Vikings Season 6 – Amazon Prime

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I’ve learnt not to expect historical accuracy from Vikings, but, even so, I was lost for words when Ivar the Boneless and Oleg of Novgorod flew over 9th century Kiev/Kyiv in a sled-drawn parachute balloon.  This was followed by the Varangian warriors spending their evening doing Cossack dancing.  Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, Bjorn Ironside was trying to rescue Harald Fairhair, who was being held prisoner by Olaf the Stout and Canute the Great (that’s Canute of holding back the waves fame) … which was quite surprising, considering that neither of the captors were born until a century or so after this was taking place, and Olaf was actually Harald’s great-great-great-grandson.  It went belly up, and Bjorn Ironside and his men tried to swim to safety, only to end up surrounded by a ring of fire.

By this point, I really wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Bjorn Borg, Bjorn Ulvaeus and all four members of Bjorn Again had rolled up in a longboat to rescue them.  I just wanted to know how Lagertha, who’d retired from public life to live as a private person (like Harry and Meghan, but without all the whingeing), but had then agreed to lead her female neighbours in an all-women army to resist attacks by bandits (Lagertha is far and away my favourite character), got her hair into that complicated coronal of plaits.  It really did look very smart, especially for a farmstead on a beach.

I do love Vikings really.  I’m very put out that this is the last series.

The Bjorn/Harald/Canute stuff was just beyond silly. OK, it’s hardly meant to be a documentary, but surely they could at least try to keep people in the right century?  And why on earth had Canute been transformed into Harald’s dogsbody?   Not impressed.  The Lagertha storyline, whilst entirely fictional, was fascinating, though.  The idea was that she was approached by a group of women and children who, with most of their menfolk dead from raiding ‘n’ trading and those still living being away, were vulnerable to raids by bandits.  Their settlement had been attacked and the women raped, and some of the children murdered.  And their food supplies had been stolen.   It’s something that must have happened to a lot of real Viking-era communities.

And Kievan Rus.  Yes, I know that Ukraine prefers “Kyiv” to “Kiev”, and I do usually respect that, but no-one ever says “Kyivan Rus”.  As a Russian history specialist, and someone who’s been to both Kyiv/Kiev and Novgorod, I was rather excited to find Oleg of Novgorod featuring in this series.  And most of what was shown was based on … well, the facts as far as they’re known.  Oleg did indeed conquer Kiev and raid Constantinople, and the story about him refusing a cup of poisoned wine, also mentioned, is, if not necessarily a fact, a well-known legend.  Like Canute and the Waves, probably!  Looks like a pop group when written like that, but never mind.

What about the other Varangians?  Well, we saw little Igor, Oleg’s eventual successor, the son of Rurik. Oleg was indeed his guardian, and, as the programme showed, quite possibly his maternal uncle.  However, in this, Askold and Dir were also Igor’s uncles, Oleg’s brothers – whereas, in fact (as far as fact is known), they were the rulers of Kiev whom Oleg defeated.  There is a story that Askold was actually Bjorn Ironside’s son, but the scriptwriters didn’t go for that.  I suppose it was a bit late to bring in an adult son at this point!  Or maybe the son of Hvitserk, another of Ragnar Lothbrok (I do miss Ragnar!)’s sons, but, although Hvitserk’s included in the series, they didn’t go for that option either.

It’s all a bit complicated!   I’m so chuffed that the Varangians have been included, though.  They usually get forgotten when people are talking about Vikings.  But there’s certainly nothing in history to suggest that Oleg ever met Ivar the Boneless.  As for the parachute balloon thing …

And I’m not convinced about the Varangian warriors doing Cossack dancing!  They did generally seem very Russian/Ukrainian, although Oleg himself chatted away merrily in Old Norse.  The issue of whether the Rus were of Scandinavian origin, Slavic origin, or probably a mixture, is complex, and quite sensitive.  Russian history works much better if you downplay the Viking connection, just as English history works much better if you downplay the Norman influence.   However, I don’t think the scriptwriters were trying to align themselves with any one school of historical thought.  Cossack dancing just looks good!!

And it all looked good.  OK, OK, it wasn’t very accurate, but it was really good fun – and it didn’t actually stray into the realms of fantasy.  There was a bit of supernatural stuff going on, but that was mainly about prayers and rituals: we didn’t have elves or hobbits or even trolls running about.  I’m just sad that this is the final series!   There are more episodes to come, but we’ve been told that there won’t be a “Season 7”.  I’ve watched it from the start, and will be sad to see it end.  Balloons nothwithstanding …

Who Do You Think You Are? (Kate Winslet) – BBC 1

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I thought that this was the best episode of the series so far, despite Kate’s melodramatics. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with Swedish heritage before: it was like stepping into the world of Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina, and it’s a subject that’s not often covered on English language TV. It was really good to see something different. The military heritage on the other side of her family was interesting too. It had never really occurred to be that the Armed Forces would have been the main employers of musicians before the days of civil orchestras, although it’s really obvious when you think about it! And it’s nice to have an A-lister on the programme: they do sometimes have people whom I’ve barely heard of.  This was a very interesting hour’s TV.

She did overdo it a bit, with the tears and the “I can’t bear it”-ing. OK, it can’t be very pleasant finding out that your long-lost ancestors lived in poverty, had brushes with the law due to stealing food and lost children in infancy, but it’d probably be a similar story for most people’s families. Even those at the top of the social ladder would have been hit by infant deaths, and adults dying young. There were the constant references to her ever-so-‘umble roots, as well. One would have done! But, hey, at least she was interested enough in the social history to get emotional about it.

The story with Kate was that her great-great-grandfather had moved to London from the Halland region of Sweden, becoming a successful tailor on Savile Row. This was fascinating: you think of emigration from Sweden as being to Minnesota and other parts of the American mid-West, not to London. Even Swedish emigration to America isn’t something that’s talked about that much in English language books or TV programmes. So much attention’s paid to emigration from Ireland and, later on, from Italy and the Russian Empire, and yet relatively little’s paid to emigration from Sweden and (then under Swedish rule) Norway, or even to the huge waves of emigration from Germany. I suppose it’s because there wouldn’t have been that much of a cultural or, with Scandinavia and mainly Protestant parts of Germany, religious clash, but it’s certainly a neglected area.

I don’t know what Kate was expecting to find out, but I got the impression that she wasn’t expecting to find that her ancestors’ lives had been so hard.  We think of Sweden, as with Norway and Switzerland, as being a very wealthy country, and forget that that’s a fairly recent development, and how difficult it was historically for countries with very cold weather, very hot weather and or a lot of mountainous terrain, especially at a time of rapid population growth.  The same with the idea of some countries as being particularly liberal, and or as not having a rigid class structure. It hasn’t always been like that.  Take the Netherlands, generally seen as the most liberal-minded country in Europe now, and its centuries of strict Calvinism.

Vilhelm Moberg described life for lower-class people in Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century so well in The Emigrants, and I kept thinking about that when Kate was learning about her ancestors, although at least there were no religious issues here.  When she was taken to a grand castle type place, she must have wondered if they were aristocrats. But no – her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a worker on the estate, paid in tokens that could only be spent in the estate shop, and ended up dying in prison after being convicted of stealing potatoes, shortly after the death of his infant son.  The family were starving, with Sweden being hit by successive years of food shortages even before the Hungry Forties and the Great Famine of the late 1860s.  Neither of those two major famines came into it, strangely enough – we heard about the early 1830s and the early 1850s, but not the two “big” famines, although that was just because of which dates fitted with major events in the family’s history.

Her great-great-great-grandfather fared better, going into the Navy; and it was brilliant that she was able to see the sort of croft house that he’d have. But her great-great-grandfather was the only one of the three children he and his wife had who survived to adulthood.  He became a tailor, like his father – who’d been booted out of the Navy for embezzlement!  I can’t think of any other episode that’s featured Swedish history, and I really enjoyed it. How brilliant were the records, as well? Very impressed with mid 19th century Swedish record-keeping!

Turning to the other side of her family, she found out that her great-great-great-grandfather had served in the Grenadier Guards, joining up at the age of just 11, during the Napoleonic Wars. After having to leave the Army due to rheumatism, he became the head prison warder at Dartmoor … but, at that time, Dartmoor was seen as a sort of new model prison, with inmates working in gardens and attending classes in all sorts of subjects.

That was interesting as well, but I thought that the really good bit was his time in the Army, starting off as a real life Little Drummer Boy, at a time when the sons of soldiers often joined up as children so as to benefit from the educational and career opportunities offered, and rising to the rank of Drum Major. We’re all familiar with military bands, and the importance of drummers and buglers and fifers in the Army in the 18th and 19th centuries – I’m going to have “Oh, soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum?” going through my head for the rest of the day now – but, as with Swedish and German emigration to Britain and America, it’s something that doesn’t get all that much attention, and it’s always nice to see new topics covered on a long-running programme.

I’d love to know how they choose people to go on this programme. Presumably they must do a certain amount of research first, to make sure that they can actually find something out, and that it’s something reasonably interesting. But do they approach the celebs, or do the celebs approach them? Where would you start, when it came to choosing people?   They usually manage to turn up something of interest, but often the socio-economic history behind it is something we’ve heard before, with other people.  But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve shown anyone with Swedish heritage before.  A really good hour’s TV.