Roots – BBC 4


Word PressConsidering that the original mini-series of Roots is one of the best-known and most-watched TV series of all times, I was expecting this new version to be making headlines; but it seems to be slipping under the radar. I know it’s on BBC 4, but surely the days of people only watching things that are on BBC 1 or ITV (1) are over. I’d be interested to know how much attention it received in the US when it was shown there, which I believe was last May/June.

I’ve read the book, but I’m not old enough to have watched the original series. Hooray – there’s actually something I’m too young for!!   There’s been a lot of controversy about the story since then. For one thing, it’s been admitted that some sections were copied from an earlier book about slavery. For another thing, it’s supposed to be the true story of Alex Haley’s ancestors, but it’s now known that there are a lot of inaccuracies, whether intentional, unintentional or a bit of both, in terms of genealogical records not matching what’s in the book. It’s unfortunate, because, even if the story isn’t an accurate telling of the history of one family, and even if some of it isn’t even Alex Haley’s own work, it’s still an accurate depiction of the sort of things that did happen to many people, and it really drew attention to a subject which at that time hadn’t really been explored on screen.

Obviously times have changed since then, and the new series cannot possibly have the same effect as the original because it isn’t a ground-breaker in the way that that was. There are mixed views about films and TV series which address slavery, as there are with those which address, for example, the Holocaust, or even countries which have spent many years under foreign domination. Some people feel that they’re important from an educational viewpoint and that these are subjects of which awareness needs to be maintained. Others feel that they have a negative effect and encourage views of certain sections of the population as victims: Snoop Dogg has criticised both Roots and Twelve Years A Slave for that reason. Anyway, everyone has their own opinions on the subject, and I’m inclined to go with the view that they’re educational. History is important. You can’t ignore the bad stuff.

So. On to the new series … and it’s strange, because it’s doesn’t feel like an American series at all. Well, the early scenes wouldn’t, because they were set in The Gambia, but they didn’t feel like they were set in The Gambia because most of the cast were speaking in South African accents. When we actually got to the Virginia, the plantation owners were speaking in cut-glass upper-crust English accents – surely not very likely, in the 1770s – and the overseer was speaking in an Irish accent!   The overseer on the next plantation was speaking in a Scottish accent. There are actually a whole load of British actors in the cast – including Malachi Kirby, who played Nancy Carter’s dodgy ex-fiancé in EastEnders, doing an absolutely superb job in the lead role of Kunta Kinte. That’s another reason I’d expect the series to be getting more attention here than it is doing. Oh well.

Some if it is literally very dark – I appreciate that some scenes are meant to depict night-time, or the insides of ill-lit buildings, but there are times when it’s difficult to see what was going on. That’s my only real criticism of it, though. A lot of it is figuratively speaking very dark, but it has to be. But, when people say that it’s just presenting certain sections of the population of victims, they miss one of the main points of Roots – that Kunta Kinte never forgets who he is, and never allows his mind and spirit to be shackled, despite all the horrific things that are done to him. There’s more than one message to be taken from this story.

It’s a difficult subject, and, in the current political climate, some people will seek to use any difficult subject for their own political ends – and well done to the History Channel for not doing that, for just telling the story. I can’t compare it to the original because I haven’t seen the original, and it’s difficult to compare it to the book because it’s difficult to compress a very long and complex book into six hours of television, but this series deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. It hasn’t even been advertised on BBC 1 or BBC 2. Strange.   And rather sad, because I think a lot more people might have watched it had they known it was on. And it deserves that.


Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean – BBC 2


Word PressSicily has a rich and fascinating history, but it’s unfortunate that Michael Scott, especially in the second of these two episodes, seemed more interested in using it to fit his views on present-day political issues than in telling it for its own sake. Oh well. Despite that, it was a very interesting series on an island whose history probably isn’t very well-known in the UK. We started off – the indigenous inhabitants didn’t get much of a mention, but, to be fair, not that much is known about them – with Sicily being colonised by both the Greeks and the Carthaginians. I always feel as if the Carthaginian contribution to Western civilisation is overlooked. For a kick-off, we wouldn’t even have the Greek and Latin alphabets had they not developed from the Phoenician alphabet. And then there are all the trade routes. But, whilst the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans are lauded, the poor old Carthaginians only seem to be remembered for crossing the Alps with elephants!

Anyway, then along came the Romans – and a reminder that Sicily was the first Roman conquest outside the Italian peninsula. Having finished off the Carthaginians, and killed Archimedes – the Greek bloke who shouted “Eureka” in the bath – the Romans turned Sicily into a source of grain, creating large estates with absent landowners. They didn’t make much attempt to Romanise the island, which remained largely Greek culturally, and it became something of a backwater.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it fell to the “barbarians” … but not for long, because the Byzantines took it, and used it as a base for trying to retake mainland Italy. When the Lombards took control of Milan etc, Sicily remained in Byzantine hands, and for a while Syracuse even replaced Constantinople as the Byzantine capital. But then the Byzantines fell out amongst themselves, and a rebel naval commander called in the Arabs, who took the island over.

The Arabs – well, it was a mixed group of people, but the term “Arabs” is generally used (rather than “Moors” when talking about the Iberian peninsula) – made a very important contribution to Sicilian and general European culture and economics, notably introducing sugar, citrus fruits, improved irrigation systems and, according to some reports, maybe even pasta! No-one’s denying that … but Michael Scott didn’t half go on about it! I appreciate that he was trying to promote a better understanding of the Arab world and the historic links between it and the West, but this programme was actually supposed to be about the history of Sicily, not twenty-first century attitudes!

He then ignored the Vikings and moved straight on to the Normans. OK, the Vikings and the Normans were linked, but the Vikings did deserve a separate mention and they didn’t get one. However, the Norman period, especially the reign of Roger II, under whom Sicily became a kingdom in 1130, was particularly interesting, with Sicily becoming a very wealthy and powerful state, and comparable to the Caliphate of Cordoba in terms of multiculturalism. It was also in Norman times that Sicily moved away from the Eastern influence and became Latinised and predominantly Catholic. However, again, Michael Scott seemed more interested in trying to make a point about present-day issues than in the history of Sicily.

Due to succession issues, Sicily then came under the control of the German Hohenstaufens. Who was related to whom, and how, is very complicated and confusing, and it’s understandable that the programme didn’t try to go into all, but Scott could at least have tried to say a bit more about Swabian Sicily. Maybe the repression of the Islamic population of Sicily by the Hohenstaufens didn’t fit with his political agenda. He completely missed the Angevin involvement and the whole Sicilian Vespers thing as well, and jumped straight on to “six centuries of Spanish rule”.

Er, no – not quite that simple. Things all get very confusing in the Mediterranean in the 13th and early 14th centuries, with Counts of Barcelona and Kings of Mallorca and different branches of the House of Aragon and all the rest of it, but Sicily was ruled by a separate branch of the House of Aragon – and it was Aragon, not “Spain”! – until 1409, and only then came under the direct rule of the main branch. It was strangely unaffected by the Italian Wars, but it then got handed over to Savoy when everything got divvied up after the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, in one of those bizarre territorial swaps that went on in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, it got swapped for Sardinia and so came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs … and then, whilst the Austrians were off sticking their noses into Poland, was grabbed by one of the Spanish Bourbons. But the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), as it became, was definitely not ruled directly by Spain.

Black mark for oversimplification, Scott!   There are limits. Instead of explaining all this, he went on at length about the Spanish Inquisition. And chocolate. Not that the Spanish Inquisition isn’t important. And chocolate is definitely important. But a better explanation of the actual historical events would have been nice. He did at least manage to cover the 1693 earthquake and the rebuilding after it. The Napoleonic Wars pretty much skipped over, and it was straight on to Garibaldi. Biscuits were mentioned. So was British support for Garibaldi. The Expedition of the Thousand left from Sicily, so the island did play a very important role in Italian independence and unification, and became part of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Scott made it sound as if everyone in Sicily was ecstatic about this, ignoring the revolts and unrest which went on throughout the 1860s. Then he spent a lot of time talking about the mafia – but, OK, no-one’s going to make a programme about Sicily without talking about the mafia.

Then he finished the programme by going on and on about the refugee situation, and , whilst obviously this is a very important issue and one which is not being dealt with adequately, the programme was meant to be about the history of Sicily and he seemed to keep twisting that towards current political issues. The programme was supposed to be about the history of Sicily. I sound as if I’m being really critical, and I don’t mean to be – both programmes were very interesting, and there’s only so much you can cover in two hours. But I would prefer to be able to watch a historical documentary without modern politics being insinuated into it like that. It got a bit too much. But it was still a good series. Nice to have something different!


George III: the genius of the mad king – BBC 2


Word PressGeorge III is usually referred to as “the king who went mad”, or, sometimes, as “the king who lost America” (as if it was his fault!), so it made a refreshing change to see a programme about his “genius”. Even if it did have to refer to “the mad king” in the programme title.

The programme was strangely devoid of gossip. Not a single mention of the Hannah Lightfoot story. All right, it’s almost certainly a load of rubbish! Nor, although the sad tale of the doomed romance between his youngest daughter Princess Amelia and one of his equerries was discussed, was there any mention of the rumour about (her sister) Princess Sophia having an illegitimate child. But obviously this was very good, as we are Serious Historians and do not deal in gossip … no, no, we don’t. Ahem.

Poor “Mad King George”. It seems the fashion now to say that his mental health problems were caused by bipolar disorder, but I still think that the porphyria theory’s very convincing. There was an episode of Casualty (or was it Holby City?) once, in which a patient had porphyria, and it took the Holby staff the entire episode to work out what the problem was, whereas I’d diagnosed it as soon as the patient’s symptoms were mentioned, thanks to all the books about George III!   Anyway, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure, and the people interviewed in the programme said that too.

The reason for the programme was that a load of George III’s papers have just been made available to the general public. And they cover some very momentous times, as the presenter (Robert Hardman) reminded us. George III was the first monarch of the United Kingdom, the last monarch of America, the first monarch of Australia, and the monarch at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Hardman also said that George III was king at the time of the Industrial Revolution, which had me wanting to howl that the flying shuttle was invented during the early part of the reign of George II; but, OK, most of the changes took place during the reign of George III! It was also pointed out that George III was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who was really British and thought of himself as such. No mention of the Jacobites, incidentally. He was also the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who didn’t face a threat from them. Why was that never mentioned?

They cover a lot generally. George wrote everything down. Yay!! Future historians are going to have a nightmare trying to study the 2010s. What are they going to do – try to go back through umpteen years’ worth of Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds?  But George had lists, notes and essays about everything. Despotism – this being a very bad thing, existing in many European countries but not, of course, in Britain. MPs’ voting habits. All sorts of family stuff. And a lot of notes about how bloody annoying it is that politicians are always busy trying to score party political points instead of trying to work

together for the good of the country. Some things have changed very little in 250 years. In 1783 he even considered abdicating, during the political crisis following the loss of the colonies. And he had his own private spies. I bet the Queen’d love to have her own private spies, rather than having to rely on politicians for info. Maybe she has. It’d be quite nice if she did: she’s got more sense than any of them!

Anyway. Moving on. Nothing got covered in very much detail, because the programme was only an hour long and part of that time was wasted showing people getting excited over the documents being released, but George’s interest in the arts, astronomy, nature, geography, climate, music … a whole load of things, really, was obvious. We don’t really talk about people being “cultured” any more. Maybe because it’s because the word’s now seen as having snobbish overtones and suggesting someone who sits in a box at the opera and thinks that anyone who likes pop music is common, but it was only really meant to mean someone who had an interest in and knowledge of a wide range of things. I’m not sure that “genius” was exactly the right word, but he was certainly well into all sorts of things.

However, the programme then ended with the subject of George’s daughters … who, like Muscovite tsarevny in a terem, weren’t allowed to marry and weren’t allowed to do anything else very much. Well, they weren’t officially banned from marrying, but they’d have needed George to arrange marriages for them and he didn’t, except in the case of the Princess Royal. There wasn’t much else for princesses to do at the time, so their lives weren’t much fun. But that really should’ve been covered by a different programme.

So, although nothing was covered in very much detail, there was a lot to think about in this programme. But did they have to include “the mad king” in the title? Surely the whole point of it was that he was so much more than that?

The Sound of Musicals – BBC 4


Word PressThis was so much better than Tina and Bobby, which was on at the same time and got all the press attention! My one problem was that there were only three episodes, so a lot of my favourite musicals didn’t get a mention because there wasn’t time. Any chance of a follow-up series filling in some of the gaps :-)?

It started off with musical comedies, mainly in London. I associate these with the Edwardians, but they were still going strong into the 1920s. I would have expected a mention of Cole Porter, actually, but he didn’t feature in this series: I suppose only so much could be fitted in in three hours. Then on to the “integrated shows” that we know and love today, starting with Show Boat. This was on at the Lowry last year, and I must have been practically the first person to buy a ticket for it: it’s hardly ever on anywhere, and you can’t even get a decent DVD of it (the ones for sale on Amazon either don’t work on British DVD players or else have got reviews saying that the quality’s appalling). Yes, all right, it’s rather dated now, but it’s 90 years old! And it was really cutting edge at the time, tackling the issue of racism in the Southern states of the US. All right, I know I’m supposed to be thinking about it in terms of breaking the mould of musicals by integrating the songs and the story, but I’m a historian, not a musician. I am often told that I’ve got the worst singing voice in the world. Thankfully, though, the people in the series all had very good singing voices 🙂  .

Next up was Oklahoma!, with even greater focus on the characters rather than just the music and the dancing. I think that Oklahoma! was also meant to jolly people along during the Second World War – all those beautiful mornings and surreys with fringes on tops and girls who can’t say no!   I don’t really get the dream ballet sequence: it annoys me. So does that weird song about Judd Fry imagining that he’s dead. But it’s a good story. And, hey, it’s a historical story!   So too, of course, is Annie Get Your Gun, which was also discussed in quite a lot of detail. And Carousel – you know, the musical that includes that song, the one we don’t sing in Manchester 😉 – covers some quite disturbing social issues, and gets the audience very involved with the characters; and this was explored in very interesting detail.

All very American. It was interesting to hear more about the songwriters. Obviously I had a vague idea about who they were and why they came from, but I’d never really stopped to think about them as a group before, nor about just how American the musicals of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were. But then the first episode ended with a very, very British musical – My Fair Lady. It would have been nice to hear more about the music and less about how poor Julie Andrews struggled to get to grips with the role, but never mind.

I was rather put out that The Sound of Music didn’t feature, especially as the series was called The Sound of Musicals. Is it the best-known musical ever, or do I just feel like it is because I’ve seen the film ten billion times and been to Salzburg three times J? And surely it classes as ground-breaking in that earlier musicals didn’t really involve children? Oh well. No room for The King and I, another favourite, either. Nor South Pacific, although that one gets on my nerves a bit. Emile annoys me. But, hey, you can’t get everything into three hours.

Instead, the second episode opened with West Side Story. That one really is New York, New York. However, it’s not hard to imagine how, in the 1950s, a musical about gang violence wouldn’t have appealed to traditionalists, and it was a brave move to write something like that. Changing times, and a huge dose of reality. It’s one of two musicals – Phantom of the Opera being the other – which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway, incidentally.  I really want to go back to New York … preferably during the US Open …

Nor had I ever realised just how much research went into trying to make the music authentic. It was years before I realised that Edelweiss wasn’t really an Austrian folk song, LOL (er, and I actually have a pressed edelweiss which I bought in Austria, because I will always think of the edelweiss as being one of the symbols of the country!), and that the March of the Siamese Children wasn’t actually what traditional Thai music sounded like! But the music on Fiddler on the Roof is far more authentic, and the interviews with people who’d been involved in the research were fascinating.

Concluding the second series were A Chorus Line, the musical about musicals, and various minor shows. I was sorry that Grease wasn’t mentioned … but rather less sorry that the irritating Annie wasn’t mentioned either.

The third episode covered the “blockbuster” musicals of the 1980s onwards. Yes, I know that not everyone likes these, but I love them. They are amazing!   How can anyone not like Les Miserables, or Phantom of the Opera? The music is incredible. Cats isn’t as good, but I love Starlight Express; and the music in Miss Saigon and Aspects of Love is incredible too. The subject matter’s brave as well: the Vietnam War’s still a sensitive subject, and Jesus Christ Superstar … well, enough said. And I just had to caterwaul Don’t Cry For Me Argentina when I stood outside the Casa Rosada last year: Evita is amazing. The musicals where it’s all music and hardly any words are just spoken are fantastic.

I’d have been quite happy had musicals stayed like that … but, as Neil Brand pointed out, it can feel now as if everything’s getting rather Disneyfied. Don’t get me wrong, the stage show of The Lion King is absolutely superb, but it’s not in the same league as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. The programme did include some interesting interviews on how producers went about translating shows from cartoon films to the stage, though. Oh, and there was The Rocky Horror Show. Two bars of The Time Warp and I feel like I’m 12 years old and at someone’s birthday disco! That song always got played as birthday discos. Well, it did in the late 1980s, anyway!

Right near the end of the final episode, there was a tantalising glimpse of Hamilton. I really want to see this! I don’t actually know what the music’s like, but I want to see it for historical reasons. I assume that a lot of it’s about the Hamilton-Burr duel, but presumably it also covers a lot of about Hamilton and Jefferson and their differing views of America’s future. That was the personification of the commerce versus agrarianism, free soil versus slaveholding and North versus South division that faced the US in its early days and really dominated American politics up until the Union broke up in 1861. It’s probably well worth remembering, in the light of current events, that the American authorities have always had to deal with some very divisive issues; and that a big part of the idea of giving so much power to the executive was in the hope that, whilst it will always be very difficult for any government to deal with are issues on which opinion is fairly evenly divided and there are very strong feelings on both sides, the president would try to encourage consensus and compromise. Neither of those words seem to be featuring very prominently in American politics at the moment.

Anyway, enough politics! Google informs me that Hamilton is due to open in London at the end of November, although unfortunately there don’t seem to be any plans at the moment to take it round the rest of the country. I suppose they’re waiting to see how things go. Actually, it also says that it’s a “hip-hop musical” and I can’t bloody stand hip-hop, but maybe it’s still worth seeing for the historical element!

It’s also being advertised as “an American musical” … which takes us neatly back to Show Boat and Oklahoma! et al. Three very interesting hours. Neil Brand took us from the 1910s right up to the 2010s so sadly I don’t suppose there are plans for any more episodes of this … but it would be great if there were 🙂 . It’s been an excellent series.  Really enjoyed it.