I really could have wished that the BBC hadn’t chosen to show a programme about the defeat of the Spanish Armada on the first day of the French Open (are things not stressful enough?!); I’m not quite sure why they felt the need to spend licence-payers’ money on letting Dan Snow play about in his yacht; and I really could have lived without seeing Angie-Watts-dressed-up-as-Elizabeth-I talking to a pet monkey, accompanied by someone who was supposed to be playing Blanche Parry but looked as if she were trying to be Nursie from Blackadder. Having said all this, the defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the key episodes in English history, and the programme did say some interesting things in amongst all the silly playing about.
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada. 1588 – a date we all know. It’s one of the key moments in English history. Elizabeth’s stirring speech at Tilbury, Drake finishing his game of bowls, beacons being lit across the nation. OK, it has been rather “1066-and-all-that”-ed – England the underdog, not yet the great power she was to become, taking on Black Legend Spain … the speech, the bowls match, the derring-do of those who grabbed the gold from the Spanish galleons or singed the King of Spain’s beard, etc etc, but we’re still talking about a very important event, and something which is very important in the whole idea of England. The BBC did a lot of talking about Philip II, but they failed to talk about the about the plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and, even more importantly, the Spanish Fury in the Netherlands and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France. Yes, the “Black Legend” idea was exaggerated, but (it’s breaking my heart to write this during the clay court season!!) it wasn’t made up either. Imagine knowing that Islamic State were about to mount an invasion of this country. That’s how people at the time must have felt.
Where the BBC got it much better was in the discussions about the nitty-gritty of what actually happened. And that was frightening. The weather was against the English fleet: the Spanish, off the coast of Plymouth with the English trapped by the weather, could have chosen to try to land, and who knows what could have happened then? Instead, they stuck to their plan – Philip micro-managing, the Duke of Medina Sidonia not really being the man for the job but having been chosen because of his social status – of heading for Margate, where they hoped to link up with the Spanish forces in the Netherlands. Bad decision on their part – what a relief on England’s! And then there was some very practical talk about blast furnaces and how they meant that England had better cannon than Spain, not the sort of crucial-but-a-bit-dull stuff that the legends of the defeat of the Armada tend to focus on.
This could all have been presented much better, but it was very, very interesting – once you waded through Elizabeth’s make-up, the pet monkey, the ridiculous accents in which the actors playing the Spanish were using (think Speedy Gonzales the Mexican Mouse) and so on, and got to what was really happening. Two more episodes to come. Please, BBC, don’t mess up the speech at Tilbury …