Britannia, Season 3 – Sky Atlantic

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   I’m pretty sure that there’s nothing in my history books about the Roman occupiers of Britain being cannibals, but, according to “Britannia”, they were just that.  Well, one of them was, anyway.  The poor bloke who ended up being served up at a banquet wasn’t even chopped into pieces and put in a stew.  He was wheeled to the table in a long silver dish, intact,  covered in a) all the trimmings and b) his helmet.

It all started off quite peacefully.  New series, new theme tune – Children of the Revolution.  Who knew that Ancient Romans and Celts were into Marc Bolan?   The Roman general with the Scouse accent had now got a nice pad in St Albans, but was in the doghouse all round because he’d lost track of the mysterious girl with magic powers, and wasn’t having much joy getting any information out of the guy who previously claimed to be 10,000 years old.  To add to his woes, his wife turned up.  This was when the rot set in.  First of all, she told him off for putting on weight.  Then she asked him where his sword was.  It was at the polishers, claimed he.  Ah.  Well, what was the sword that’d been found sticking out of a stump, then, asked she, brandishing it about.  He tried to claim that it wasn’t his, but failed dismally because it’d got his name on it  Engraved on it, that is, not marked with a Cash’s name tape.  She also crawled about sniffing the floor for any signs that other women had been in the place.  As you do.

Having found that he did, indeed, have a mistress around the place, she said that it was better than doing unspeakable things with his socks.  Too much information.  And then she had his mate served up for tea.

Meanwhile, Phelan, the dispossessed prince, was training as a druid, and was told to change his name to Quant.  Maybe druids were into Mary Quant make-up as well as glam rock.  Or maybe they just didn’t want their new guy being associated with Pat Phelan.  He was dispatched into the woods to find some moss, but sat around chatting to a centipede and then came back empty-handed.  And then the girl with the magic powers stabbed the guy who’d claimed to be 10,000 years old because he’d forgotten her name.  Or something.

I don’t know what the scriptwriters on this are on, but I suspect that it’s something rather stronger than mead.  Or vino.  And I think they may have had a little too much of it.  But at least it was entertaining.  It was so totally bonkers that you just had to laugh.  I mean, what on earth?!

Domina – Sky Atlantic

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  This wasn’t bad.  Given that Sky Atlantic aren’t exactly the masters of historical accuracy, I was prepared for all kinds of bizarre goings-on.  When we started with a bride-to-be, our heroine Livia Drusilla, being told to inspect a naked male slave so that she’d know what bits were where before the wedding night, and then overhearing her relatives discussing murdering the bridegroom, I thought, oh dear, here we go.  But, after that, it wasn’t OTT at all.  In fact, some of the second episode felt a bit like a 1970s sitcom, as a leading Roman patrician got in a strop because no-one’d told him the dress code for a party, and he’d been the only one who’d turned up in a toga.  At the said party, the women’d sat at one end of the room, bitching about the decor, and the men’d sat at the other, discussing chariot-racing.  This was after an earlier party, at which the host had explained to Octavian that their toilet was now connected to the aqueduct, so it didn’t smell like the old one did.  I’m not sure that Octavian needed to know this.

In between the parties, the political history was actually pretty accurate, as we saw Livia’s father back the losing side, fighting with Brutus and Cassius against Octavian and Mark Antony, and killing himself after their defeat at Philippi.  It’s a well-known part of Roman history, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone consider its effect on Livia before.  If people write about the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, it’s usually either “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” or accusing Livia and Agrippina of poisoning everyone.  This series is certainly something different.

Impressive array of local actors.  Young Gaius/Octavian/Augustus is from Bolton.  His older self is from Atherton.  His second wife is from Rochdale.  And his chief general is from Wigan.  In fact, young Gaius actually seems to be rocking a “Madchester” 1990 image, with the floppy black hair.  Just needs a hooded top and a pair of Joe Bloggs jeans instead of the maroon toga.

It was rather confusing, because we kept flashing backwards and forwards in time, but a lot of TV series, films and books do that now.  And the Julio-Claudians are confusing generally, because they’re all known by umpteen different names, all have the same names as umpteen other people, and keep changing their partners; but that’s not Sky Atlantic’s fault.

Our heroine Livia Drusilla, aka Julia Augusta, was Octavian (referred to in the programme, accurately as we’re in his early years, as Gaius, but I’m used to thinking of him as Octavian, and his official emperor name was Caesar Augustus)’s third wife.  She was previously married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, the one who got the dress code wrong.  Not to be confused with the Nero, who fiddled whilst Rome burned.  That Nero, the one who fiddled, was directly descended from Livia/Julia, via her son Tiberius, whom she was expecting with her first husband when Gaius/Octavian/Augustus ordered him to divorce her, at the same time as which divorced his own second wife (Scribonia from Rochdale), who was expecting their daughter, also Julia, who later married Tiberius.  Tiberius was Julia’s third husband.  She was previously married to Agrippa from Wigan.  And someone else (not at the same time).  I did say it was confusing.

Anyway, Livia’s a pretty interesting character, who was married to Octavian for over 50 years, held far more power than most other Julio-Claudian women did,  and, depending on what you read, was either a domineering dowager who went around poisoning people or else was a paragon of all the virtues.  There was a lot of talk in this first episode about women only being valued for childbearing and weaving, so I assume this is going to be a feminist take on things.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it certainly wasn’t bad.  I shall keep watching!

The Good Lord Bird – Sky Atlantic

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It’s quite strange seeing Ethan Hawke, who, as a teenager in Dead Poets Society, was a celeb crush for some of my schoolfriends over 30 years ago, playing a crazed (but probably rather accurate) version of John Brown!   There are loads of antebellum books/films/TV series featuring elegantly-dressed men and hooped-skirted ladies sweeping down the staircases of plantation houses, or black-suited men and black-bombazine-clad ladies attending abolitionist meetings in Boston or Philadelphia, but this is the first one I’ve seen which has actually been set in Bleeding Kansas.  And Bleeding Kansas was where the action was, in the 1850s.  Then came the raid on Harpers Ferry.

I’ve been to Harpers Ferry.  It rained.

It’s all seen through the eyes of a former slave boy called Henry, who’s dressed up as a girl because Brown misheard his name as Henrietta, and is nicknamed Onion because he mistakenly ate an onion which Brown thought was a good luck charm.  And there’s also a prostitute called Pie.  Er, right.  James Caleb Johnson, the young lad playing Onion, steals the show even from Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as John Brown.

This certainly isn’t reverential.  Frederick Douglass is shown as having a blatant extra-marital affair – which, by all accounts, he did (and probably more than one), but which no-one ever mentions because he’s seen as such a hero.  Brown himself is shown as being rather crazy, with one of his sons exasperatedly telling him to cut short his over-long prayers and preaching because the Good Lord has probably got sick of listening to them and has other things to do.

The whole thing is rather bonkers.  And it’s got a very catchy theme tune which is completely inappropriate to the seriousness of the subject matter.  But it’s fascinating.  Bleeding Kansas, which in many ways was the dress rehearsal for the Civil War, does tend to be very overlooked.  And John Brown’s become such a legendary figure – we all know the song! – that people forget that he wasn’t some sort of saint.  If he were around today, he’d probably be described as an extremist.  He was responsible for a number of murders.  But his point was that those Abolitionist meetings in Boston and Philadelphia and wherever else weren’t achieving anything: slavery had been abolished in many other countries but there was no sign of that happening in the United States.

And thus you get into all those debates about what it is and isn’t acceptable to do for what you believe is right.  It’s an intriguing story.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to enjoy this, just because it is all slightly bonkers, but I really am doing.

The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic

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The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.

 

#NoSafeSpaceForHate

 

REPOSTED BECAUSE FACEBOOK WOULDN’T SHARE THE ORIGINAL!!

The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic

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The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.

 

#NoSafeSpaceForHate

 

Britannia, Season 2 – Sky Atlantic

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 I’ve finally watched the first episode of the second series, in which the Emperor Claudius, speaking in a Lancashire accent and looking strangely like Mick from “Benidorm”,  rode round Britannia on an elephant, dictating fake news to his scribe in between complaining about his piles.  He then ended up crawling around naked after falling victim to a poisoning and near-drowning by David Morrissey.  This was odd, as David had seemed like a loyal servant of the Empire, promoting the spread of Roman religion by making people swear on the names of Roman gods that they hadn’t been using the posh baths as a toilet.  Meanwhile, a man balancing a birdcage on his head did a lot of chanting in Welsh (this was to show that he wasn’t speaking Latin), prior to his friend jumping off a cliff to see if she could fly.  It didn’t go well.  “Oh shit,” intoned Birdcage Man (in English), whereupon the first episode ended.

I’ve got no idea where this is going – especially as we’d earlier learnt that David (sorry, Aulus Plautius) was an old mate of Pontius Pilate’s and had intervened to stop the Crucifixion – but I’m rather put out by the continued failure to mention King Cogidubnus.  It is beyond stupid.  However, if you think of it as being a bit like a Carry On film – remember the one in which Julius Caesar comes to Britannia, moans about the weather, and then goes off to Egypt to meet Alma from “Coronation Street” ? – then it’s quite funny in a way, although the Carry On films were a lot funnier and didn’t involve people swearing in practically every sentence.

Some bits of it were genuinely amusing, notably when Claudius visited a building site and told his scribe to send news back to Rome that he’d seen a glorious marble temple dedicated in his honour, but I don’t think it was meant to be funny, at least not in a Carry On type way.  I don’t know what it was meant to be.  It was just weird.  There are another nine episodes of this, although there are so many adverts that, when you fast forward them, each episode doesn’t take that long to watch.  As Magnus Magnusson would have said, I’ve started so I’ll finish …

Catherine the Great – Sky Atlantic

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At least the naked men in Sanditon weren’t running around brandishing scimitars.  What on earth are the people who wrote the scripts for this on?  Oh dear!  Back in 1986, there was a superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  I’ve been reading about 18th century Russia ever since.  The first holiday I paid for with my own money was a trip to Russia. I went for every Russian history module available at university. I picked the winner in the 1997 Grand National because of Catherine the Great (seriously)*.  My friend at university had a teddy bear called Pugachev.  So I was really looking forward to this,  But, sadly, it was more akin to Versailles, The Borgias and The Tudors, although admittedly without the wild historical inaccuracies, than to the brilliant series that got me hooked on 18th century Russia when I was 11.  It’s one of those series that’s mesmerising because it’s just so bad, but I was so much hoping it was going to be … well, good.  And it isn’t.

Ballrooms and bedrooms are fine up to an extent, but could they not have got a bit more history in?!  And, whilst Helen Mirren looks absolutely wonderful for 74, she was playing a woman who was only 33 at the start of the series!  Everyone else had been aged up to match (apart from Nikita Panin, who’d bizarrely been aged down), so, instead of an array of handsome, dashing young Orlovs, we got a group of blokes who’d been made to look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in colourful costumes.  Still at least they wore costumes.  Potemkin ran around stark naked (what is this obsession with bare backsides on TV this year?) whilst wielding a scimitar.  I wouldn’t have thought that was a very sensible idea, TBH.

And could they not even have checked basic facts?  They called the Empress Elizabeth Catherine’s mother-in-law.  No!!  She was Catherine’s husband’s auntie.  Or basic terminology?  “Serfdom” and “slavery” are not interchangeable terms.  I knew it was bad news when the programme started by helpfully informing us that we were in “St Petersburg, Russia”.  Did they expect that viewers might think we were in St Petersburg, Florida?!   Mind you, if we were, it would at least explain why not one person has addressed anyone else by their first name plus patronymic.  It’s Russia, OK.  Patronymics.  We need patronymics.

I want to write a long essay about all sorts of aspects of Catherine’s reign, but they’ve hardly even been mentioned.  We got a rather odd version of … well, I’m not actually sure if it was meant to be the Nakhaz or not, because it seemed to be too early for it, but I think it was.  Anyway, it only mentioned serfs, and completely ignored all Catherine’s plans for the other social estates.  The First Polish Partition’s been ignored completely.  The Russo-Turkish war has been mentioned, but only really in relation to various blokes arguing over who’s better than whom.  There has, to be fair, been quite a lot of talk about the Pugachevschina, but it annoyed me because Catherine just seemed to be going “Oh dear, this seems to be quite serious,” and asking Potemkin what to do.  And it’s failed to make the point that it put Catherine off making further reforms.

On the positive side, at least it hasn’t gone for the popular, prurient image of Catherine as someone who spent all her time chasing one man after another, and it’s made it clear that she was genuinely in love with her “main” lovers.  It hasn’t even suggested that Peter might not have been Paul’s father.  And I assume that they are not going to include the ridiculous horse story.  But it has shown an awful lot of scenes of Catherine gossiping with Praskovia Bruce, balls with men wearing dresses and women wearing breeches (which was actually more Elizabeth’s thing than Catherine’s, apparently because Elizabeth looked good in breeches and knew it), and men having playground “I’m more important than you so ner” arguments, rather than anything serious.  OK, I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary, but I did expect there to be a bit more about the actual events.

And, strangely, seeing as it quite clearly isn’t aimed at serious historians, there hasn’t been much explanation of what’s going on.  Much as I dislike programmes which treat you as if you’re stupid, this is not a part of history with which most Anglophone viewers are going to be familiar, and it jumped right in with Catherine visiting the former Ivan VI in prison without even giving his name, never mind explaining that Elizabeth had deposed him and Peter had been (his aunt) Elizabeth’s heir.  Also, putting the R or the N in “Catherine” backwards might work for a meerkat advert or a sign at a football match, but it just looks silly in a period drama.

The costumes are great.  The sets are great.  But precious little else about this is great.  I quite like the way they’ve shown Catherine’s sense of humour, and her comments about women in power, but the lines are written for an older woman with a lot of life experience, and that just wasn’t Catherine in the 1760s and early 1770s.  It feels as if they wanted Helen Mirren and wrote the part for her, instead of writing about Catherine.  And I appreciate that royal period dramas are going to focus on the court and the personal life of the monarch, rather than on what was going on in the country at the time, but there needs to be a balance and this was skewed way too far in favour of ballrooms and bedrooms.  Bleurgh.  I’ve been waiting 33 years for another mini-series based in 18th century Russia, and the wait really hasn’t been worth it!

 

*Just in case anyone is actually reading this, and wondered, when teenage Sophie/Catherine first went to Russia, she became pally with Count Gyllenborg, the Swedish ambassador.  I picked Lord Gyllene for the 1997 Grand National because the name sounded a bit like Gyllenborg.  All right, I’m weird.  But he won!