 30 years and have read them so often that they’re falling apart, so I don’t know why I’d never read this, the story of Almanzo’s childhood (a year in the life of, when he was 8/9) before, but better late than never! For a kick off, here is a description of a typical Wilder family breakfast:

There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar. There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes, as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup. There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts. But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.

All the meals seem to’ve been like that! Did they do some eating?! But they did a lot of hard physical labour as well … often at the expense of attending school, in Almanzo’s case. Unlike the Ingalls family, the Wilders (BTW, why is Almanzo’s eldest sister not mentioned?!) were comfortably off, and, although they did most of their own farm labour and had no domestic or permanent farm staff, certainly higher up the social pecking order than Almanzo’s future in-laws. They seem to’ve been very keen on putting money in the bank, whereas I’m not sure that banks are ever even mentioned in connection with Charles and Caroline Ingalls! And the three elder siblings mentioned in the book – including Eliza Jane, who came across no better here than she did as Laura’s teacher, to the extent that I’m surprised Laura wrote like that about her sister-in-law – went off to a boarding school. However, they did work incredibly hard. Until affected by crop failures in the late 1860s and 1870, they ran a successful farm in Malone, New York state, very close to the Canadian border. Incidentally, although the book, given Almanzo’s age, must be set in late 1865 and early 1866, less than a year after the end of the American Civil War, there’s not one mention of the war or its aftermath.

They did pretty much everything themselves. They produced things, they used pretty much everything they produced, and they were proud to be free and independent. It was the American Dream. I don’t know how accurate it is, but the way it came across was just that … the old-style American Dream. Whilst I’m using clichés, add “the Protestant work ethic” in there. It was a hard life, but how incredible to have been able to live a life like that. And what a shame that it didn’t last for them.

Like all Laura (I always think of her as “Laura”)’s books, this was a lovely book. I just don’t know why I’d never read it before!

Blood Will Out by Kyra Cornelia Kramer

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This promised a lot and delivered nothing. What a let-down! It was supposed to be presenting the theory that the stillbirths and miscarriages suffered by two of Henry VIII’s wives, and the change in Henry’s behaviour when he was in his 40s and 50s, were due to his being Kell 1 positive and having a disorder, found only in Kell 1 positive individuals, called McLeod Syndrome.

When a foetus has inherited a Kell 1 positive gene from its father, but the mother is Kell 1 negative (which over 90% of the population are), the mother can produce antigens which act against the foetus and (I’ve got this off a website, so I hope it’s right) can lead to severe foetal anaemia, sometimes resulting in miscarriage, stillbirth, or death shortly after birth. It doesn’t, however, happen in a first pregnancy, as the mother hasn’t then become sensitised against the negative antigens. McLeod Syndrome occurs only in Kell 1 individuals, and almost exclusively in men, and can lead to (again, I’ve got this from a website) heart problems, muscular problems, seizures, twitching and, significantly in terms of this book, major behavioural changes, usually from the age of about forty onwards.

I can certainly see why the author might have come up with this theory. Henry, once a dashing young Renaissance prince, turned into a tyrant, almost a monster, in later years. A lot of people believe that there might have been a medical cause for it: the head injury which he suffered during a jousting accident in 1536 has been suggested as a possible explanation although, as the author quite rightly points out, he was acting both cruelly and irrationally well before then. Also, there must surely have been some sort of medical explanation for Catherine of Aragon’s obstetric tragedies. Anne Boleyn’s two miscarriages, one of which occurred shortly after Henry’s accident and was attributed to the shock, could perhaps have been sheer bad luck, but with poor Catherine it happened too many terms. Deaths in infancy were common in Tudor times, but late miscarriages and deaths very soon after birth suggest that there was an underlying cause.

However, the author presents no convincing arguments to back up her theory. She doesn’t even really present it as a theory. Nor does she even explain properly what being Kell 1 positive or having McLeod Syndrome mean – or point out that a) McLeod Syndrome is incredibly rare and b) Henry doesn’t seem to have exhibited any of the physical symptoms of it. The book reads rather like a below average standard A-level essay – regurgitating a load of information about Henry VIII’s reign (most of it totally irrelevant – what on earth have Jane Seymour’s ideas on fashion, Catherine of Aragon’s parents involvement with the Inquisition or the raw treatment given to Anne Boleyn by male historians got to do with whether or not Henry was affected by a genetic blood disorder?) and the medical practices of the time, with a comment every so often, in a ah-I’d-better-refer-back-to-the-title kind of way, that this must have been because Henry was Kell positive and had McLeod Syndrome. It was interesting enough, because Henry VIII’s reign and marital history are interesting, but it didn’t in any way present an argument in favour of her theory. I understand that some research has been done suggesting that a lot of Jacquetta Woodville’s male descendants had problems producing heirs, but none of that was mentioned here.

Furthermore, the style of writing really wasn’t appropriate for what was supposed to be a scholarly work. “You could almost feel sorry for Henry if he wasn’t such a putz.” “Why did other people glom on to the outlandish tales?” “You feel [if affected by osteomyelitis] like you are death on toast.” Not impressed!

Short of someone digging up Henry’s bones and testing them for the Kell positive gene, which isn’t going to happen, there’s no way of proving whether this theory is likely to be true or not – but it should be possible to present a convincing argument in favour of a theory, and this book did nothing of the sort.

Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Hooray – a new series of Michael Portillo, who comes across much better as a TV presenter (he looks like a complete idiot in those brightly-coloured jackets, but they’re part of his “image”) as he ever did as a politician, going off on exciting railway journeys round Europe with his 1913 Bradshaw’s guide. Everyone knows that George Bradshaw came from Salford, yes :-)?

The “set in the past” element of the series lies in trying to envision how all these wonderful places would have looked in 1913, when the people there could have had no idea of the horrors that would soon engulf them. It’s also very interesting to reflect on how the coming of the railways enabled middle-class people, as the well as the upper-class elite who had the money and the leisure time, to see the sights of the Continent. Not to mention just how important some of the journeys taken by rail were – notably that taken by Lenin when he returned to Russia to lead the Bolshevik revolution. In one of my myriads of photo albums is a picture of the Finland Station, taken when I was in St Petersburg in 2012, because it was the station into which Lenin’s train arrived.

The first episode of the series saw Portillo in Russia, travelling from Tula to Moscow and then on to St Petersburg. The train he took from Tula to Moscow had begun its journey in Makhachkala (the place with the rich football team whose players live thousands of miles away because of the political tensions in the Caucasus), Dagestan: the journey from there to Moscow takes 64 hours, a reminder of how big and diverse the wonderful Russian Federation is. And apparently a lot of British tourists visited Tula in 1913, to see Tolstoy’s estate, before going on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

I love Russia, would recommend it as a travel destination to anyone, and am very sad that political tensions between Russia and the West are rising again. Like Portillo, I’m old enough (although I’m over 20 years younger than him, I hasten to add!) a time when going to Russia as a tourist seemed like a pipe dream. I was 21 before I first went (a long time ago now!), and the first time I walked into Red Square was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I was very pleased to hear Portillo say how thrilling he found it too! Both of Russia’s two major cities are just amazing. St Petersburg – which was Leningrad when I was a kid – with its stunning baroque views, its beautiful bridges, and all its Romanov and revolutionary history, and Holy Moscow, the mother city of Mother Russia. A lot’s changed everywhere in Europe since 1913, but Russia (I’m saying “Russia” rather than “the Russian Federation” because I’m using the word “Europe” in the same sentence!) has been through more than probably any other part of the continent. But we’re lucky now, and we can go there as tourists again, with very little hassle other than filling in that ridiculously long visa questionnaire. As for the railways, arguably they’ve had more influence on Russia than they have on any other part of Europe.

There’s something fascinating about railways. My two little nephews (one’s just turned three, the other’s nearly six) are obsessed with them! I’m not, LOL, but I do find them quite exciting, and also very interesting from a historical viewpoint. And there’s certainly something fascinating about Russia. The second episode in this series saw Portillo in Rome, Campania and Sicily, and that was very interesting too, but there’s something particularly interesting about Russia.

This is a great series, both when it’s covering railway journeys within the UK and when it’s covering railway journeys in Europe. Very glad to see it back.