Gunpowder – BBC 1


There was certainly plenty of action in this, but it’s always rather annoying when something combines dramatised fact with fiction and doesn’t explain what’s what! I know Versailles got absolutely slated, but I rather liked the way that each episode was followed by a little discussion about the historical truth of what had just been shown, and it would have been nice to see the BBC do the same with this.  Oh well.

The idea seemed to be a) to show things from the plotters’ point of view and b) to remind people that it was actually Robert Catesby, not Guy Fawkes, who masterminded the Gunpowder Plot. By a pleasing coincidence, Catesby is being played by Kit Harington, who is one of his direct descendants … although I’m not sure that the real Robert Catesby was quite as good-looking 🙂 .   And the gist of it was that Catesby was radicalised, to use the modern expression, by the persecution of English Catholics, notably the torture and judicial murder of his aunt, Lady Dorothy Dibsdale.  However, unless I’m missing something – in which case I apologise profusely to the BBC! – Lady Dorothy never actually existed.  Her niece, Anne Vaux, played in this by Liv Tyler certainly did, and there’s long been speculation connecting her with the Gunpowder Plot, but not Lady Dorothy.  The horrific way in which Lady D was killed – being crushed to death – is well-known as having been the way in which Margaret Clitherow was killed, but it was very rare, and it was hard not to feel that the BBC were deliberately sensationalising things.

Far more realistic were the scenes depicting the hanging of a priest, and the programme featured several Catholic priests who genuinely did exist. There are still some fascinating “priest holes” in stately homes.  I think the best one I’ve ever seen is the one at Towneley Hall in Burnley, and there’s also a good one at Speke Hall in Liverpool, and another at Hoghton Tower near Preston.  Now, one of the priests featured was John Gerard, who (the programme failed to mention this bit!) came from Wigan.  He escaped execution, and wrote a book about his life – which a very boring supply teacher, whom our school saw fit to engage for a term whilst I was in the second year, was obsessed with.  Instead of sticking to the syllabus, he kept going on about this book.  12-year-old girls are really not very interested in the lives of priests, believe me.  He tried to liven it up by telling us to use dramatic-sounding titles in our notes, and one of them was “Clandestine Correspondence” – which I remember being quite excited about, because it involved invisible ink, which Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers were always using.  Invisible ink was mentioned in last night’s programme by both the priests and the government spies.  So there.  It was obviously a big thing at the time!

Getting back to the point, most of the characters at court were genuine, and not figments of the BBC’s imagination.  I was impressed with the way they portrayed Cecil, but I thought they did James I a bit of an injustice.  He isn’t known as “the wisest fool” for nothing: he was an extremely intelligent man.  Apart from his unfortunate obsession with witch-hunting, but that isn’t really relevant to the Gunpowder Plot.  But the BBC made him seem rather naïve, wanting to act as a peacemaker.  Well, yes, he did want to avoid trouble with either Catholics or Protestants, but he actually did rather a good job of it, marrying Charles off to Henrietta Maria, Elizabeth off to the Elector Palatine, staying out of the Thirty Years’ War and managing to avoid either too much trouble at home or, although there was some conflict with Spain, any really major trouble with other countries.

The discussions with James and his advisors were the only time that the programme gave any real indication of the context in which all this was going on. William Stanley (a very minor member of “the” Stanley family) was lurking around in the Low Countries, allegedly plotting trouble – although, if anything, the programme rather overplayed that.  Yes, he’d plotted against Elizabeth, but he was getting a bit past it all and fed up with it all by the time James became king. And, even though Philip II was dead by this time, there was still a genuine fear in some quarters that Spain might send another Armada.

But I don’t think the programme really got across the genuine fear that many people felt about the fear of religious conflict at home, and what Catholics within England might do. We still, to this day, talk about “the Spanish Inquisition”, and Spanish troops had carried out atrocities in Protestant areas of the Netherlands.  It was, when James became king, only 31 years since the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris.  And it was only 15 years before the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War.  Then there were the memories, much played up in propaganda, of what had gone on in Mary’s reign.  There was a lot of religious tension all over the show.  Of course, the vast majority of English Catholics just wanted to live in peace and practise their religion in peace.  And Elizabeth would have been happy to let them do that, had it not been for other people stirring up trouble – mainly the Vatican itself, with the infamous “Regnans in Excelsis” bull of 1570 declaring that English Catholics owed no allegiance to Elizabeth and even faced excommunication if they obeyed her.  No-one took much notice of it, and it was effectively suspended ten years later, but that, and the Armada, and all the plotting with Mary Queen of Scots, got the authorities very worried.  And English Catholics suffered for it.  More anti-Catholic laws were brought in later on in the 17th century, and it wasn’t until 1829 that they were repealed.

Vicious circle. You suspect people of sedition.  You repress them.  And a small number of them, usually young men, become susceptible to …  well, “radicalisation” really is the word for it, partly as a result.  And carry out … well, if we’re going with modern terms, terrorist attacks.  And that basically is what this programme was trying to say – and it’s the side of Bonfire Night that isn’t often told.  But to be fair, however much we may sympathise now with the way in which Catholics were treated in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that side of it isn’t often told because it was a bloody terrorist attack, and there can never be any excuse for that, even if there can be explanations.  But, at a distance of over 400 years, yes, it’s OK to show another side of it.  It’s interesting how Bonfire Night has lasted.  Over 400 years and still going strong, whereas other “thanksgiving” days, such as Oak Apple Day, have faded into history.  Maybe it’s partly because it linked in with existing autumnal traditions to do with fire.

This programme’s going to grab headlines, because it was sensational – all that blood and guts and torture – and because Kit Harington’s in it.  Good!  It’s always good when anything historical grabs headlines!   And maybe it’ll remind people to pay a bit more attention to Bonfire Night and a bit less to all those ridiculous fake spiders and so on that now fill the shops for weeks on end at this time of year!  Now that really would be good.   Bonfire Night’s important.  It is, after all, about a terrorist attack being foiled.  And that’s a hell of a lot more important than silly fake spiders and knocking on doors asking for sweets.  This is what this time of year’s about.  And the concluding part of this drama will be shown on November 5th.  Let’s have Bonfire Night all over the headlines 🙂 !!


The Last Post – BBC 1


I’m not quite sure why the first episode of this series set during the Aden Emergency mentioned George Best but failed to mention General Nasser. Oh well.   The Suez Crisis is fairly well-known, but the Aden Emergency isn’t, so it was an interesting choice of setting for this new BBC drama.   Incidentally, it’s a shame that none of the papers have picked up on this as a chance to encourage support for the Yemen Crisis Appeal.  Sky News are doing a sterling job of publicising the appeal to help Rohingya refugees, which is great, but the situation in Yemen’s being completely overlooked. I appreciate that international governments won’t say anything because they’re terrified of narking Saudi Arabia, but there’s no reason why the media can’t call for humanitarian aid to be sent.  Anyway, I’ve got completely off the point now.

So, we’ve got a regiment of the Royal Military Police, the Red Caps, stationed in Aden. Some of them are accompanied by wives and children.  The programme’s trying to cover the political and military aspects of events and be a soap opera at the same time.  That’s fair enough.  Some of the best books and films of all time work like that.  However, it hasn’t really explained the political background properly.  All we’re getting is that there are local organisations trying to force the British to withdraw by launching terrorist attacks against the soldiers.  It hasn’t been made clear that there are different pro-independence factions within Yemen, and it certainly hasn’t been made clear just how much Egypt is involved in it all.

Having said which, at least they’re trying to present a relatively balanced view of things. The BBC can be so anti-British these days that I was half-expecting them to show the Red Caps as the baddies, but it’s been made clear that these men are doing their job and, for the most part, trying to act with honour.  However, there’ve also been scenes showing the use of torture.  We’ve also seen that the “insurgents” want the occupiers out and their country back, but also that they’re prepared to kidnap and torture British troops and to launch terrorist attacks which murder people in cold blood.  No-one’s in the right.

This is all blokes’ stuff. Well, it is the 1960s.  When it comes to the human interest stuff, the women are much more involved.  There’s the nice young wife played by Jessie Buckley, who’s been befriended by the tarty one played by her out of Call The Midwife.  Jessie’s character’s husband’s got a big promotion, but the tarty one’s husband hasn’t, possibly because he’s seen as being too pro-Arab and possibly because she hangs her underwear out to dry in public.  And has been having an affair with another soldier.  Who got blown up.  And there’s the one played by her who used to be the mad doctor in EastEnders, who’s got a little lad who swears a lot (why is he allowed to get away with this?!) and likes football (hence the George Best reference), and who nearly dies whilst giving birth to her second child.  Her husband decided he had to stay with his men rather than rushing to her hospital bedside.  There’s also a young lad (who was in Dunkirk), who sounds like he comes from somewhere round here.  He fancies one of the local girls, and she helped him when he nearly got blown up, but presumably it’s all going to end in tears.

And there’s a club which looks like it belongs in Marbella. My idea of an army “club” is your British Raj type thing, with everyone sitting in a posh bar, but this one seems to involve a lot of swimming and sunbathing.  It didn’t sit very well with the military manoeuvres, but presumably that’s what it was like: people wouldn’t have been sat around inside all the time.

This is really, really not Gone With The Wind or War and Peace.  Those probably aren’t very good comparisons, but I’m trying to think of something which combines war and soapiness.  It’s not Downton Abbey, Poldark or Victoria either: it’s not going to be one of those series which everyone’s watching, everyone’s talking about at work on Monday morning, and newspapers are putting on their front pages.  But it isn’t bad.  And it’s always good to see a neglected part of the past (sorry, I cannot bring myself to talk about the 1960s as “history”) brought to people’s attention.  Let’s see where it goes.

Russia 1917: Countdown to Revolution – BBC 2


There were, of course, two revolutions in Russia (“the Russian Empire” would be the correct term, but “Russia” is the one generally used) in 1917 – the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The one referred to in the title of this programme was the October Revolution, the “ten days that shook the world”.  It was one of the most important events of the twentieth century, and yet very little’s being said about its forthcoming centenary.  As far as I know, there are no official commemorations planned in Russia itself.  Contrast that with the song and dance that was made for the bicentenary of the Storming of the Bastille in 1989.  We even had a “French day” at school: we got croissants at break and were supposed to speak French all day!  But the French Revolution, despite the Terror, the guillotinings, the wars, is associated with people yelling “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” and the replacement of the ancien regime with something far more egalitarian.  The Russian Revolution, thanks to the events of October 1917 (October by the Julian calendar, November by the Gregorian calendar), just replaced one repressive regime with another.  Civil war, famine, Five Year Plans and the damage they did in Ukraine, the Cheka/the KGB, the horrors of Stalinism …

Nevertheless, Lenin has traditionally been presented in Russia as a hero, as Chairman Mao is in China. The mausoleum in Red Square’s still there.  And the focus of this programme was largely on the three figures of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.  Ulyanov, Bronstein and Dzhugashvili – it’s quite interesting how none of them were known by their real names, names which the programme didn’t even mention!  Various historians were interviewed.  And the focus was all on the period between the February and October Revolutions, so the pre-February regime barely even got mentioned, which was rather bizarre.  How can you have the Russian Revolution without the Romanovs?!

The big snag with the Russian Revolution is that you can’t really sympathise with either the Romanovs or the Bolsheviks. The Romanovs have been romanticised over the years.  And, hey, they’ve even been canonised.  On a personal level, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for them, especially in relation to Alexei’s haemophilia.  And, come on, they didn’t deserve to be massacred in such a horrific way.  Even if you think Nicholas did, what about the rest of the family?  But, on a political level, Nicholas II was an utter disaster as a Tsar, and Alexandra made things worse.  They had the perfect opportunity, with the Romanov tercentenary in 1913, to win some kind of emotional support, at least with those outside the intelligentsia, but they even pretty much screwed that up.  And the mess that Nicholas made of things during the Great War was the final straw.

It’s interesting to look at how they were viewed outside Russia, as well. George V, as we now know, didn’t want them coming to Britain because he knew how unpopular they were here.  Same thing in France.  Many people in the US opposed America entering the war on the side of the Triple Entente because they didn’t want to be allied with Russia.  Bloody Sunday (1905).  Pogroms.  Autocracy and repression.  You can’t sympathise with that.  And you can’t sympathise with the Bolsheviks either.  So what would you commemorate?

Could it have been different? The programme subscribed to the often-held idea that it would have been impossible to introduce a democratic system to Russia in 1917.  Too big.  Too complex.  No experience of democracy.  No culture of democracy.  Maybe if something had been done gradually?  Catherine the Great introduced some reforms – then got scared off by the Pugachev uprising.  Alexander II introduced major reforms – then got scared off by the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And then got assassinated, which scared his son Alexander III off good and proper.  1905?  Well, some reforms were made.  It was a start.  But surely the biggest chance was the February Revolution.  Kerensky, as the programme pointed out, was the real poster boy of 1917.  It’s very difficult to do anything in the middle of that sort of chaos, with war, and shortages, and in such a huge and complex country – but you have to think that he should have done better.  He didn’t manage the war much better than Nicholas had done, and he failed to get the support of those on the right wing as well as the left.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, of course, were all off the scene at the time of the February Revolution. Incidentally, I could have screamed when the narrator referred to Stalin as Lenin’s lieutenant, pronounced “loo-tenant”.  Ugh!!  It’s “LEF-tenant”.  Lef lef lef!  American pronunciation on the BBC.  I don’t know what the world’s coming too!  Anyway.  So we had this rather sitcom-type image of Lenin in Switzerland, Trotsky in America and Stalin in Siberia, all – a bit like Hugh Grant at the beginning of Four Weddings and a Funeral, when he realises that he’s running horrendously late for his best friend’s wedding and rushes around trying to get ready, saying “fuck” every thirty seconds – panicking because the revolution’d started without them.  There was also a lot of waffle about how Trotsky and Stalin were both very glamorous and good-looking.  Er, can’t see it myself, but each to their own!  And I don’t know why they went on about Stalin so much anyway, TBH.  He really wasn’t that important in 1917.  His time came later.

I was just about to say that Lenin travelled from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station, but that’s the Pet Shop Boys, not the Russian Revolution. Oh dear.  He travelled from Zurich to the Finland Station.  The official picture is that he was greeted as the hero of the people, like Nelson Mandela being released from prison in 1990, but, as the programme said, most people didn’t actually have a clue who he was.  But, as Simon Sebag-Montefiore in particular made clear, the October Revolution was largely about Lenin.  Trotsky was the better speaker, and probably better-known, but Lenin was the one who took control of things, and Lenin was the one who believed that a communist revolution in Russia was actually possible.  It was never supposed to happen like that.  Marxist revolutions were supposed to happen in … well, Manchester and London, probably, going off what Marx and Engels said.  Urban, industrial areas.  And yet Lenin made it happen in Russia.

So, as the different historians were asked, was it a popular uprising or was it a coup d’etat. As one of them pointed out, you can’t really have a genuine mass uprising, because you couldn’t possibly organise it without the authorities finding out.  And it was really only about Petrograd, to start off with.  There’s the famous Eisenstein film which shows the dramatic storming of the Winter Palace – except that, in reality, it really wasn’t very dramatic at all.  Someone’d left the door open, so all they had to do was walk in!  Signalled by the shot fired from the Aurora – I remember being quite excited when I saw the Aurora in St Petersburg, just because that shot is so famous.   And a very good point was made that a lot of people were so sick of the problems being caused by the Great War that they were past caring who was in power.

It was done in quite an interesting way, with different people putting forward different points of view, but the focus was only on the period between the two revolutions, and you can’t really understand what went on without knowing about what was happening before the February Revolution, back to the 19th century or at least back to 1905, and about the civil war that followed.  And then they jumped right forward to the present day, with Simon Sebag-Montefiore saying that he thinks that, out of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, Vladimir Putin most admires Stalin.  And that Lenin, the traditional hero of the Revolution, has been shoved out of the picture, but that maybe his time’s coming again.

I’m not convinced. I think Putin’s more of an “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” man – the absolutism of Nicholas I, not of Stalin. I don’t think the events of 1917 are his kind of thing at all.  But Nicholas I managed to fall out with both the West and Turkey, and we really don’t need that to happen again.  We should all be working together, but that’s not the way things are going at the moment.  As the centenary of the October Revolution approaches, maybe everyone should look on the knock-on effects which it was to have for the rest of the twentieth century, and remember how important it is for the West and Russia to work together, not against each other.

Reformation: Europe’s Holy War – BBC 2



This really needed to be a series, rather than a single programme. David Starkey, who can sometimes be a bit dry but wasn’t this time, did a decent job with what he said, but an hour really didn’t give him time to say very much.  I’m amazed that none of the TV channels have commissioned a full series to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.  Come on, we’re talking pretty major stuff here!

The programme started by trying to put a modern spin on things. Why do so many documentaries do that these days?!  OK, it’s better than Lucy Worsley dressing up, but surely we can study the past without always having to try to draw parallels with the present day.  Comparing the Islamic fundamentalism in the 21st century with Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century – which would have worked a lot better if there’d been some proper coverage of Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century.  And flashing up “#Luthersreformation” on screen.  Oh dear.

However, once he actually got on to talking about the 95 Theses, it was very good. It really is incredible how Luther’s ideas spread.  “Went viral”, as the programme put it.  I mean, he wasn’t a prince, or a courtier, or an archbishop, or a renowned international scholar: he was just some monk in a university city a very long way from Rome or Vienna.  Starkey made a lot of familiar but still interesting points about the importance of the growth of printing and the use of the vernacular.  Whatever anyone’s views on doctrine and practice, the use of the vernacular in religion is so important.  No offence to anyone who prefers their services or religious books in Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Arabic or whatever, but it is rather helpful if you can actually understand what’s being said.  Even taking that into the account, the impact of the 95 Theses and the follow-up writings is incredible.  There’d been reformist movements before – the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, etc – but their impact had been short-lived and restricted to a particular area.  With Luther, it all just took off.

Then we had the Diet of Worms.  It still makes me laugh when I see that written down!  The appeal of Luther’s ideas to local princes.  Schmalkaldic League.  The Peasants’ War.  Annoyingly, no mention of the Twelve Articles of Memmingen – but I’m only saying that because I once stayed overnight in Memmingen.  But then we switched to England.  Now, the English Reformation is extremely interesting, and obviously extremely important, but did we really need yet another programme about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn?   Henry, Anne, Catherine, Wolsey, the Dissolution of the Monasteries … yes, it’s fascinating, but it’s been covered so many times, and the title of the programme suggested that it would have much wider geographical scope than that.

And off we went again with having to try to put a modern spin on things. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was “the Tudor Brexit”, David Starkey informed us.  Er, hardly.  The break with Rome was, whatever the spread of Protestant feeling in the country, the choice of Henry VIII and his ministers.  Brexit is the result of the democratic will of the people.  And, whilst the pre-Counter Reformation Catholic Church was, like the institutions of the European Union, very good at grabbing everyone’s money, it didn’t try to micro-manage and uber-control the whole of Western Christendom.

However, as Starkey pointed out, there are parallels in terms of the importance of the sovereignty of the national parliament. The Reformation was one of the best things that ever happened to England/Britain.  As one of my university lecturers used to say, Britain isn’t a very Christian country but it’s a very Protestant country.  In the best of ways, unlike some of what’s gone on in the US and South Africa.

It was all getting very interesting, with the talk about the influence that the Reformation had on national identity and self-confidence. But there it stopped. I know the BBC’s obsessed with Henry VIII, but surely it must acknowledge that the story of the English Reformation didn’t stop with Henry VIII! What about Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism? The swing to more radical Protestantism in Edward’s reign? The Elizabethan Settlement? And, if you’re going to talk about religious books being written in the vernacular, then surely you need to mention James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible?

And it wasn’t even just supposed to be about England. If you’re going to call a programme “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” then you need to go a long way beyond the 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms.  It didn’t even get on to the Peace of Augsburg!  And, as an example of iconoclasm, Henry VIII’s minions smashing up the monasteries was a pretty poor one.  That was mainly about money: there were far better examples on the Continent.

What about Zwingli, and Calvin? What about Thomas Muntzer (whom, as a result of spending too much time thinking about tennis whilst I was doing my A-levels, I always want to call “Thomas Muster”)?  It only really mentioned Germany and England.  What about the Nordic countries?  What about the French Wars of Religion, St Bartholomew’s Day and all that?  What about the growth and repression of Protestantism in the Habsburg crownlands?  And Protestantism in Poland – now there’s a story that very rarely gets told!   What about the Netherlands, where the Reformation arguably had more impact than it did anywhere else?  And, for crying out loud, surely a British Broadcasting Corporation programme about the Reformation should have mentioned Scotland!   It needed to go beyond the 16th century and well into the 17th century, to the Thirty Years’ War, and to Oliver Cromwell and co – and maybe right up until the Glorious Revolution.  And, given that they started by going on about radicalism, the Anabaptists, or at least the Puritans, really needed to be in there.

It was an interesting enough programme, but it was just short. “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” is a very ambitious title.  It wasn’t possible to come even close to doing it justice in the space of an hour.  More, please, BBC!

Mayfair Rebel by Beverley Hughesdon


The Kindle version of this book by the late Beverley Hughesdon was going cheap, and I needed to stock up for some long flights with very limited baggage allowance, so I thought I’d give it a go. I was expecting to be about an aristocratic woman nursing during the Great War, like Song of Songs was, but it was actually about an aristocratic woman nursing in the East End several years before the Great War, which was something different.

It wasn’t all that great, to be honest; but it was readable and, hey, for 99p, never mind! The idea was that a beautiful, wealthy, intelligent aristocratic girl, pursued by various very eligible suitors – and there was a whole load of rather empty babbling about various other people and their admirers – decided to break away from the round of court balls and house parties etc, and become a nurse at a hospital in the East End.  As you do.   And she made friends with another nurse, who was a working-class socialist … but ended up marrying an earl, who’d divorced his first wife because she’d been having it off with some other aristocratic bloke, who had previously proposed to our heroine.

Er, yes. The plotlines aren’t going to win any awards for realism.  But at least there were none of the absolutely cringeworthy bad taste bedroom scenes that featured in Song of Songs, Roses Have Thorns and The Silver Fountain.  The author – who lived in Prestwich, incidentally – used to teach at Derby High in Bury, and I found myself wondering how I’d feel – bearing in mind that I was only 13 or 14 when I read Song of Songs – if one of my old teachers had written books containing stuff like that.  Ugh.  You just don’t want to go there, do you?!  Having said all that, the actual wartime part of Song of Songs was excellent, and I was hoping for something like that in this book, but I didn’t really get it.  However, it did contain some well-written and rather interesting scenes about nursing in a poor area in pre-NHS times, and about nursing in Edwardian times in general.

One of our heroine’s patients was visited by a vicar, in whose home her (the patient’s) grandmother worked as a cook. The said vicar was very concerned about poverty in the East End, and tried to alleviate it by … er, organising Sunday school outings to Southend.  And, whaddaya know, it turned out that he was actually the son of a lord, and that he was also an old school pal of our heroine’s cousin (which she hadn’t realised, because the said cousin had always referred to him by a nickname.  As public schoolboys do, natch.).  She and the lordly vicar got married.  The End.

Don’t go reading this if you’re after an all-time classic! But, for 99p, and when you need something to occupy you on a long flight and the luggage allowance doesn’t allow you to take as many paper books as you like, it isn’t bad.

The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O’Brien


It’s quite brave of anyone to write a historical novel about Katherine Swynford, given how well-known and well-loved the Anya Seton book is. This one’s pretty good, though – although it rather bizarrely starts with John of Gaunt approaching Katherine and then tells us that she (in her voice, in the first person)’s been keen on him for years. It just seems like an odd place to start!   We don’t actually get that much about the Peasants’ Revolt and all the machinations at court, because the focus is on Katherine and so the reader is with her, out of the way of it all, rather than middle of things – but that’s fair enough, because the book’s supposed to be about her.   And we do get some very interesting depictions of everyday life in a small-ish manor house, rather than at court.

The title is rather silly. “The Scandalous Duchess” sounds like one of those Regency-set Mills and Boon books which are always being offered for download on Kindle for 99p!   But presumably the idea is that that’s how she was seen, whereas the reader is, presumably, meant to see her as someone who actually very pious but considered the world well lost for love, etc etc etc. And who forgave John of Gaunt even after he publicly renounced their relationship for the good of the country, et al. It all sounds rather melodramatic, put like that, but it is actually what happened!   There are so many fascinating stories about royal mistresses, but obviously this one’s particularly interesting because this is the Beaufort line which gave Henry VII his claim to the throne.

Not all that much actually seems to happen. It’s more about feelings than events: the events seem to take place in the background. Or else we hear about them second-hand – especially John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Castile. It would be nice if someone wrote a book about Constanza of Castile, actually: she doesn’t come across very well in this book, but I think she was entitled to be narked that her husband was carrying on with one of her ladies in waiting, however “normal” that might have been at royal courts. And I was reading up earlier this year on both John of Gaunt’s campaigns in Galicia and Philippa of Lancaster’s marriage to Joao of Portugal, because I went to Galicia and Porto in June … er, which is totally irrelevant. But, yes, a book about Constanza would be nice. But this one’s about Katherine. It won’t be making “best ever historical novel” lists for decades to come, in the way that the Anya Seton book’s done, but it’s still well worth a read.

Victoria & Abdul


After the first few scenes, I thought this was going to be Carry On Munshi – there’d been a lot of farcical remarks about people falling off elephants, and a lot of talking in Urdu with translations like “Arsehole” coming up on screen – but it did turn into a genuinely moving film, if not nearly as good as Mrs Brown.

The chronology was horrendously confusing, though! It started off in 1887, the year of the Golden Jubilee – but Queen Victoria was portrayed as a very elderly lady who couldn’t get out of bed without help and kept nodding off during meals, even though she was only 68 at the time!  Then, although only a few months seemed to have passed, the Prince of Wales, born in 1841, said that he was 57 years old.  And then all of a sudden it was 1901, with no indication that more than a couple of years had passed since the beginning.  And the characterisation left quite a bit to be desired: most of the characters were rather two dimensional for a lot of the time, and some of it did have the definite feel of a farce.

However, I thought they did a genuinely good job of portraying the relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. She was lonely and feeling isolated after the death of John Brown.  I think they made her relationships with her children seem far more distant than they actually were, though.  Princess Beatrice wasn’t even mentioned!  And she was genuinely interested in India.  The film made it seem as if there’d be no original intention for Karim to stay, but that wasn’t true: Queen Victoria had specifically said that she wanted to employ some staff from India.  No doubt the anti-British, Guardian-reading, PC brigade in places like Islington (sorry, I’m a bit pissed off this morning over the lack of concern being expressed over the violence in Catalunya) will be screaming blue murder over the depiction of Queen Victoria as someone who was genuinely interested in other cultures, but that depiction is entirely accurate.  She promoted Karim regardless of ethnicity and social class – just as she promoted John Brown regardless of his social class and made no objection to her descendants marrying the descendants of morganatic marriages.  She was friendly with the Empress Eugenie at a time when anti-Catholic feeling in Britain was still strong, and the Prince of Wales was friendly with people from many different backgrounds.  And she genuinely wanted to learn Urdu and Hindi, and Karim taught her.

Yes, it’s possible that he had a few skeletons in his closet, and he may have made up some of what he told her about his background. That came across quite well in the film – that he wasn’t quite who he claimed to be, but that, hey, most other people at court were also largely out for what they could get, and that his company did genuinely make Queen Victoria happy … so did it really matter what his social background was, or if his private life wasn’t exactly in line with Victorian morals? There does seem to have been a pattern whereby Queen Victoria formed attachments to male companions – first Lord Melbourne (who was sadly not the dashing, good-looking hero type portrayed by Rufus Sewell in the ITV series!), then John Brown, then the Munshi, but why not?  Nothing “improper” was going on.  And, as Judi Dench’s Victoria said several times in this film, being a (widowed) Queen can be a very lonely place.   And, yes, she did have a romantic view of India.  Didn’t most people in late Victorian Britain?   There’s still a fascination with the idea of late 19th century India (something else which the PC brigade no doubt go mad about).

At the end of the day, he did very well out his job, and his companionship and talk about India gave Queen Victoria a lot of pleasure. As for the film, it’s not the world’s greatest, but it does tell an interesting story.  I’ve read a couple of books about the Munshi, so I was looking forward to seeing this film and, whilst it wasn’t the best film I’ve ever seen, it certainly wasn’t disappointing.