London: 2000 Years of History – Channel 5

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Whilst I appreciate Channel 5’s attempts to get away from the stuffy- professor-sat-behind-desk image of history programmes, there were way too many incongruous shots of modern-day London in this. Romans did not travel around on red buses, and Alfred the Great certainly didn’t buy his armour at Rigby & Peller.  At least, I don’t think he did 🙂 .  It certainly wasn’t boring, though – the Romans, Boudicca’s revolt, the Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans were all packed into one short episode, complete with hi-vis jackets, skeletons in cardboard boxes, boat trips and quarrying.

The idea seemed to be to get as far away from the professor-behind-desk image as possible, and it really was taken to extremes!   As well as all the shots of high-rise buildings, crowded streets and 21st century public transport, we got Rob Bell hanging around a Kentish quarrying site in a hi-vis jacket and hard hat – the excuse for which was that the stones for building London’s Roman city walls had come from somewhere nearby – and Dan Jones (whom I keep getting mixed up with Dan Snow, for some reason), in addition to walking past Rigby & Peller, going on a high speed boat trip along the Thames.  Whilst the blokes got to do the action man stuff, Suzannah Lipscomb was left to look at a skeleton which had been brought out of a cardboard box for the purpose, but, hey, maybe that was her choice.   We also got some shots of artwork, ranging from the Bayeux Tapestry to – seriously, Channel 5?! – Vikings in horned helmets.  And there was a lot of talk about Crossrail – although, to be fair, that was because the work on Crossrail’s enabling archaeologists to see things that have been buried beneath London’s streets for centuries.

If you ask someone to name an English city which they associate with the Romans, they’ll probably say Chester or York, or Colchester. Even I’d probably say Chester rather than Manchester;  and I don’t think many people would say London.  But, of course, Londinium was a very important Roman city, and it was fascinating to hear all about the basilica, the forum, the huge government buildings, the amphitheatre and the baths which once stood on the sites which are now Leadenhall Market and the Guildhall, and to be reminded that the idea of the Square Mile dates back to the building of the Roman city walls.  We also got to see wax tablets and a skeleton dating back to Roman times … although we also got to see a lot of quarrying machinery which didn’t.   And were reminded that the Romans built a swing bridge, which was rather exciting.  Even if they didn’t have red buses.

Then Boudicca’s revolt. Ah, now there was a woman who got on with things, instead of dithering about like modern politicians do!  Not that I’m suggesting that we should all go around massacring people and burning London to the ground, obviously – but she was a definite example of deeds, not words!   And then, as the programme reminded us, London rebuilt itself from the ashes, before being deserted as the Roman era came to an end, and pretty much lying dormant until the building of Saxon Lunden (see, the Northern pronunciation of the city’s name is the one that’s historically correct!), in the area that’s now Aldwych.  The Saxons apparently spent a lot of time looking at stalls in Covent Garden.

But then along came the Vikings – cue a lot of dramatic film and pictures depicting Viking longboats making their way up the Thames, although the presenters might have explained that the idea that the Vikings wore horned helmets isn’t actually true!   Dan Jones, once he’d finished his high-speed boat trip along the Thames and was striding along Bow Lane, explained that Alfred the Great moved the Saxon Londoners from the Covent Garden area and inside the safety of the old city walls, but it was unfortunate that he was walking past Rigby & Peller at the time.  Sorry for being immature, but that made me laugh!

There wasn’t time to give too much detail, and, of course, London was playing second fiddle to Winchester at this time, but it might have been nice to’ve heard a bit about the Anglo-Saxon governmental structures and the forming of a united England, rather than going straight on to the Norman Conquest. I’m going all Whig historian here, but the programme did seem a lot more interested in invasion and blood and guts than what happened in between waves of invasions!

But, in many ways, the history of London, and of England, up to this point was one of invasion after invasion.  I thought about saying that things settled down after that, but, of course, they didn’t, because there were so many internal conflicts – although it looks as if the next episode is going to start by focusing on the Black Death.  They’re certainly packing plenty of blood and guts into this.  I would like to’ve had more actual history and less action – does Dan Jones never actually sit down?! – but I think they’re trying hard to show that history is all around us and that it shouldn’t just be associated with middle-aged men in suits sat at desks covered in lofty tomes.  Whatever else this was or wasn’t, it was definitely all go!

I feel like I should whinge about the fact that Channel 5 is devoting four hours (minus numerous advert breaks) of TV solely to London, but I suppose I wouldn’t be saying that if it was a series about Rome or Paris or Vienna, so I won’t!   But a few more shots of historic sites and fewer shots of modern London really would have been better!  Overall, though, an entertaining hour (minus adverts)’s viewing.