The Secret World of Emily Bronte – Channel 4

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This is the programme that caused a row amongst Bronte aficionados!  Some people felt that Lily Cole, being a model, was not a suitable person to present an academic documentary.  She’s got a double first from Cambridge, for crying out loud!  Could we please stop pigeonholing people and stereotyping people?!   However, the row was rather more interesting than the programme itself, the main points of which seemed to be a) that there wasn’t much to say about Emily Bronte because no-one knows that much about her and b) to try to fit Wuthering Heights to 21st century agendas.

On the positive side, a lot of it was filmed in Haworth, which I enjoyed seeing.  I go there at least once a year.  I highly recommend The Apothecary Tea Rooms, very close to the Bronte Parsonage!  It’s a bit of a Bronte theme village these days, with most of the shops and cafes aimed at the tourist market and bearing names related to the Bronte sisters’ books, but, as the programme pointed out, in the 19th century it was a mill town.  As in many northern mill towns, there was a lot of support for reform – from women’s education to Abolitionism – and the Bronte family were involved in that.  That’s a valid point, but those were 19th century issues.  The programme ended up showing marchers waving banners saying things like “Dump Trump” and calling for there to be more women in government.  What’s that got to do with Emily Bronte?!

As Lily Cole said, a lot of what’s been written about Emily Bronte is speculation rather than fact, but I was expecting her to go into that speculation – especially the speculation about Emily’s possible issues with depression and anorexia.  OK, maybe she didn’t want to speculate too much, and the examples we were shown of Emily’s artwork were interesting, but then we got a lot of waffle about falconry.  I didn’t really want to know about falconry!  Did Emily Bronte want to fly free, like a falcon released from a cage?  Well, probably, but that’s just as speculative as saying she might have suffered from anorexia and depression is.

This was followed by a huge plug for a film made by Lily Cole, in which she said she wanted to challenge the romantic image of Wuthering Heights.  This seemed more like it.  I’m not keen on Wuthering Heights, incidentally.  Apart from Cathy junior, I can’t stand any of the main characters.  Catherine senior needs a good slap, Heathcliff is a vicious bully, and both Edgar and Isabella need a kick up the pants.  I was also pleased that she’d made the point that Heathcliff was found in Liverpool, which tends to be forgotten.  However, whilst what she said about foundling hospitals was very interesting, she seemed keen to try to use what was meant to be a celebration of the 200th anniversary of Emily Bronte’s birth to talk about racism and slavery.  These are obviously very important issues, but they weren’t all that relevant to Emily Bronte.  Yes, there obviously are racial issues with Heathcliff, and obviously the fact that Heathcliff was a foundling was an issue, but Lily Cole’s programme strayed a long way from Heathcliff – and conveniently ignored the big question as to whether or not he was actually Mr Earnshaw’s illegitimate son, and therefore Catherine’s half-brother.

We then got someone talking about feminism.  Yes, Emily’s writings, and those of her sisters, really challenged ideas of the time about women’s roles, both in terms of themselves as authors and of their characters – but, again, Lily Cole seemed more interested in pushing a modern agenda than in discussing Emily Bronte.   It’s quite frustrating when people do this in programmes which are supposed to be about individual historical figures.  There was some interesting stuff in this, but it really could have been a lot better!

 

Oh well …

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The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

Victoria and Albert: The Royal Wedding – BBC 1

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This was so much more cheering than those miserable Christmas episodes of Coronation Street and EastEnders.  I don’t expect any better from EastEnders, but really, Corrie!  So now we know all about Prince Albert’s bowel troubles, Queen Victoria’s underwear, the problems of finding the toilets at Westminster Abbey and Lord Melbourne’s opinions on how to lose weight.  Seeing as the meat served at the wedding reception had been larded with bacon fat, it wasn’t really any wonder that advice on weight loss was required.  And I’d thought this was going to be all about white dresses!

This was a mish-mash of a programme – dressmaking and cake-making interspersed with historical discussion and singing.  And, being presented by Lucy Worsley, naturally it involved dressing up!  The historical discussion was interesting, although nothing that hadn’t been said a million times before – the Kensington Palace system, the Lady Flora Hastings affair, etc etc etc.  That wasn’t directly relevant to the wedding, but it was necessary in order to make the point that this needed to be a big PR success, to promote the popularity of the Royal Family.  Incidentally, Lucy really should have known better than to refer to the Duchess of Kent as “the Queen Mother”, which she wasn’t, and to say that the marriage was supposed to promote international peace and closer Anglo-German ties – er, no, that was the marriage of Victoria and Albert’s daughter Vicky to the Crown Prince of Prussia, a generation later!

We were informed that the initial meeting of bride and groom wasn’t a great success.  I’d always thought that this was because Albert was boring and not keen on dancing, but, according to this, Victoria thought he was too fat, and he was in a bad mood because he had diarrhoea.  A bit TMI there.  However, as we all know, the second meeting went better – although I’m not sure that I’d describe theirs as “the greatest royal love story of all time”.  I think the Queen and Prince Philip could well claim that, actually.  

Lord Melbourne was presented as the wedding planner.  Lucy insisted that he was in love with Queen Victoria.  A lot of people say that it was the other way round, and Victoria was in love with him.  Who knows?  Whatever the truth, they certainly had a very close relationship, and there was a poignant recreation of the scene in which he visited her after she’d changed into her going away outfit, and then off she went to start her new life with Albert.  It was pointed out that someone needed to make a good job of planning the wedding, because the Coronation hadn’t gone very well.  I’d heard the stories about the ring being shoved on the wrong finger and the elderly lord falling over umpteen times before, but I can’t say I knew that no-one had shown poor Victoria where the Westminster Abbey ladies’ loos were.  You learn something new every day.

Seriously, whilst it was all a bit muddled, there were some interesting points and nuggets of information in there.  It’s well-known that Queen Victoria set the fashion for wedding dresses to be white – although I don’t think the idea spread that widely across non-Anglophone countries until Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainier – but I’d never really thought that much about how much she must have stood out in pure white.  And it was genuinely lovely to hear about the importance of the commission to the British craftspeople who worked on the dress (not to mention the underwear), at a time of economic hardship.  Interesting in a different way was the tale of how they couldn’t find twelve aristocratic bridesmaids who met Prince Albert’s condition of coming from families untouched by scandal, so Albert got overruled on that one!

Not much was known about the other details, so they had to improvise.  Or guess!   But, as they said, the music would probably have been Handel, incredibly popular at the time.  Was there no order of service, giving the detail?  Evidently not!   And all that food!  Service a la francaise, which I hate!  Service a la russe is the way to go, if you’re an aristocrat – let someone serve you, rather than that incredibly annoying thing of having all the food on the table so that people keep mithering you to pass them this or that or the other.  A cake which was 9 feet in circumference, so full of sugar and fruit that the pieces never went off, and loads of smaller cakes being sent out to friends and relatives and embassies.

I thought it was rather mean to go on about Victoria putting on weight.  It presumably wasn’t a direct consequence of one meal, however lavish!  But I was intrigued by the idea of her asking Lord Melbourne for advice about it.  He apparently told her only to eat when she was hungry … and she said that she was always hungry.  I have deep sympathy with the Hanoverians over their tendency towards weight gain.  George IV apparently went through phases of not wanting to go out in case people laughed at him for being fat.  Been there, done that!  But the Queen asking the Prime Minister (or possibly the former Prime Minister, by then) for advice about weight issues?  That’s different!

And the gossip!  Who was invited to the wedding breakfast?  Who wasn’t?  Who got the best seats?  Who didn’t get on with whom?  Who’d fallen out?  Fast forward to 2018 and nothing’s really changed.  But it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding that really popularised the idea of a Royal Wedding being a national event, or even an international event.  And it’s nice.  In many ways, it’s been, to quote Queen (Queen the group, not the Queen, obviously), “a long hard year”.  The two royal weddings, along with the World Cup, provided bright spots and a wonderful feelgood factor.  And Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding did that as well.

Mary Poppins Returns

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Obviously this requires deep historical analysis 😉 .  Jane Banks is now a trade unionist, and runs a soup kitchen.  And wears trousers.  And acquires a working-class toyboy.  Go Jane!   Michael Banks is one of many people at risk of having his home repossessed due to the effects of the Depression.  Oh all right, all right, I just want an excuse to talk about Mary Poppins Returns.   It was never going to be as supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and practically perfect in every way as the original, and it’s a bit unfair of critics to compare the soundtrack to songs which have been around for over half a century and which everyone knows and loves, but it was still pretty good.

Sadly, I have never acquired the ability to make things tidy themselves up and put themselves away just by clicking my fingers.  But Mary Poppins has taught us all that a laugh and a song help the job along, and that we should prioritise spending time with people who are important to us over work.  That’s important.  Then there was that GCSE history lesson when the teacher started talking about suffragettes – and my school was absolutely obsessed with suffragettes, because the Pankhurst sisters all went there (Christabel hated the place, but the teachers never told us that) – and someone piped up that they knew about suffragettes because of Mary Poppins.  “Mary Poppins was a suffragette?” asked the teacher in bemusement.  “No – Mrs Banks was,” this girl explained helpfully.  And the class started singing the Sister Suffragette song.  See – it’s proper historical stuff!  Very educational 😉 .

Quite seriously, whereas the original film was set in what’s become mythologised as the pre Great War Edwardian summer when it was Grand To Be An Englishman in 1910, the mood in Mary Poppins Returns is very different.  This is the Depression.  Jane is running a soup kitchen, and organising meetings in support of workers’ rights.  Michael, a widower with three children, has borrowed money from the Dawes et al Fidelity Fiduciary Bank, can’t repay it, and is at risk of having the house repossessed.  Like a lot of upper-middle-class fictional characters in books set during the inter-war years, with the very honourable exception of Madge Bettany in The School at the Chalet, it doesn’t seem to occur to him to try to reduce his living expenses, and he seems rather put out at having had to get a job; but, hey, we wouldn’t really want him to lose the house on Cherry Tree Lane.  Mr and Mrs Banks have presumably passed on, but Ellen, now played by Julie Walters, is still around, as are a lot of the neighbours.  And Michael’s three kids are incredibly cute – especially the youngest boy, who is absolutely gorgeous.

All is not lost!  Michael and Jane have inherited some shares in the bank from their father.  But they can’t find the share certificate – and the Banks entry in the share ledger has, unbeknownst to them, been destroyed by the dastardly nephew (played by Colin Firth) of Mr Dawes junior.  So maybe all is lost after all.  And, in the middle of this, Mary Poppins returns.  Hooray!

Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins with a really OTT posh accent, which was a bit annoying.  I didn’t expect her to try to sound exactly like Julie Andrews, but it sounded a bit artificial, more like someone doing an impression of a posh accent than someone who genuinely has a posh accent!  Oh well, never mind.  She’s still got the talking umbrella.  And the handbag which a million things seem to fit into.  And there are magical adventures!

Not too many spoilers, but the adventures do very much mirror those in the original film. We haven’t got Bert, but we’ve got Jack, a lamplighter who was one apprenticed to Bert, and he and the other lamplighters have got a dance scene which is very reminiscent of Step In Time.   Meryl Streep plays Mary’s cousin Topsy Turvy, who runs a mysterious shop, in this film’s answer to the scenes with Uncle Albert floating up to the ceiling.  There isn’t a horse race, but there are adventures under the sea, and a brilliant music hall scene in which Mary Poppins sings a Marie Lloyd style number with a lot of innuendo … which doesn’t really sound like something Mary Poppins would do (although presumably it’s in one of the books?), but it’s a brilliant scene!

There’s no equivalent to the Bird Woman scene, but it is very much a London film.  I don’t entirely get London – most Northerners don’t! – but it is always lovely to see a film paying homage to a city which someone loves, and this film does do that, just as the original does.

And, of course, it all comes right in the end.  The kite – the original one, from Let’s Go Fly A Kite – is involved.  And everyone floats off on balloons.

I feel as if all I’ve done is compare it to the original, legendary, Mary Poppins, film, but the directors and scriptwriters have made it inevitable that everyone will do that, by including so many scenes which mirror those in the original film.  And, whilst nothing could compare with Mary Poppins, this is really very entertaining, and it’s a great film to see over the Christmas period.

The Long Song – BBC 1

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The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.

 

Merry Christmas/Season’s Greetings, and a Happy New Year

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Thank you so much to anyone who has read any of this during the year.  It’s probably mostly very boring, but it’s very therapeutic for me to write it, and I do get extremely excited if even one person reads any of it 🙂 .  The three most-viewed new posts of the year have been about Hitler’s Holocaust Railways, 1980s pop music and Queen Victoria’s children, which is a very weird combination.   Merry Christmas/Season’s Greetings and a Happy New Year to anyone who’s read this far, and indeed anyone who hasn’t – and maybe in 2019 I’ll actually get through my enormous book mountain and TV backlog!

SIX The Musical

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This sounded like an utterly ridiculous idea – presenting the six wives of Henry VIII as “sassy” 21st century pop/rock princesses, seriously?! – but it worked brilliantly (although rather better with the last three wives than with the first three wives)!   My music collection has never got out of the 1980s so I can’t really comment on modern pop/rock  😉 , but it was very lively and entertaining.  And, hey, there weren’t even any glaring historical inaccuracies – apart from annoyingly referring to “Britain” and “the UK” rather than “England”.  It was really good.  It bothered me slightly that the composers were born in 1994 – surely anyone who was born in 1994 has no business being out of nappies, never mind writing award-winning musicals?! – but I genuinely enjoyed it.

The idea was that the six wives were going to choose who should be the leader of their girl band by way of each one singing about what a hard time she had, and the winner being the one who’d had it worst. I know – it sounded like one of those awful ideas that teachers come up with because they think it’ll attract kids’ interest.  Luckily, none of my history teachers ever made anyone sing.  I was the kid who won the school history prize but was told that I had to mouth the words in music lessons because my singing was so bad that it was putting the other kids off, so that combination really would not have worked for me.  Although one of the duo who wrote this studied history at university and then studied dance and musical theatre.   It must be amazing to be multi-talented like that 🙂 .

But we never sang in history lessons. Nor did we try to relate history to the present day.  That was a no-no.  “Anachronistic” – a very bad thing to be.  It does seem to be a trend now, though, and it can be quite annoying.  There was a programme on the BBC last year, which was supposed to be about the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.  David Starkey, who really ought to know better, spent the entire time going on about Brexit.  What on earth has Martin Luther got to do with Brexit?  Very irritating.  However, there’ve always been schools of historical interpretation which are closely connected with events at the time – the Whigs, the Marxists, etc – so the idea of a #MeToo interpretation of events, which I think was partly what this was meant to be, is fair enough.

As was pointed out, the six wives are largely remembered each as one of six, and only in relation to Henry, rather than as six individuals. On the other hand, everyone knows their names because there were six of them.  People who aren’t particularly into history and wouldn’t be able to name the wives of any other English kings can recite the names of the six wives of Henry VIII with no trouble at all.  And the rhyme.  “Divorced, beheaded, died.  Divorced, beheaded, survived.”  It’s not actually accurate, because the marriage to Catherine of Aragon was declared not to have been a marriage at all, and the marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, but anyway.  It’s the best-known period in English history.  Let the Whig historians talk about the importance of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution: it’s the soap opera-esque appeal of a man with six wives (much more so than, you know, the Reformation!) that gets the attention.

I hate getting things out of chronological order, but I’m going to make an exception here, because the way that this presented the fourth, fifth and sixth wives was great, whereas I was less impressed with the presentation of the first three wives. Yes, all right, all right, it was done like that so that they could get a range of different styles of music in, and I was probably the only person in the audience who was trying to make it into a serious historical thing; but I’m just like that.

Anne of Cleves, then. I loved this!   At school, I was taught that Anne of Cleves was “the Flanders mare”, the one whom Henry sent packing because she was ugly.  It was only later that I found out that – to be fair, I suppose they can’t really tell you this at school – what probably happened was that Henry wasn’t up to the job and tried to blame it on Anne’s physical appearance.  And there was no need to try to modernise this story, because it really is a story for the 2010s.  Henry decided to marry Anne (well, apart from her dowry, and the fact that no other foreign princess would have him) after seeing the overly flattering portrait of her painted by Holbein, and then claimed that he’d been tricked and that she looked nothing like it.  Yep.  Just like all those profile pics on Facebook or Tinder or Grindr or whatever, which have either been photoshopped or else show the person when they were younger and possibly slimmer.  Then he totally humiliated her by broadcasting this to the whole of Europe.  Poor Anne.

What you aren’t usually told is that, once the marriage had been annulled, Anne of Cleves was treated as if she were the king’s sister. She got to lead the luxurious life of a senior member of the royal family without having to put up with Henry, the pressure to produce an heir, or the fear of losing her head as soon as Henry’s eye began to wander.  She probably got the best deal of the lot.  And that is exactly how it came across in SIX.  Hooray!

Next up, Catherine Howard – the one who’s usually presented as a silly little tart. If the story of Anne of Cleves is a story for the social media age, the story of Catherine Howard is very much a #MeToo story.  She was a pretty young girl, taken advantage of by older men, and pushed into the arms of the king by her ambitious male relatives.  OK, it was incredibly stupid of her to have an affair after she was actually married to Henry, but she was looking for affection – and, by then, she’d been made to feel that this was all she was, someone whom men wanted, and only wanted for one thing.  I’m not sure that an Ariana Grande hairdo really fitted with her sad story, but it’s a story that is very ripe for re-telling through 21st century eyes.

And then Catherine Parr. There are opinion polls about all sorts around these days, but I’ve never seen one asking which of Henry VIII’s wives is people’s favourite!  Catherine Parr is mine.  My one big quibble with her is her appalling taste in men.  Thomas Seymour.  No, no, no!   Her song seemed as if it was all going to be a tale of woe about how she’d had arranged marriages to older men and then, just as she and Thomas had got together, Henry decided he wanted to marry her.  Marks for historical accuracy, OK, but all so negative!  But then, hooray, there was a second part to the song, all about how she was very well-educated and she wrote books and promoted female authors and artists.  Yay!! That’s why she’s my favourite of the six!

And I think we owe Catherine a huge debt for the role she played in Elizabeth’s education. I’m just going to do a bit of a David Starkey here, sorry, and say how much we could do with Elizabeth at the moment!   She had to cope with two rival factions, both of whom wanted everything (Reformation-wise, in her case) all their own way and seemed to show very little respect for other people’s opinions.  She had people trying to overthrow her – and, in her case, we’re talking imprisonment and probably execution, not just being replaced as party leader.  Hostility from Europe?  Philip II of Spain sent an Armada to try to invade her country, and the Pope pretty much said that people had a divine duty to assassinate her.

Makes those idiots in Brussels look like pussy cats by comparison. And she was probably the greatest ruler this country’s ever had.  I’m just saying!

Back to the beginning. Catherine of Aragon.  Everyone knows this bit, and it rings true in every period of history.  Man dumps his loyal wife of many years, to go off with someone younger and sexier.  Catherine is eternally cast as the wronged wife, Anne as the other woman.  It’s really interesting that, even though the Tudors were masters of propaganda, and it certainly didn’t suit Henry VIII for Catherine to be cast as a saint and martyr, nor Elizabeth for Anne to be seen as the baddie, this is the image that’s come down through the centuries.   Catherine’s song was the full sob story – shipped off to marry Arthur, widowed very young, treated very badly during her widowhood, then the loyal, loving, pious wife, dumped by Henry, separated from her only surviving child, all the children she lost.  Yes, that’s all true.

But, if we were doing “sassy”, couldn’t we have got the other side of Catherine in there as well? She was very much Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter.  She masterminded Flodden Field, whilst Henry was messing about in Flanders.  She sent him James IV of Scotland’s bloodied surcoat, and I always get the impression that she’d quite like to have sent him James’s dead body as well.  She was a tough cookie.  She must have been, or else she’d have trotted off to a nunnery and let Henry and Anne get on with it.  Does even the #MeToo generation have to present her as nothing more than the wronged wife dumped for a younger model?

Then Anne Boleyn. What was going on here?!  She had a Bjork hairdo.  And spoke and sang like a chav.  I think she was actually meant to come across like a bored millennial,who was never off her mobile phone, but she did actually just come across as a chav.  Bjork, chav, Anne Boleyn … er, no, me neither!   The song also made her come across as being a bit thick and a victim of events.  No!  That was Catherine Howard!  I suppose at least they didn’t show her as a conniving tart who betrayed the sisterhood by stealing another woman’s husband, because it’s very unfair how history’s tended to do that – Anne, far from setting out to attract the king, wanted to marry Henry Percy, and was in an impossible position once Henry became interested in her – but she was anything but thick.

I know, I know! It was probably just about what fitted with different songs.  And the same with Jane Seymour.  She got a love song – and I suppose that was because they had to have a love song in there somewhere, because we all like a bit of soppy music.  But the song was about how Jane really loved Henry, and she was sad because she knew that the idea that she was the one he really loved only came about because she was the one who produced the son, and how sad it was that she and her son never knew each other because she died of childbirth fever.  The bits about Henry and Edward were true enough, but does anyone really think that Jane genuinely loved Henry?  I’m not keen on the Stepford Wife image of her, either.  I do think that she was a genuinely nice person, and I like the fact that she tried to reconcile him with both his daughters, but I also think that she was clever enough to know that, after what had happened to Anne Boleyn, her best bet was to keep her head down and her mouth shut, not that she was someone who didn’t have the guts to do anything else.

I seem to have done a lot of moaning there. Well, I do about the way they showed the first three wives, anyway!  I take things too seriously.  Sorry!!  But it was really entertaining – the music was great, even for those of us who are so out of touch that we can’t name a single song in the current top 40 (even though we can recognise most top ten songs from the second half of the 1980s just from listening to the first few beats) .  And the point about the need to think of these six women as six individuals is a quite serious and genuine historical point.  Also, this has the potential to reach an audience which historical novels or documentaries on BBC 4, however interesting, probably won’t.  There were a lot of kids there.  I really hope that they all went home and rushed to read up on the Tudors.  OK, they probably didn’t, but I can hope!   And, on a very wet and windy December evening, this was great entertainment, and it also made you think.  I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, but I did 🙂 .