Lucy Worsley Investigates: Madness of King George – BBC 2

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  This was a very interesting programme, about not only George III’s illness but the treatment of mental illness during the 1780s and how that changed.  However, I wish that they’d given someone a chance to put the case for the porphyria theory, instead of just dismissing it as wrong and focusing entirely on the alternative diagnosis of bipolar disorder.  Yes, the reason that the porphyria theory, put forward by Macalpine and Hunter in the 1960s, is so well-known is the 1991 Alan Bennett play and subsequent 1994 film, rather than the works of any medic or historian, but the 1998 book “Purple Secret” is very convincing, and I do think that Lucy might at least have considered it.

Having said which, the argument for bipolar disorder is probably more convincing, especially now that additional papers giving us more details of George’s condition have been released.  The general opinion does now seem to be that the porphyria theory is wrong … which is quite annoying, because I’ve read so much about porphyria that I diagnosed it immediately when a character in Casualty presented with its symptoms!

George’s symptoms certainly seem to match those of bipolar disorder, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the arguments presented about the triggers.   The tragic loss of three children would certainly cause huge distress to anyone, and the death of his daughter was only a year before the episode which led to the Regency, but his two sons died in 1782 and 1783 respectively, the Gordon Riots were in 1780 and the American colonies were effectively lost by 1781, so I’m not sure how all those link into an episode in 1788, several years later.  The death of Peter III of Russia in 1762 surely didn’t affect him in 1788, and I think we can be pretty certain that the French Revolution didn’t affect him a year before the Storming of the Bastille.

Hmm.

However, what was said about the treatment of mental illness at the time was fascinating, if horrifying.  It was thought to have a physical cause, so poor George was subjected to bleeding, purging and blistering.  I’m not quite sure why Lucy felt it necessary to order some leeches off the internet in order to show them to us, but I Googled it out of interest and found several places offering leeches for sale.   OK, let’s not go there.

If we accept that George was already struggling due to the events of 1780-83, what may well have tipped him over the edge was a knife attack made on him in 1786, by a woman called Margaret Nicholson.  Margaret was certified insane and  committed to Bedlam (the Bethlem Royal Hospital) for life.  She died there 42 years later.   We learnt that the hospital divided people into “ravers” (unfortunate term), “melancholics” and “incurables”.  Margaret was classed as “incurable”, even though she probably wasn’t.  Some people were literally clapped in irons, although others were put into straitjackets, which were quite mild by comparison.   It was a pretty horrific place, and people would come there to view the patients as if they were animals in a zoo.

However, Lucy then explained that, quite possibly because of what had happened with a) George and b) Margaret, a report was commissioned into the goings-on at Bedlam, published in 1791.   It actually said that restraint was OK for the poor but not for the well-to-do!   But it did lead to reforms, and psychiatry began to move away from the idea that mental illness could be treated by purging/bleeding/blistering.   She then finished by saying that George’s illness made him more popular – rather than being horrified by the idea of a “mad” king, the public were sad that he’d been ill and grateful that he’d recovered.

There was a lot to take in in this programme, and it really was interesting.  And, having accepted the porphyria theory after reading the arguments put forward in favour of it, I suppose I do now accept that bipolar disorder is a far more likely diagnosis.  So there, they convinced me!

 

 

 

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Back in Time for Birmingham – BBC 2

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I love the role of food in social integration.  As immigrant groups do integrate in society, the language tends to fade away, the clothes tend to fade away to some extent, and even religion tends to fade away, but the food comes down through the generations, and goes out there into wider society.   Ignoring the millennial rubbish about “cultural appropriation”, I love the fact that I can go into a local cafe and find dishes on the menu which have been brought here from all over the world.  Or, in the case of the Birmingham Balti, been invented in the UK but based on food brought here from elsewhere!

OK, enough about food.  It’s great to have another “Back in time” series.  Although how come Birmingham gets its own “back in time” series, and other cities don’t?!   Having said which, this wasn’t so much about the history of Birmingham as about the history of British South Asians.   That’s quite problematic because, obviously, there’ve been vast differences in the history of British South Asians – for example, the high proportion of British doctors who have South Asian heritage may not have very much in common with British Asians living in multi-generational, working-class households in Birmingham, Bradford, Blackburn, Bolton etc.

I thought that what BBC 2 did here was very positive  – a portrayal of an upwardly mobile family, the first generation living in poverty, working long shifts in factories and not really mixing with anyone outside their own community, the second generation setting up their own businesses and having more contact with other communities, the third generation going to university and entering professions, and the fourth generation feeling much more free to do whatever they wanted, and finding a successful balance between their British identity and their Asian identity.   That obviously hasn’t been every British Asian family’s experience, but it’s been that of many, including the real history of the very likeable Sharma family who took part in this series.   It’s also been the story of other immigrant groups in British history – again, not that of every family, but of many.

I’m pleased to say that, unlike the infamous “Back in Time for School” series, this wasn’t overly political.  Oh, there were some anti-British comments, but would one expect anything else from the BBC?   It was, for the most part, positive.  Quite a bit of general nostalgia in there, and general generation gap stuff, but it was generally the story of post-war South Asian immigration to the UK.  And, yes, it was very Birmingham, but you can find similar stories in many other places.

In the first episode, we heard about how most of the early immigrants were men intending to make some money and then return to their original homes, like, say, Italian immigrants to the USA in the late 19th centuries.   But many, even most, of them chose to settle in Birmingham, and brought their families over to join them.  We saw the men living in lodging houses, with shared kitchens, and even beds being shared between people on day shifts and night shifts.  And, in those days, there was pretty much full employment, and manufacturing jobs were readily available, with women often doing sewing at home.  It’s an experience common to earlier immigrant groups too.  And, as time went on, many young men started up their own businesses, often with market stalls – the Asian-run market stall is still a very common sight here in the North West, as well as in Birmingham.  But the culture of the Indian sub-continent wasn’t forgotten, and we saw the growth of the British Asian cinemas, and TV programmes, and marriages still tending to be arranged.  And having a Hindu blessing on a new home.  My next door neighbours are Sikhs, and they had a Sikh blessing on the house shortly after they moved in.   Nice idea.

In the second episode, we moved on to the 1970s, with immigration from Bangladesh, during and after the 1971 war, and from East Asia.  We learnt that one of the grandfathers had come from Uganda –  and BBC 2 did manage to acknowledge that South Asians had prospered under British rile in Asia, before reverting to BBC 2 type and trying to blame Britain for everything Idi Amin did.   We also heard the familiar story of how most “Indian” restaurants in the UK were actually opened by people originally from Bangladesh.

And we saw the family opening their own business – a corner shop.   People used to refer to corner shops as “Asian shops”, because they usually were owned and run by British Asians.  They still are, certainly round here.  When the Desai/Alahan family took over the corner shop in Coronation Street, which had previously run by Alf Roberts, some people complained that it was perpetuating a stereotype – but it was an accurate stereotype, and people have presumably accepted that, because no-one moaned when the Panesars took over the Minute Mart in EastEnders.   Before the days of 24 hour supermarkets, in particular, the “Asian shops” were just invaluable, because they were usually open long after other shops had shut.   We also head about how Bhangra music had originated in Birmingham, which I have to confess that I didn’t know.

The daughter, however, went out to work in a factory, and we heard about the Imperial Typewriter Strike, in which Asian women walked out after learning that they were being paid less than their white counterparts.  Their white female colleagues supported them: the unions did not.  Interestingly, she said that she hoped that this would dispel the stereotype of Asians being meek.  Now, I would have said that there was a stereotype of Asian women being quite bossy, so I was surprised by that.   Obviously, neither of these stereotypes are true of groups, only of individuals, but I was quite surprised by the “meek” comment.  We also heard about the rise of the National Front, following the oil price crisis of the mid-1970s, and again during the difficult economic times of the 1980s.   There’s always a risk that rising fuel prices and inflation will lead to social unrest, and I sincerely hope that we’re not going to see that again, either here or anywhere else affected by Putin pushing up the cost of living.

On a more positive note, cricket was mentioned!  My elder nephew’s in a cricket team, and a high proportion of the other lads are British Asian: cricket does seem to be so important in British Asian culture, and let’s hope that the recent unpleasantness at Yorkshire CCC won’t affect that.  And we heard the children talking about  finding a balance between British culture and their Asian heritage: finding a balance is always going to be an issue in an ethnic minority community, and hopefully that’s working well for them.

The 1980s and 1990s saw more integration, with cultural movements both ways – British food into South Asian households, and South Asian culture into British TV programmes and music, with specific reference to Goodness Gracious Me, EastEnders and Madhur Jaffrey.  We also heard about British-born children being sent to Asian language classes, the daytime club movement in Birmingham, and the importance of corner shops in making Bollywood videos, internet calls to the Indian sub-continent and online dating available to British Asian communities.   And it was the history of Birmingham too, with deindustrialisation and the rise of the service sector.

And we heard about second and third generation children going to university, and the pressure that they felt to choose courses associated with professions and bragging rights.  Oh yes.  People from many minority communities will have been nodding their heads there!   But the Sharma children, whom I think are in their early 20s, said that they now felt freer to do as they chose, and it was lovely to hear them both say at the end that, whilst they’ve struggled to balance being both British and Asian, making this series has helped them to do that.  There was a lot of talk about fusion.  And a lot of that was about food, which was where I started!   Excellent series: I really enjoyed it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billie Jean King: Amol Rajan Interviews – BBC 2

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This was an absolutely fascinating interview about a wide range of hot topics – equal pay in tennis, equal rights for women generally and LGBTQ rights, probably the subjects most closely associated with Billie Jean King, but also a number of other subjects including abortion rights – this was filmed before yesterday’s unfortunate decision to overturn Roe vs Wade – and mental health.  It was very interesting to hear her say that tennis, far from being a goldfish bowl, felt like a sanctuary in which she could escape her personal problems.  And it was particularly interesting to hear her talk about her struggles with binge-eating disorder, something with which I’ve long struggled myself.

She could well have used this interview to try to plug her recently-published book, but she didn’t: she let Amol lead the interview and she answered what he asked.  She did say that she thinks she’d have won a lot more titles had she not been so active off court.  I’m not sure that a British person would have said that, even if they thought it 🙂 , but she’s probably right.  (And Marcus Rashford has been bang off-form since he got involved with the school dinners’ campaign – I hope he gets back on track on the pitch.)

The issue of equal pay in tennis and of the treatment of women’s matches vis-a-vis men’s matches came up very early on.  This was a big subject at the French Open, because of the dreadful scheduling of the night matches – several five set matches didn’t start until gone 8:45pm local time, but there was a reluctance to schedule women’s matches for the night session in case a match was something like 6-1 6-2 and people complained that they’d had no value for their night session ticket.  Billie Jean’s answer was to make men’s matches best of three at Grand Slams.  I have to disagree there: the best-of-five matches are thrilling.  Just not in the wee small hours of the morning.

The establishment of the WTA and the Battle of the Sexes are interesting topics, but have been discussed at length before.   However, I hadn’t known that Billie Jean testified to Congress regarding the need for federal legislation about equal rights for women in education, the Title IX Act passed 50 years ago, and that Harvard Medical School only allotted 5% of places to women prior to that.

Regarding whether or not trans women should be allowed to play in women’s sporting events, which is a very controversial subject at the moment, she said that she didn’t want to see anyone excluded from tennis or other sports, but that she also didn’t want to see anyone put at an unfair advantage or disadvantage.  Her opinion was that more answers are needed from the scientific community about whether or not trans women who’ve gone through male puberty have an unfair advantage over cisgender women, and that, if so, maybe there should be a separate category of competition for transgender athletes.

Another controversial subject is the banning of Russian and Belarusian athletes from Wimbledon.  She opposed it.  I can see both sides.  I don’t think it’ll achieve anything, TBH.  Did banning South African athletes all those years achieve anything?  But I can also see what a huge propaganda opportunity it’d be for Putin to have a photo of, say, the Duchess of Cambridge presenting the men’s singles’ trophy to Daniil Medvedev or Andrey Rublev.  I don’t know what the answer is.  I just wish that the LTA, ATP and WTA had been able to reach agreement on the subject.

For such a public person, it’s quite strange that she didn’t reveal that she and her long-term partner Ilana Kloss had married in 2018 until the book came out (no pun intended) in 2021.  Maybe that stems back to when she was publicly outed by her former lover Marilyn Barnett, which must have been extremely hurtful.  She also talked about losing all her endorsements as a result.  Thankfully, times have changed since then, and she’s been one of the people who’s helped to change them.

All in all, this was a fascinating hour’s TV – a great interviewer and a great interviewee.

 

The Black Death: Lucy Worsley Investigates – BBC 2

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When I was 13, I got 91% in a biology exam.  Apologies if that sounds like showing off.  It was a very long time ago!  The point is the interaction between biology and history.  Our big topic that year was genetics, and our biology text book had a wonderful family tree showing how Queen Victoria’s haemophilia gene spread through the royal houses of Europe.  So, instead of trying to put iodine on a piece of onion without getting bubbles in it (something which took me eleventy billion attempts, and of which I still fail to see the point), I got to focus on royal history, with particular reference to the Romanovs.  Sorted!!

The application of science to the events of the past was one element of this very interesting programme.  Lucy Worsley really is so good when she’s acting like an adult and not dressing up, even if “Lucy Worsley Investigates” does make her sound like Nancy Drew.  But what really struck me most was how she, and all of us, now view the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  Three years ago, would a programme about medieval plague have used the terms “herd immunity”, “super spreader event”, “frontline worker” or even just “pandemic”?  I think we’ve all got past panic buying toilet rolls, and few people wear masks now, but our outlook on history’s changed.   That’s quite a big thing.

We started off with the scientific facts – how there were variants (another Covid-era word) of the plague, and how it was spread by body lice getting into fabrics, as well as by fleas on rats.  The body lice factor explains what happened in Eyam, so I suppose we knew that anyway, but the emphasis has always been on fleas on rats.   And there was a lot of talk about how this was a new disease, and, because it was new,  it spread very rapidly at first, only ceasing to be so dangerous once herd immunity had built up.  

Lucy kept talking about “Britain”, which was a bit annoying as “Britain” wasn’t a political entity then, and references to the political, economic and clerical authorities wouldn’t have included Scotland,   Just saying!   She talked a lot about the role of economics, and what can be deduced from economic records.  We think of inheritance tax as having been brought in with the People’s Budget of 1909, but there was a form of inheritance tax even in the 14th century.   And she really is obsessed with “fornication”!   Last week, she kept trying to make the witch trials all about fornication, and this week we were told that the Church tried to blame the plague on sin, and especially on loose women.   Thankfully we didn’t get that with Covid … although it has to be said that some deeply unpleasant people in the 1980s tried to make out that the AIDS pandemic was some sort of message from on high.

The Church did have a useful role to play, though.   Priests read out Edward III’s instructions on how to try to deal with the plague, after hearing horror stories about how it’d affected countries on the Continent.  Hopefully they were more like cheery Jonathan Van Tam than grumpy Professor Chris Whitty!   And clerics were also “frontline workers”, as we’d now say.   

We were told that the plague actually increased the role of religion, because, with little hope other than prayer, people turned to religion, deeply distressed at the need for plague pits rather than proper funerals.   No real Covid link there, but how about social change?   As we know, the devastating effect of the plague on the population led to a shortage of labour, and an increase in social mobility and wage levels.   The Statute of Labourers, passed in 1351, tried to keep wages down and tie people to their place of origin, but it just wasn’t practical to do that.  We also heard about improvements to the lot of women, stepping into places once held by men, as was later to be the case during both world wars.   

Are we going to see positive social change brought about by Covid?  Well, here in North West England, where we were so badly affected, we were hoping so, but, at the moment, we’re still waiting.  We’ll see.

All in all, as I said, this was an interesting programme about the Black Death, but I think that the most interesting part about it was the historiography.   We now see the Black Death through the prism of Covid.  I wonder if it’s going to have a long term effect on how we see other aspects of history too.

 

Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts – BBC 2

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Do not get me started on the subject of the “Witch Way” bus route, which runs very close to my house and is so named because it originally linked Manchester with the Pendle area, and some bloke evidently thought that using Pendle Witch Trials as a silly gimmick was appropriate.  It isn’t.  At least they’ve removed those pictures of a very sexy-looking witch, sat astride a broomstick, from the sides of the buses.  And, when I visited Salem in Massachusetts in 2019, I was rather bemused to see the “Witch City Mall”, home to a variety of shops, restaurants and beauty parlours.  I appreciate that tourism is big business, but the witch hunts which took place in Britain, across Europe and in America, mainly from 1450 to 1750, weren’t some sort of Disney film.  Thousands of people, most of them women, were judicially murdered; and we saw Lucy Worsley getting distressed, to the point of tears, as she talked about the horrors to which these women were subjected, the terrible fear that other women must have felt that they could be the next to be accused, and how little we hear of their voices, their real stories.

In Britain, witch hunting on a large scale, with the involvement of the central authorities, really began during the reign of James I of England/James VI of Scotland, who was apparently convinced that witchcraft caused a storm which nearly sank his ship as he returned from Denmark, where witch hunts were already common, in 1590 (at which point he was king of Scotland, but Elizabeth I still ruled in England).  This programme focused on the North Berwick trials, which took place shortly afterwards, and particular on the case of Agnes Sampson, the first to be accused.

As a slight aside, do people still take lucky mascots/charms into exams with them?  I used to take a miniature Good Luck Care Bear (remember care bears?!) and a lump of coal, but my elder nephew (aged 13) recently had school exams, and apparently lucky mascots aren’t a thing any more.  Or maybe they are, but only for girls.  I know that some men have lucky pants or lucky socks which they wear for football matches, but I don’t really want to think about other people’s pants, so let’s not go there.   However, lucky charms/amulets, often used by women in childbirth, were apparently considered a sign of witchcraft by the supposedly “godly” witch hunters – although not as much so as marks on the body.  As Lucy explained, there was a strong sexual element to the witch hunts.   There always is, isn’t there?  Men using religion to try to control women.  People getting caught up in some sort of hysterical frenzy.  And all these people, mostly women, being tortured into making confessions, and horribly executed – with Scotland having one of the highest rates of witch execution of any country.

Thankfully, even Lucy realised that this wasn’t an occasion for dressing up.  We got a lot of shots of her sitting in the back of a car, walking around and reading original texts, but she was dressed in Puritanical black and white, as she explained how the Reformation turned up the religious temperature, and both Protestants and Catholics alike got caught up in an obsessive fear of the devil and his works, with local folk healers/wise women, living peacefully in their communities, generally the main targets.  Agnes Sampson, an ordinary women from a small village, found herself hauled up before the king, and then physically and mentally tortured until, broken, she confessed to whatever they asked, and gave the names of other people as well.

As Lucy described the horrible death which Agnes met, garroted and then burnt at the stake, she did become quite emotional, and was really rather moving.  This is a horrible part of history.  Lucy said that the stories of the witches weren’t well-known.  Well, maybe the stories of the Scottish witches aren’t, but the stories of the Lancashire witches are, because they’ve been turned into novels, and even used as gimmicks by tourist authorities and bus companies.   And the term “witch-hunt” is still widely used, to describe a frenzied campaign against people, often innocent, who are perceived to be some sort of threat.   But, as Lucy said the voices of the real women involved aren’t often heard.  She tried very hard to put those voices across, in what made for a fascinating hour’s TV.   Very, very good programme.

Kicking Off: the Rise and Fall of the Super League – BBC 2

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This was a rather puerile documentary.  I really didn’t need to see pictures of toilet flushes or cartoons of Popeye, and I’m not sure what Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien” was supposed to have to do with anything.   Sky’s documentary on the same subject made most of the same points, but in a rather more sensible way.

However, there were two points which neither programme made.  For one thing, there are now a lot more UEFA member states/national associations, and therefore a lot more leagues requiring places in European competitions, than there used to be.  Eleven of the former Soviet states are UEFA members, and there are now seven members in place of the former Yugoslavia and two in place of the former Czechoslovakia.  That’s seventeen extra leagues.  It’s rather a lot, really.   For another thing, people keep messing about with sports.  When I were a lass and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the rugby league season ran parallel with the football season, cricketers wore white and no-one had ever heard of T20 (and don’t get me started on the IPL), and doubles matches in tennis were the best of three full sets, five full sets for men’s doubles in Grand Slam events.  People tinker with sports.  Let’s just thank goodness that the mad idea of making football matches shorter, which was actually mentioned in this programme, has never been seriously considered.

So what did it say?  Well, pretty much what the Sky documentary said – and Sky a) got in first and b) said it all much better.  In the good old days, football clubs were owned by local business people.  Then Silvio Berlusconi got involved.   Then the Champions League came along.  Then new owners, often state-linked organisations from the Middle East, came along, and, rather like The Gilded Age, suddenly we’d got the old aristocracy (United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) being challenged by the nouveaux riches (led by City and Paris St Germain).   A lot of the traditional big clubs had got into a lot of debt, and then along came Covid and made all the financial problems umpteen times worse.

As the Sky documentary did, this very much put the blame on the Spanish and Italian clubs involved, especially Real Madrid.  And added a nasty little dig suggesting that United were somehow in league with 10 Downing Street – could we just lose this silly conspiracy theory, please?!   And then made the point that it was English fans who killed the idea off … possibly with a little help from the Government, after Boris threatened to kill it off by legislation.  Well, if Parliament could abolish purgatory, as it did in Henry VIII’s time, it could certainly do away with the Super League.  But it never came to that.  The English clubs pulled out, and the idea collapsed.

One suggestion which this programme made, which I don’t think Sky’s did, was that the cack-handed way in which it was all dealt with was because the owners concerned had all inherited their money, and didn’t have a clue about how the world really worked.  This is an old, old story when it comes to old money versus nouveaux riches.  But I don’t think that the argument works here.   OK, we’re now on to the second generation of Glazers at Old Trafford, and the Agnelli family have been big shots in Turin for decades.   But the driving force behind this was Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, and he worked his way up, in Franco’s Spain.  How someone who’s made such a success in business could have made such a mess of this is an interesting question, but the BBC didn’t ask it.  Maybe he’s just too used to getting what he wants.

Is he going to get it anyway?  Remember that song by The Adventures of Stevie V?  Did they ever even record another song, BTW?!  Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks. Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, ooh. It does look as if the idea of admitting some clubs based on their historic records, however poorly they’ve done in the season concerned, will go ahead anyway.Well, given what a bloody awful season United have had, this sounds like good news for us.  But it’s wrong.

I think what we could really do with is some more input from abroad.  Everyone in England seems to agree that this is wrong.  But what do people in Spain and Italy think?

And whose word is going to count, in the end?   Unfortunately, this story isn’t over yet.   We’ve won the battle, but have we won the war?

 

 

 

 

Pilgrimage: the road to the Scottish Isles – BBC 2

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Whatever your personal religious or spiritual beliefs, there’s something very special about travelling to a place which holds significance for you, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the health and time to make that journey on foot. Well, mostly on foot: this year’s pilgrimage takes in parts of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so, as the land bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has never got past the vague discussions stage, some of it will obviously *not* be made on foot.  Anyway, boats, buses, feet, whatever, it’s good to see the BBC 2 Pilgrimage programme back, after a year’s break due to the pandemic.

This year, our pilgrims are sticking close to home – heading for the Scottish holy island of Iona, home of Iona Abbey, founded by St Columba in the 6h century AD. BTW, why are some saints’ names in common usage but others aren’t.   How many people do you know who are called George, Andrew or David?   Now, how many people do you know who are called Columba, Ninian or Bede?   Hmm.

Unlike the previous Pilgrimage programmes, this one isn’t following a traditional pilgrimage route.  There is no Camino de St Columba.  Instead, they’re visiting various sites associated with Columba’s life.  Er, using navigation apps on their phones.  And, presumably in the interests of inclusivity – that’s a comment, not a criticism – the emphasis is being put on each participant’s personal “religious journey”.

Incidentally, I always say that I’m a Victorian, but, when it comes to “spiritual” issues, I’m actually very medieval – I look for omens in anything and everything.  The Victorians would have been horrified by that!

An interesting point was made, by Scarlett Moffatt, about religious people being seen as uncool.  I remember there being quite a bit of discussion on this subject in terms of soap opera characters, some years ago.  It was pointed out that the religious characters in soap operas were always old ladies, notably Emily Bishop in Coronation Street, Dot Cotton in EastEnders and Edna Birch in Emmerdale.  Not that old ladies are uncool, but you get the idea.  And I think the scriptwriters took the point, because we suddenly started to get religious teenagers – Sophie Webster in Coronation Street, Bobby Beale in EastEnders and Amelia Spencer in Emmerdale.  Even so, if you were asked to pick which one of the group most identified with formal religion, you probably wouldn’t have picked the young reality TV star.  Just a thought!

We also, with the group visiting Derry/Londonderry, heard quite a bit about the Troubles and the efforts that have been made to bring different religious communities together, including an interview with a lady whose husband was murdered by the IRA, and who now works for peace and reconciliation in tandem with a lady who was formerly a member of the IRA.

That had nothing to do with St Columba, but it had a lot to do with our lives today.   This is an unusual year: it’s quite common for Passover and Easter to coincide, but it’s unusual for Passover, Easter and Ramadan all to coincide, which is happening this year.  Both Easters – Good Friday by the Gregorian calendar coincides with the first day of Passover, Good Friday by the Julian calendar coincides with the penultimate day of Passover, and Ramadan runs through all of it.   I know that there are fears that this could lead to a wave of violence in the Middle East, but hopefully it won’t, and anyone marking any of these festivals (OK, I know that Ramadan isn’t a festival as such,  but I couldn’t think of an appropriate noun to include all three!), or just enjoying the long weekend, will be able to do so in peace … and make the most of it, after two successive springs mucked up by Covid.  If anyone’s read this, thank you, and all the best.

Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship – BBC 2

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (who comes from a village near the Russo-Ukrainian border, brought glasnost to the old USSR and must be absolutely devastated at what’s going on at the moment), Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bestriding the world stage (I like that expression).  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to some extent Helmut Kohl were also part of that.

Going back into history, you find, to name but a few, Churchill, Disraeli, Gladstone, Bismarck, Metternich, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Charles the Bold, Henry V, Saladin, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great … on and on and on.  Where are all the world leaders now?!   That new German Chancellor’s so anonymous that I can only remember his name because it makes me think of the snowman in Frozen, and the rest of them aren’t much better.   And how is banning Russian players from Wimbledon supposed to help anyone?  Maybe that’s why everyone’s so into Zelenskyy, because he actually *has* got something about him.

Anyway.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were obviously both quite controversial figures at home, but this programme wasn’t about that; and I was impressed that the BBC, which often seems to forget that it’s supposed to be politically neutral, respected that – and focused on the relationship between the two, which was what it said on the tin.

We even got some Freudian-type stuff about how Ronald liked Maggie because strong women reminded him on his mother, and how Maggie liked Ronald because she was keen on glamorous, powerful men.  That does rather make one wonder how she ended up with Denis, who was many things but certainly not glamorous, but never mind.

It’s rather frightening how dated the video shots from the ’80s and early ’90s look now, but I’m trying not to think about that.  I’m still trying to process the fact that the Miami Open was won by someone who was born in 2003, and that the defeated finalist was someone whose dad I remember as a young teenage pro.  And how on earth is Brooklyn Beckham old enough to get married, when surely it was only five minutes ago that he was an adorable toddler kicking a ball round the pitch at Old Trafford after we won the league in, er, the year 2000?  Oh, and, speaking of the ’80s and early ’90s, remember the Berlin Wall coming in November 1989, Nelson Mandela being released from prison in February 1990, and those precious few months of thinking that we’d finally reached an age of peace?   It all went kaput when Iraq invaded Kuwait in July 1990, before The Scorpions had even released “Wind of Change”, but it was nice whilst it lasted.

This first episode really was quite interesting, because there was so much about that personal bond and what helped them to form it, and how Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) coped with being a woman in a man’s world.  I’m not sure that we needed quite so much psycho-analysis about the significance of her handbag, though.  Why are people so obsessed with the Queen’s handbag and Maggie Thatcher’s handbag?!   They should see the contents of mine – talk about everything but the kitchen sink.

I wish we could get back to a point where Anglo-American relations are as close as they were then, but we don’t seem to have had another pair of leaders who’ve got on so well.  Blair and Clinton, to some extent, but both of them were very narcissistic and I don’t think that they worked together anything like as well as Thatcher and Reagan did.

Also, even with the Gulf Wars, there wasn’t the sense of the common enemy that there was in the days of the Cold War.  I never really got the Cold War, TBH.  OK, it was coming to an end by the time I was old enough to understand much about it, but I think it was because people were always talking about “the Russians”, rather than “the communists” of “the Soviets”.  I like Russia.  Not easy then and not easy at the moment, but all that Russians-as-baddies stuff has never worked for me.  But it did for Thatcher and Reagan … until Gorbachev came along, and we’ll hear more about that next week.

A lot of this was about the issue of American nuclear weapons being based in Britain, and in Western Europe, and how Thatcher and Reagan worked very closely together on that, but we also saw them having their differences over trade issues, and over the lack of overt  American support for Britain during the Falklands War.

All in all, I thought it was very well-presented.  Too many BBC programmes these days take a very biased political viewpoint, and or try to make the issues of the past about the issues of today, like that ridiculous programme in 2017 which tried to make out that the Reformation was somehow linked to Brexit, or that Simon Schama programme which tried to link William Blake to Darth Vader.  This one did what it was meant to do, and it did it rather well.

 

Vienna Blood (series 2) – BBC 2

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Once again, we have lots of glamorous Belle Epoque costumes and lots of scenes of lovely Vienna, although there was an unfortunate absence of both Sachertorte and strudel.  It’s Vienna, OK.  I expect Sachertorte and strudel.

In the first episode, a Hungarian countess who’d been consulting our Freudian friend Dr Max Liebermann was found dead in the bath.  It was initially thought that she’d taken her own life, but it then turned out that she’d been poisoned.  Max had discovered that she had a son who’d been sent to an asylum in childhood due to his bad behaviour and, once he’d found out that it was murder, assumed that it was the son whodunnit.  He tried to arrange a meeting with the son, but the son planned to murder him … but ended up mistakenly murdering a mugger who’d stolen Max’s coat.  Is everyone with this so far?

The son insisted that he wasn’t the murderer.  The plot thickened.  So was it actually the countess’s young male companion who’d done her in, in the hope of getting her money?  No.  Further investigations suggested that the countess had been poisoned by accident, and that the poison had actually been intended for her male companion.  Who’d been discharged from the Imperial Army for being gay, and was only hanging around with the countess as a cover, whilst she was presumably hanging around with him because she saw him as a substitute son.  His boyfriend, a rank and file soldier with no officer mates to protect him, had taken his own life, and the killer was the boyfriend’s mum.  Who then turned up and shot him.  Then shot herself.  Do keep up.

So four people ended up dead, included the mugger, who’d probably only been after a warm coat.

I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous.  But it was actually rather good.

 

Ridley Road – BBC 1

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It’s not often that the TV adaptation of a book is better than the book itself, but writer Sarah Solemani, and executive producer Nicola Shindler from Whitefield, have done an excellent job with this.  Oh, and I’ll just point out that a lot of it was filmed in Manchester, in Bolton and in Ashton-under-Lyne.

It’s quite a bold move by the BBC to show this in the iconic Sunday 9pm slot, usually associated with cosy Georgian or Victorian-era costume drama, but the fact that some of the actors, notably Tracy-Ann Oberman, have spoken of their concerns at the risk of receiving abuse on social media *because* of it – especially given their experiences of such abuse in the recent past – just shows how much it’s needed.

The story’s been completely changed.  In the book – review here – the central character Vivien has recently been orphaned, moves from Manchester to London to look up someone she’d briefly gone out with whilst he was staying with her family, and finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, working against the National Socialist Movement*, and also that her late father was involved in its wartime predecessor, the 43 Group.  It’s mostly the men who are involved in the action, with the women watching from the sidelines and mopping up the blood.  However, in this TV version, Vivien is part of an overbearing family trying to push her into a marriage with a family friend, and then runs off to London in pursuit of the man she really loves, finds out that he’s involved in the 62 Group, and becomes actively involved herself.

I wasn’t all that keen on the overbearing family, who were rather stereotypical and seemed to have walked straight out of the pages of a Maisie Mosco book, but I think the idea was to give her a safe, cosy background and for her then to find out that danger lurks in the outside world, and you can understand the reasoning behind that, especially as this clearly is very personal to many of those involved.

Nicola Shindler’s spoken about how she herself resigned from the Labour Party because of the culture of anti-Semitism that had been allowed to flourish under Corbyn’s leadership, and Tracy-Ann Oberman, who plays Nancy, has spoken about the horrific online abuse she received from Corbyn supporters.  Earlier this year, there were some deeply unpleasant incidents in which mobs drove through predominantly Jewish areas of London and Manchester, shouting threats.  And, as the story shows, and which oddly seems to be have been forgotten in recent times, people who attack one minority group will often attack another minority group too: we saw a mixed race character receiving abuse from members of the National Socialist Movement.

A bit more background information would have been useful.  We kept being told that Vivien and Jack had had some great romance, but we didn’t see any of it.  And that her parents had split them up, but it wasn’t clear how or why.  We were made aware that there’d been a big falling-out between Vivien’s parents and her uncle and auntie, who were very involved in the 62 Group, but we didn’t really find out why.  And some of the depictions of Jewish religious rituals may well have been confusing to people who weren’t familiar with them.  But it’s only a four-part series, and you can only fit so much in.

*The 62 Group.  In July 1962, the National Socialist Movement held a mass rally in Trafalgar Square under the slogan “Free Britain from Jewish Control”. A riot broke out at the rally, and, shortly afterwards, the 62 Group was set up.  The timeline got a bit muddled in the programme, but that was because the writers obviously felt it important to show the rally – to show swastikas being waved in Trafalgar Square, and people saying all sorts, because there were no laws against hate speech then.  There are a lot of issues now because it’s so difficult to stop hate speech on social media, and the programme did show how important and essential legislation is.

It also showed how easy it is for rabble rousers to whip up hatred.  Vivien’s landlady, who seemed like a harmless little old lady, was going along to meetings, where local Fascist leaders were going on about how corner shops were being forced to close down because Jewish-owned Tesco were opening supermarkets.  People twist tropes and stereotypes to suit themselves and the issues of the time, and it soon escalates.

One stereotype which the authors have spoken about trying to challenge is that of the minority groups who are victims.  This is Black History Month.  I have seen dozens of lists of “recommended reading”.  Nearly every book on those lists has been centred on accusing white people of racism, rather than saying anything positive about the achievements of black people.  This series is very much about fighting back, about challenging those who attack minorities.  The police and the authorities were seen as doing little to help, and that has some parallels with today, if not here than certainly in the US.

All in all, it’s a challenging story, and, as I said, it’s a bold move by the BBC to show it, especially in that iconic timeslot.  Nobody wants this sort of thing to be making headlines.  No minority group wants to see prejudice against them being all over the news, and becoming a political issue.  Nobody wants to have to form a 62 Group.  But the writers and actors have spoken out about how necessary this series is, and bravo to the BBC (and I don’t often say that!) for recognising that.