Royal Mob – Sky History


This – well, the first episode thereof – was acted out in a slightly silly way, with names flashing up on the screen to tell the viewer who each character was.  And it was odd that the girls’ brother was never mentioned.  But how brilliant to have a TV series about the fascinating Hesse-Darmstadt sisters – Victoria, later Princess Louis of Battenberg and grandmother of Prince Philip, Ella, who married Grand Duke Sergei and later became a nun, Irene, later Princess Henry of Prussia and, of course, Alix, who became the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.  (Two other siblings died young, one of diphtheria and one of haemophiliac bleeding.)

The first episode largely covered the romances of the three elder girls, as well as their relationships with their British and Prussian relatives.  It rather unfairly claimed that Queen Victoria, played by Michele Dotrice – ooh, Betty! – tried to use her grandchildren’s marriages to extend her power over Europe, which was nonsense, but most of what it showed was interesting, if nothing new.  Thanks for this, Sky History: I enjoyed it.


The Toys That Built The World – Sky History


This was largely an American series about the American toy market, so possibly of limited relevance to British viewers, but it was still interesting to hear about the rivalry between Mattel and Hasbro, two companies set up by Polish-Jewish-American families, and their dominance of the toy retail sector.  Moko Lesney, the British firm who invented Matchbox cars, did also get in on the act, although it was extremely annoying that its British owners were portrayed as speaking in American accents and even calling each other “buddy”!   A particularly interesting figure was Ruth Handler of Mattel, inventor of the Barbie doll, and how she led her company at a time when there weren’t that many female business leaders around.

Most interesting, though, was the third episode, which went back in time to the late 19th century rivalry between Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers over board games.  We learnt that the first American board games were rather puritanical and didactic, and that Milton Bradley first came up with the Game of Life to save his business after he unluckily printed a load of pictures of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln just before the famous beard was grown.  I never knew that!   And Parker Brothers’ Game of Banking reflected the Gilded Age change in attitudes away from the idea that making big money was somehow anti-religious.  That was fascinating, because, in the UK, we tend to think that the business-related Protestant (/Jewish/Hindu) work ethic goes right back.  Then came The Landlord’s Game, the precursor of Monopoly, invented by Elizabeth Magie, which reflected the idea of greedy landlords exploiting tenants.

Board games were really big in the 1980s and we had loads of them, and they were probably all of American origin; but I’d never really thought much about the meaning of them and how it reflected American history and culture before.  One early board game, very much of the puritanical type, was called Pilgrim’s Progress.  Maybe the March family owned a set?

We learnt in the first episode that it was Hasbro who came up with the idea of advertising directly to children, in order to publicise Mr Potato Head, but that Mattel hadn’t been far behind.   But the really interesting part was how the toys were adapted in order to fit cultural changes.   As the feminist movement evolved, career Barbies were brought out, as was an Afro-American doll as the Civil Rights Movement gained pace.   Meanwhile, Hasbro’s GI Joe figure was demilitarised into an adventurer/explorer as the anti-Vietnam War protests made military toys less popular, then became a soldier again in the Reagan years.

The second programme went back to the 1950s, and showed Britain’s Moko Lesney coming up with the idea of toy vehicles – and then, when Matchbox cracked the American market big style,  Mattel matched (pun intended) and then overtook them, with their Hot Wheels toy cars.   Matchbox toys are way more iconic than Hot Wheels, though!   But, sadly for Matchbox, Hot Wheels came to dominate the market, Lesney Products went bust, and Matchbox are now actually owned by Mattel.

Then, in the third and final programme, it was right back to the 1860s to learn about the origins of American board games.  And forward to the 1930s.  Monopoly, first sold by Parker Brothers in 1936 after they originally turned creator Charles Darrow down, was closely based on The Landlord’s Game, but minus the preachy element.   In the 1940s, along came Clue(do) and Sorry, but Milton Bradley hit back in 1960 with an.updated Game of Life.Scrabble was shown briefly, but Trivial Pursuit, strangely, wasn’t mentioned at all.

And then, in the 1980s, Hasbro took over both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley.  Monopoly is apparently still the world’s best-selling board game, and oligopoly is the name of the game in toy/game manufacturing.

So that was the three episodes, and they really did say a lot about how toys reflect society.  An unusual and very interesting series.


The Real War of Thrones (Season 2) – Sky History


Absolutely loving this!   I sometimes say that there are too many Tudor-era documentaries on TV, made at the expense of looking into other eras; but this one’s different, because it doesn’t just look at one country.  The centrepoint is the French Wars of Religion, but it looks into how that fitted into what was going on elsewhere.  I remember a wonderful aide-memoire from A-level days – that Elizabeth I sought to fight the Spanish in the Netherlands to the last drop of French blood.  Confusing?  Oh, gloriously so!   And, after three episodes, we’re only up to 1569 , so we haven’t even got to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre yet.   The next episode is entitled “Blood Wedding”, just in case anyone doesn’t know what’s coming!

The programme’s done in what seems to be in the “in” way now, with actors playing the parts of the historical figures and the presenter acting as narrator but not actually being seen.  Maybe it’s “dumbing down” a bit, but it does work better than the old-style programmes which had a presenter sitting behind a desk and just talking.  The American narrator is doing my head in a bit, with his talk about Toodors and Stooarts and the Dookes of Guise, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

So, what’s going on?   Well, Henry VIII wanted the infant Mary Queen of Scots to marry the future Edward VI, but, instead, she was shipped off to France and married to Francois, the heir to the French throne  – son of Henri II, who despite spending most of his time with his mistress Diane de Poitiers, had managed to father ten children on his wife, Catherine de Medici, she of alleged poisoned gloves fame.  Edward then died, and was succeeded by Mary, who married Philip II of Spain (Aragon and Castile).  Then Mary died, and was succeeded by Elizabeth.  Then Francis died.  Numerous suitors were suggested for both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  Elizabeth kept ’em dangling.  Mary married Lord Darnley, and then he died in mysterious circumstances and she … well, we don’t know whether she went off with Bothwell or whether he forced her, but this programme insisted that they were lovers and didn’t even say that there were big doubts over what actually happened.  That actually quite annoyed me.   There are big doubts over what actually happened.

Meanwhile, there were ongoing political and sometimes military clashes in France between the Catholics, led by the Guises, the maternal uncles of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestants.   And, in the Netherlands, there’d been a revolt against Spanish rule.  England hadn’t got stuck in yet, but would do later – largely through getting the French to get stuck in, in the hope of winning Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.  And the French Wars of Religion were supposed to be being sorted by marrying the king (three brothers all became king and all died young, so it got very confusing, but the king at this point was Charles IX)’s sister Margot to the Protestant Henry of Navarre, but, of course, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place a few days later.

We did all this for A-level.  OK, it was very gory, but it was also very exciting.  This is the sort of stuff which kids like to learn about, not motte and bailey castles or the daily lives of medieval monks, which we had to do in the first year.  This was exciting and fast-moving, full of romance and fighting, and guaranteed to keep the attention of viewers, whether kids or adults.   More series like this, please!!


Royal B***ards: The Rise of the Tudors – Sky History


  OK, this was interesting.  Kind of the Wars of the Roses meets Shameless (I need a Yorkshire equivalent of Shameless, but can’t think of one).  Apparently, nearly everyone who was involved in the Wars of the Roses spoke in a broad northern accent, spent most of their time getting into brawls in pubs, and swore their heads off.  How stereotypical is that?  They’d never have shown people with Oxford accents getting into pub brawls.  Anyway.  Richard of York, whom I kept expecting to put on a Leeds United shirt over his armour, barged around looking thuggish all the time, even when he wasn’t in the pub, and failed in his attempts to become king because people thought he was … er, too thuggish.  The future Edward IV was also a thug, but apparently he did it in a medieval kingly way, so that was OK.  And they both had the wrong colour hair, which was really annoying.

Margaret Beaufort, who looked about 8, didn’t have a pronounced northern accent and didn’t swear, but still hung around in the pub (well, at some sort of drunken gatherings, anyway).  Marguerite of Anjou did not hang around in the pub, but did swear, a lot, in an ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque French accent, calling everyone “pieces of sheet”.  The only person who sounded like an English aristocrat (OK, accents in the 15th century would have been different to today’s anyway, but we can only go off today’s) was Jasper Tudor –  which was rather odd, given that he was Welsh.

Having said all this, Richard of York and the Earl of Warwick probably *did* have pronounced northern accents.  And probably did swear a lot.

Also, there were no historians.  Instead, we had Philip Glenister, Sophie Rundle and Sheila Atim.

The whole thing was fairly bonkers – but, to be fair, the actual facts in terms of politics and battles (as opposed to Margaret Beaufort being in the pub) were pretty much spot on, and it was good to see the vastly underrated Margaret getting so much attention.  And it was certainly different!!  If we’d been shown this when we were doing history A-level, it would *definitely* have got our attention.  Possibly not quite as much as the Lady Jane film with Cary Elwes as a ridiculously romanticised Guildford Dudley did, but that’s beside the point.  It was actually quite cleverly done – it managed to put a populist twist on events without turning them into a load of nonsense.  Not what I was expecting, but I rather enjoyed it.