Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

Edward VII: The Merry Monarch – Channel 5

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  The Entente Cordiale wasn’t mentioned until the 79th minute of the 90, and the to-do over the People’s Budget wasn’t mentioned at all.  But we heard an awful lot about waistcoat buttons, champagne baths, and, of course, ladies.  However, even if there was way too much gossip and not enough serious stuff, this was a really lovely, positive portrayal of someone whose father said he was useless, whom a lot of puritanical courtiers and journalists said would make a rotten king, and who actually did a superb job, left the British monarchy in a very strong position ahead of what would turn out to be a difficult time for monarchies, and was genuinely popular amongst people of all backgrounds.  Good old Teddy!

We were told that Downton Abbey typified people’s images of the time of Edward VII.  Given that we tend to use “Edwardian” to mean 1901-1914 rather than 1901-1910, I suppose the fact that the first series of Downton Abbey was set during the reign of George V can be overlooked!  Did it typify people’s images of the period?  Well, I suppose it did if you were only thinking about stately homes.  The Edwardian era’s actually seen as a very positive time for everyone – strangely so, given that a lot of people were struggling at the time.  There’s even a song about it in Mary Poppins!  The positive image is partly because, compared to the horrors of the Great War, what came before has to seen like a golden era.  And it’s partly because the Victorian era, even by the 1890s, is seen as a very puritanical era, and people get really fed up of puritanical eras.  Charles II, another slightly naughty king, is remembered fondly because he came after the nightmare of the Cromwellian era.  But a lot of it’s because of Edward/Bertie.  He really is seen as a very positive figure.

I would like to have heard more about his peacemaking/diplomatic skills, which were of crucial importance to … well, to the whole world, really, given what lay ahead.  And about how his social circle included people far removed from traditional aristocratic circles.  But, hey, the stuff about champagne baths, watching Can Can dancers, leaving his bottom waistcoat open because it strained over his tum tum, and, of course, his mistresses, was all quite entertaining.  It was also good to hear the praise for Queen Alexandra, who had a lot to put up with it and did a wonderful job as Princess of Wales and then as Queen – although I’m not sure we needed to hear quite so much about her clothes and jewellery.

But, in between the gossip, we heard all about Edward’s interest in technology – he was on the receiving end of the first wireless message sent across the Atlantic, a greeting from another much-loved Teddy, President Roosevelt – and, most of all, his understanding of the need for the Royal Family to be visible, and how he was the one who established a lot of the pageantry that we still enjoy today.  And how, when he died, there was genuine grief across the nation and beyond, from people of all backgrounds.   He got it right.  And, considering how many people thought he’d get it all wrong, that’s particularly impressive.  As I said, good old Teddy!

 

 

 

 

 

Churchill – Channel 5

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  Whilst I could have done with a bit less Freudian psycho-analysis (we were told every two minutes during the first episode that Churchill had been desperate for his father’s approval, wanted to emulate his father, and was always “trapped in the moment of his father’s death”), the first two episodes of this have been very entertaining.  I love Churchill as a historian, especially when he’s writing about the first Duke of Marlborough, but his own life was pretty interesting as well: the first episode took us from Blenheim Palace to the North West Frontier, to Oldham, to South Africa, to Westminster.  Shame it didn’t mention the fact that one of the people who helped him hide from the Boers was an Oldham coal miner: I like that story 🙂 .

The interpretation of his life was quite strange – apart from the obsession with his father, the presenters’ idea was that he thought politicians had to be celebs.  I’m not entirely convinced about that, but, yes, he probably did go off both to the Boer War and the Great War more with the aim of winning attention and popularity than anything else … rather drastic decisions!   And it worked.  You’d think that the wealthy aristocrat, turning up at the Front with a load of luggage including his own bath, and having been all over the papers after he was pushed under the bus and made the scapegoat for Gallipoli (for which he was partly to blame, but so were plenty of others), would have been resented by the ordinary soldiers, but it sounded as if they all thought he was great.

It’s unfortunate that his own father didn’t – we were shown extracts of letters in which Randolph Churchill said that young Winston would probably turn out to be a “social wastrel and a failure”.  And his mother was more interested in her social life and affairs than in her children.  So rather a sad start in life, despite the immense privilege.  None of this was anything that most viewers wouldn’t already have known, but it was interesting.

So too was hearing about his Army service in India, and then the crazy escapade in South Africa in which he escaped from a Boer POW camp armed only with a bar of chocolate – you really couldn’t make it up!    Then came his first forays into politics, but then the Gallipoli disaster, his rejoining the Army, and then his successful return to politics against all the odds.

I really did enjoy both episodes, and am looking forward to the rest of the series.  I thought they might wokify it and make irrelevant criticisms, but they didn’t – they did make the point that some of his views on imperialism and race might not be acceptable now, but they also made it clear that the articles he wrote whilst in South Africa were very well-received, so he was only reflecting the views of the time.  Instead, they focused on what a character he was – he really was one of a kind!  Enjoying this, and looking forward to more 🙂 .

Russia Vs The World – Channel 5

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What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

Wartime Britain – Channel 5

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  The star of this programme, with all due respect to the family reconstructing life in wartime Britain, was a trilby-hatted potato being serenaded by Betty Turpin (sorry, Betty Driver).  “Potato Pete, Potato Pete, look who’s coming down the street.”  I love the wartime information cartoon characters – Potato Pete, Dr Carrot, and, also featured in the first episode of this two-parter, Mrs Sew-and-Sew.  So much better at getting the message across than the likes of the irritating “obesity tsars” we get now.  Nice mention of the work done by Guides and Scouts, as well: we don’t hear much about the important contribution made to the war effort by young people.

I’ve had it up to here with lockdown.  My respect for the generations who got through six years of war has always been high, but it’s gone stratospheric since all this started – and it was fascinating to see how, despite all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, so much attention was paid to looking after the nation’s mental health, whether it was putting morale-boosting music on the radio and encouraging employers to letting it be played in workplaces, or promoting the idea of “victory roll” hairstyles.  Or having a laugh with the Colonel Bogey “balls” song (you know the one).  And, of course, getting Betty Turpin to serenade a trilby-hatted potato.

It wasn’t the best programme I’ve ever seen, it has to be said.  Referring to the Second World War as “World War II” seems to be endemic now, and I suppose could be forgiven.  Referring to the Queen as “Her Royal Highness” rather than “Her Majesty” really couldn’t be forgiven, though, and saying that GIs were in Britain in 1940 was even worse.  And a lot of it was same old, same old – using gravy browning to draw on stockings, thinking that carrots help you to see in the dark (because RAF men joked about how that was how they were able to see what they were doing), etc.

But there were some fascinating snippets in there, which aren’t mentioned so often.  If the binmen noticed food in your bin, you could get into trouble for wasting food at a time of shortages.  (Potatoes were not affected by shortages, as so many of them could be grown in the UK, hence the Potato Pete song encouraging people to eat potatoes!)   Even growing up in the ’80s, we had the mentality that it was a sin to waste good food.  I never understand younger people chucking stuff out because it’s five minutes past its sell-by date, although I don’t think doing that’s as common now as it was twenty years ago.  And, whilst I think most people are familiar with the idea of “make do and mend”, we don’t usually hear about bemused servicemen coming home on leave to find that their clothes had been transformed into outfits for their female relatives 🙂 .

Another good point made was about the role of older children in the war – all the work done by Guides and Scouts, and the importance of young people aged over 14 in the workforce.  Also mentioned was how families made their own toys for little kids, because toy factories had been turned over to producing goods for the war effort.

And there was a lot about hair and make-up – and how part of the reason for focusing on this was to cock a snook at Hitler, who subscribed to the idea of “pure natural womanhood”.  Sanctimonious people going on about how people shouldn’t moan about hairdressers and beauty salons being closed during lockdown could do with watching this part of the first episode.  OK, if people don’t want to wear make-up or do their hair, that’s obviously up to them, but my eldest great-aunt, who lived through two world wars, was still slapping on a faceful of make-up every day when she was in her 90s and living in a care home, and I really do get that.  Anyway, I haven’t got the confidence to leave the house looking “natural” – it might work if you’re stunningly beautiful, but it certainly doesn’t for me!  Using beetroot lipstick, boot polish mascara and cornflour/calamine lotion foundation when you couldn’t get anything else … brilliant!

But the main thing that really came through was that, as far as possible – obviously not so easy with so many people away in the Armed Forces or doing other war work, and many children having been evacuated – people got through it together. Yes, all right, we all know about the people who broke rules on rationing and all the rest of it, but they were a minority, and things like sewing circle and dances were so important.  Even during air raids, you’d often be with neighbours.  It helps so much when people pull together.  And people understood the importance of keeping up morale.  Also, they had a trilby-hatted potato.  I’m going to be earwormed by that potato song for days …

 

 

 

Queen Victoria: Love, Lust and Leadership – Channel 5

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This initially looked as if it were going to be same old, same old.  Yes, we know that Queen Victoria was a bit of a party girl in her younger days, and that it was Albert who wanted everything to be sober, solemn and studious.  Yes, we know that she struggled to cope with having so many pregnancies.  Yes, we know that they enjoyed getting away from it all at Balmoral.  But some of what was said was different to the usual contents of Queen Victoria programmes, and gave the viewer a lot to think about.

We know that Queen Victoria suffered from what would now be diagnosed as post-natal depression, but, from medical papers discussed here, it sounds as if she also suffered from post-partum psychosis: she was having hallucinations.  That would have been terrifying for anyone, and perhaps especially for Victoria, who’d always feared that she’d “lose her mind” as her grandfather George III had done.  And it sounds as if Albert, as with so many people when faced by mental illness, didn’t really appreciate that she couldn’t just pull herself together, because it doesn’t work like that.

We also know that she talked about Albert as being a “perfect angel” – but the programme talked about how she kept records of her own behaviour, and kept writing that she had to try to improve and be a better person, whereas Albert had no faults – and that she showed these notes to Albert, who went along with them and even made comments on her “improvement” or otherwise.  Even bearing in mind the different views of gender roles at the time, that is extremely creepy.  It sounded like some of those awful 19th century religious novels; and even those usually involve a controlling parent rather than a controlling partner, so you can hope that the child will get out of there when they grow up.

The programme then came up with the interesting hypothesis that it was the Crimean War which saved Queen Victoria – that, due to the crises of wartime, and in particular due to the introduction of the Victorian Cross, she became seen as the mother of the nation, and thus regained her confidence.

I’m not sure that I’d really agree with that.  The Crimean War was horrendous.  So many people dead, and for what?  Having said which, there was enthusiasm for the war at the time.  And look at all the Balaclava Terraces, Inkerman Streets and Crimea Streets (if anyone’s reading this and doesn’t get the reference, those are the names of streets close to Coronation Street!) around.  Even with the Charge of the Light Brigade poem, there was a definite sense of heroism.  Those poor men were heroes.  But did the war give Queen Victoria her confidence back?  Or was that more to do with the fact that Britain was largely unaffected by the 1848 Revolutions?  Or was it just that people change as their lives move on?

Did she get her confidence back in the 1850s?  She pretty much withdrew from public life after Albert’s death in late 1860.  Was it Disraeli who helped her to get her confidence back?  Or John Brown?   Whatever happened, something did, and I’m very glad about that.  The thought of those notebooks and all those comments about needing to “improve” … yes, the Victorians were very into self-improvement, and that was an extremely positive thing in terms of reading, evening classes, discussions at Athenaeums, and all that sort of thing, but, in the context of writing that your partner is perfect and you need to change … that is worrying.

The programme ended by going on about how important the partnership between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert was.  And, yes, they improved the image of the monarchy, and remade it, and Prince Albert did a lot of good in many aspects of his work.  But the thought of that notebook, and Albert reading it  … ugh.  That’s really quite upsetting.  Interesting programme.

Britain’s Favourite ’80s Songs – Channel 5

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Could we do this every day, please?  Three hours of ’80s music, ’80s music videos, and people talking about ’80s music and ’80s music videos.  And not one mention of the word “virus”.  Obviously, “favourite songs” is a highly subjective topic, and everyone will have their own ideas.  But there wasn’t one song on the list which I didn’t like, or which I didn’t know.  I could identify every single one from the first few bars.  And I am telling myself that this is because the music of the ’80s is the best music of all time, and not just because I’m an old has-been whose music collection hasn’t been updated for 30 years 😉 .

Having said which, there were some rather strange … well, it was the omissions which got me, rather than the choices.  How on earth Eternal Flame by The Bangles, the greatest romantic song in the entire history of the universe, was only number 35 on this list of 50 songs, rather than one of the top few, was beyond me.  But at least that was in there.  Who’s the greatest pop icon of the 1980s, folks?  Madonna.  Nothing by Madonna!   Not even Like A Prayer.  And nothing by Bryan Adams, not even Summer of ’69, quite possibly the greatest song of all time.

Nor was there anything by Spandau Ballet, the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure or Wet Wet Wet.  No room either for New Order, Belinda Carlisle, Yazoo, the Flying Pickets or Tiffany.  Nor the Stone Roses, Simply Red, Roxette or Lisa Stansfield – do people think of them as being more ’90s?  Kylie, Jason and Bros didn’t make it either!    How can Living on a Prayer, Heaven is a Place on Earth, True and Through the Barricades not have been in the top 50 songs of the ’80s?!

But then there really weren’t any of the songs which did make the list which you couldn’t say were all time classics.  One or two surprised me, and I was certainly surprised that some came so much higher up the list than others, but, as I said, it’s all subjective.  And these “top 50” lists always seem to be a bit odd.  Or maybe I’m the one who’s a bit odd, which is possibly more likely!

But how nice to be thinking about this, and writing about this, rather than about anything virus-related.  And, oh, how wonderful to have 3 hours of TV about ’80s music.  Could we do this every day?  Please?  Pretty please … ?

Oh, and what *is* Britain’s favourite ’80s song?  Well, apparently it’s Last Christmas!   The whole thing’d got totally mad by the time they got to no 1, so nothing would’ve surprised me, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.  But, hey, why not?  We all know that song.  And I’ve still got my vinyl copy of it, from 1984.  I’ve got no idea whether it still works or not, but I’ve still got it.  The record, that is.  I never had any other sort of “it” in the first place.  But ’80s music definitely had it.  Still has it.  Always will have it.  No other decade’s music comes even close.

Princess Alice: the Royals’ Greatest Secret – Channel 5

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I do wish that Channel 5 wouldn’t use such silly titles for their programmes.  Princess Alice isn’t a secret at all!  There’s been at least one previous documentary about her; there’s an excellent biography of her; she’s featured in dozens of other books and documentaries; and there was a lot of talk about her just two and a half years ago, when Prince William visited her grave during his trip to Jerusalem.

I always find her fascinating – partly because of her bravery in sheltering a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece, partly because of her Romanov connections, and partly because of the way she overcame severe mental illness and the really horrific “treatment” she was given for it, as well as coping with congenital deafness.  I always find the slightly mystical streak running through several members of the Hesse-Darmstadt branch of the family intriguing, as well.  I suspect that Prince Charles does too.

This didn’t say anything new, but it was all very interesting.  The combination of comments from “experts” and video footage from the time worked very well, although I could have lived without the references to “The Crown”.  Channel 5 have shown an awful lot of documentaries about the Windsors this year, and, whilst very watchable, they’ve got a bit samey.  This was something different.  What a fascinating woman!

As I said, it was nothing new to anyone who’s familiar with Princess Alice’s story, but what an amazing story it was!  Her birth in Windsor Castle, and her early years in Britain and Germany … although it didn’t mention her father’s naval career, for some reason.  Her marriage to Prince Andrea of Greece, adapting to a new country, her charitable and nursing work in Greece, and all the complexities of the Great War, the murders of her close relatives during the Russian Revolution, the political chopping and changing, the royal family being exiled and then returning, the Greco-Turkish War, and the military disaster which saw Andrea almost executed, and forced into exile.

Then their years in Paris, and Alice’s “religious crisis” and mental ill-health, and being bundled off by force to two sanatoria, where she underwent some really horrific treatment, at the behest of Sigmund Freud.  It’s like something from some horrible dystopian film, the idea of exposing someone’s ovaries to strong X-rays.  It’s a miracle that she ever recovered mentally from the treatment, never mind her initial illness.  And then one of her daughters was killed in a plane crash.

Then, after all that, she refused to leave Occupied Greece for safety in Britain or Sweden or anywhere else, and not only worked with the Red Cross but sheltered three members of a Jewish family in her home, saving their lives. She seemed to be being absorbed back into the British Royal Family at the time of Prince Philip’s wedding to the then Princess Elizabeth, but no, she went back to Greece, founded a nursing order of nuns, turned up at the Queen’s coronation in a nun’s habit, and then stayed on in Greece, despite financial problems, until the monarchy was overthrown again.  Then she lived out the rest of her life in Buckingham Palace … and was, eventually, buried on the Mount of Olives.

It’s an incredible story, and this documentary told it very well.  Thoroughly enjoyable watching.

And, going back to the irritating references to “The Crown”, maybe documentaries like this will remind people that royal families are actually real people, not soap opera characters.  How must Princess Alice have felt when that ridiculous 1950s Hollywood film was made about someone claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, her teenage cousin who’d been brutally murdered?  Even the film version of Downton Abbey gave a very inaccurate impression of the relationship between Princess Mary and the future Earl of Harewood, which I don’t suppose their family were very pleased about.  Less soapy stuff, where real people are concerned, and more programmes like this one, please!

The Fall of Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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  I thought I’d heard all there was to hear about the fall of Anne Boleyn, but I must admit that I never knew that marmalade was involved.  It was apparently claimed that Anne used to meet her alleged lovers in the rooms of one of her ladies in waiting, which were also used for storing marmalade.  Why her ladies’ rooms were used for storing marmalade, I have no idea.  Her accusers claimed that, when a lover arrived, the lady in waiting would tell Anne that the marmalade was there.  I dread to think what Paddington Bear would make of this.

Marmalade aside, this was a very interesting trilogy of programmes, despite all the silly “let’s create an atmosphere of suspense” music – presumably everyone watching did actually know what was going to happen.  Yes, there have been a zillion programmes about Anne Boleyn, and I’d rather have seen one about a different queen; but Tracy Borman is an excellent and very enthusiastic presenter and made some very good points.

The idea of this was to retrace Anne’s steps in the days from her arrest to her execution.  A lot was made of the trial being a stitch-up.  I would have thought that everyone would take that for granted – was Anne ever going to be proclaimed innocent of all the trumped-up charges of adultery against her (and don’t tell me that any of them were true), any more than Cranmer’s court was ever going to find that Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid?  But, as Tracy Borman pointed out, maybe people at the time genuinely weren’t sure.  Was the reason it was all so rushed that Cromwell was worried that Henry would change his mind?  And why was there no coffin ready for Anne’s body?  Did the Tower officials genuinely not think that she was going to end up on the scaffold?   Interesting food for thought.

The other main theme was of Anne as a “feisty, outspoken … intellectual powerhouse … way ahead of her time and wasn’t prepared to accept women were second class citizens and weaker than men”.  I think a lot of people would say that about Catherine Parr, but it’s fascinating how Anne’s intelligence tends to be overlooked.  We know that she was a very intelligent woman.  We also know that she held strong views in favour of religious reform.  But she’s always cast as the tart who lured Henry into marriage.  Really, she tends to have a worse reputation amongst women than among men, because she’s seen as the ultimate enemy of the sisterhood, the nightmare of middle-aged women – the younger, more glamorous woman, who lures a man away from his faithful, loving wife.

That’s twaddle, of course.  It wasn’t her fault that Henry went after her.  She wanted to marry Harry Percy.  And, as Tracy pointed out, she wasn’t even particularly pretty.  Did she have alluring ways learnt at the French court?  Or could it actually be that Henry was attracted by her feistiness and intellect?   Looking at it that way would be quite a boost for feminist interpretations of events.

Come to that, the idea of Catherine of Aragon as a saintly figure who spent all her time sewing clothes for the poor doesn’t work either.  This is the woman, the daughter of Isabella of Castile, who was running the country (in Henry’s absence) at the time of Flodden Field, and sent Henry the bloodied surcoat of the dead James IV.  Interesting how English history, which is so Protestant, romanticises both Catherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots.

Did Henry get fed up of Anne’s feistiness, and decide that he wanted a more docile wife?  Quite possibly.  But, ultimately, Anne, like Catherine, was disposed of because she didn’t produce a male heir.  The poor woman had just suffered a miscarriage, probably brought on by shock after Henry was involved in a jousting accident.  There was no sympathy for her.  Nor for Catherine, for all the babies she lost.  Out came charges of witchcraft – often used against women, rarely against men.  Out came charges of adultery: to impugn a woman, impugn her sexual morals.  Her alleged lovers were all executed as well.  Collateral damage.  Everyone turned against her, even her own uncle, to save their own skins.

Then again, by the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, no-one was safe, man or woman, wife, cousin, old friend, counsellor.  And yet he still manages to be remembered as some kind of big hero: he’s arguably the most recognisable figure in English history.  And Anne is vilified.

Strange, isn’t it?  And even stranger to think that marmalade was involved in it all …

The Great Plague – Channel 5

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Just in case we hadn’t heard enough about pandemics this year, Channel 5 decided to present us with a three-part series about bubonic plague – presented not by a historian but by a medic, an archaeologist and John Sergeant.  John, instead of dancing badly, submitted to having spots and buboes painted on his face: I think even Lucy Worsley might have drawn the line at that.

Seriously, it was very interesting – although it didn’t half go on about fleas and lice.  Their theory was that the plague was spread not by fleas from rats but from human parasites which hang around on clothes.  They did present some very convincing arguments in support of that, and it would certainly explain why the plague died down in the colder months, and how it was carried to Eyam in a parcel of patterns, but I was more after the social history than the bugs.  Most of what was said about the 17th century was familiar, but the outbreaks in early 20th century Britain are less well-known.  It spread round Glasgow after one person died of the plague, hundreds of people came to the wake, and then the deceased’s possessions were given away to friends and relatives.  Frightening.

It’s always inspiring to hear about the courage and tragedy of Eyam, which formed much of the third episode.  It’s certainly not inspiring to hear about how rich Londoners, even doctors, took off as fast as their carriages would carry them, carrying the plague across the country and leaving the poor to die – although many brave nurses stayed behind, doing what they could.   For those left behind, as the presenters kept pointing out, their main weapons against the plague, other than limewashing and fumigation, and putting coins in vinegar – which were actually pretty effective – were what would now be called social distancing and self-isolation.

No, nobody had to yell “Unclean, unclean”.  That was leprosy, not the plague.  And, apparently, those masks with long noses weren’t used in England.  It didn’t actually mention pomander balls.  It did mention closing theatres.  And sending your servants out to do the shopping – although obviously that wasn’t much use if you didn’t have servants.  And it wasn’t really great for the poor servants.   But it did show that people were aware of the need to try to avoid contact – not easy when things were so bad that there were bodies of plague victims lying in the street.  The Lord Mayor of London, who was left to try to cope with things after the court decamped, stood on some sort of balcony, so that no-one could get too close to him.  People came to see him to ask for health certificates, so that, if they were able to leave, they’d find it easier to get lodgings.

And the plague crosses on houses.  When the coronavirus pandemic started, there were a few gallows humour jokes about plague crosses flying around, but the thought of houses actually being nailed up, with healthy members of the household left in there to die along with the sick, really is horrible.

And, even with measures like that, the death rates were horrific.  There’s the old rhyme, isn’t there?  “In sixteen hundred and sixty five, there was hardly anyone left alive.  In sixteen hundred and sixty six, London burned like rotten sticks.”  Incidentally, the presenters reckoned that the Great Fire didn’t really have much to do with the end of the plague outbreak, and that it was ending naturally anyway.  “There was hardly anyone left alive” is obviously rather an exaggeration, but so many thousands of people died.  Tragic stories of two women, one in London and one in Eyam, who both lost their husbands and all their children.  Bodies being thrown into mass graves.  It was nothing that viewers won’t have heard a million times before, but it was still so, so sad.

The conclusion, other than all the stuff about lice and fleas, was that there have always been pandemics.  OK, that was stating the obvious, but it was probably something about which we did need to be reminded – because I think we’d all got complacent, and we thought that modern science would prevent anything like the situation in which we find ourselves in 2020 from ever happening again, outside the pages of dystopian novels.

And, one day, this will be over, but we’re always going to be The Covid Generations, and we’re always going to look at things through the prism of what happened in 2020 (and, let’s face it, at least part of 2021 as well).  How weird is that?  Just as my grandmas and great-aunts always hoarded food because they never quite got past rationing, and kept scraps of cardboard and bits of string, I’m probably always going to carry a bottle of hand sanitiser around with me, and maybe I’ll always step into the road if I see someone coming the other way along a narrow pavement.  I’ll certainly never read a book, or watch a programme, about the Great Plague, the Black Death or any other pandemic in the same light again.