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There have been some great documentaries on TV recently, including the wonderful Archaeology: A Secret History, which at first sight I thought might be more along the lines of Time Team, but turned out to be really innovative and fascinating. I’d never thought about the history of archaeology itself and it turns out that there are some great stories behind it.
It’s presented by Richard Miles who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and has presented history docs for the BBC before. He is an excellent presenter with a seemingly genuine interest in everything he’s talking about (the sequence where he gets to see the Neanderthal 1 skeleton is particularly good), but he does take every opportunity to show he he is fluent in Italian!
The first programme starts with the search for biblical relics, spurred on by Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists. The next focus is Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, 1391 — 1453/55, an antiquarian from Ancona known as the Father of Archaeology He noticed a ancient Roman arch in his town which inspired him to start documenting the ancient remains around him.
It seems bizarre to us now with all our museums, monuments and guidebooks, that the physical past hasn’t always been important, hasn’t always needed to be interrogated. But in Pizzicolli’s age the past was just there – it’s all around you and that’s why what he tried to do was such a revelation.
This struck me as very interesting as, while we do have museums, monuments and guidebooks, the past is still all around us in a city like London and people still ignore it! The programme then explores William Camden’s mapping techniques, John Aubrey’s surveying techniques used at Avebury and cabinets of curiosity from the eighteenth century.
There are three episodes available on BBC iplayer here.
This is one of my favourite documentary series of all time and I have been quite happy to watch episodes over and over again! Each episode sees restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins spend a week experiencing the food and lifestyle of an era together. I have written about episodes before, particularly the Seventies, the Victorian era and the Restoration.
It started with a one-off show called Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007 where Giles and Sue dressed up and trialed the food of the Edwardian era for a special season of BBC programmes.
Since then we’ve had two series: The Supersizers Go… (2008) covering the Second World War, the Restoration, the Victorian Era, the Seventies, the Elizabethan era and the Regency; and The Supersizers Eat… (2009) which covered the Eighties, the Medieval era, the French Revolution, the Twenties, the Fifties and Ancient Rome.
I love seeing the variety of food they get to try, some of it awful, some of it quite tasty. Their chemistry is pretty good and I particularly like their reenactments of historical events an journeys in modern locations and with modern transport.
Almost all of the episodes are available on YouTube and this playlist puts them in chronological order starting with ancient Rome and ending with the Eighties.
Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister
A relatively topical one here – there were many TV documentaries about Margaret Thatcher after her death last month but this was one of the main ones from the BBC. It’s narrated by Andrew Marr and was clearly recorded long before her death.
For someone who wasn’t around while she was Prime Minister, it is a great detailed overview of the events of her reign which is often difficult to get when people around you have such strong views about her. The tone is respectful since she had just died, but I would say the documentary seems relatively neutral (of course there will be many who disagree with me there!) but it is the best you’re going to get.
The talking heads included Ken Clarke, Lord Patten, David Cameron, Geoffrey Howe and all of the main figures from her time in office. Its a pretty conventional documentary format, but to be honest that’s exactly what I want from a doc about an era I know little about.
An episode of Coast just alerted me to the existence of these amazing photographs by Jean Guichard, a French photographer who specialises in lighthouses. In 1989 he took a series of seven photographs of a lighthouse called La Jument off the coast of Brittany and these photographs became world famous.
The lighthouse keeper, Théodore Malgorne, stands at the door looking out at the helicopter, unaware of the scale of the wave crashing into the building. It was thought for some time that he was killed by the wave moments after the photographs were taken, however in Coast Neil Oliver and Jean Guichard travel to meet Malgorne and give him a signed copy of the photograph.
La Jument lighthouse is situated in an area of coastline always considered treacherous by sailors and there have been many shipwrecks over the years. In June 1896, the steam ship Drummond Castle was wrecked killing nearly 250 people. La Jument was built to provide a safer crossing for ships and it was constructed between 1904 and 1911.
As part of the BBC College of Journalism’s Art of the Interview season, The Radio Times is holding a competition to decide which television and radio interview has been most influential over the last 60 years. Their shortlist includes Frost/Nixon, Parkinson/Emu, Winfrey/Jackson, Bashir/Diana and Paxman/Howard. There is also an interesting video on the BBC News website where David Sillito interviews David Frost and looks back at some of the most famous interviews on the shortlist. David Frost:
I think the essence of a good interview, in addition to vital things about the interviewer having done his homework and things like that, I think that in the end most of all it’s to do with the relationship that’s established between the interviewer and the interviewee.
That’s really the test in the end – whether you think that you’ve got the real person coming through and you can say,’ I never thought I’d hear so and so say that’.
David Frost and Richard Nixon
Three years after his resignation, Richard Nixon was interviewed by David Frost for a total of 28 hours and 45 minutes and the interviews were edited into four parts and broadcast in the USA and a few other countries in 1977. The first episode got the largest television audience for any political interview in history. In what Frost now describes as ‘a euphoric moment’, Nixon came out with the famous lines:
I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programmes for building a lasting peace.
The story of the interviews has been made into a 2006 play written by Peter Morgan and a film adaptation in 2008.
Michael Parkinson and Meg Ryan
Hollywood actress Meg Ryan clearly wasn’t used to the British television interview style when in 2003 she was quizzed by Michael Parkinson for 20 minutes about her erotic thriller In The Cut. She gave one word answers and was visibly upset and uncomfortable. Parkinson describes it as his ‘most difficult TV moment. She since said about the interview:
I don’t even know the man. That guy was like some disapproving father! It’s crazy. I don’t know what he is to you guys, but he’s a nut. I felt like he was berating me for being naked in the movie. He said something like, ‘You should go back to doing what you were doing”. And I thought, are you like a disapproving dad right now? I’m not even related to you. Back off, buddy. I was so offended by him.
Martin Bashir and Princess Diana
In 1995, Diana Princess of Wales was interviewed on Panorama by Martin Bashir about the failure of her marriage to Charles. In the hour long talk she admitted her affair with riding instructor James Hewitt and spoke about her husband’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles.
She was open with very private details about her life and uttered the famous words ‘there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded’. Bashir was accused by Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York, of ‘tricking’ Diana into revealing secrets about her private life.
I only recently realised that the new series Sherlock on BBC 1 is only three episodes long! We’ve had two episodes, with the second one airing last night and I think the new creation of a modern day Sherlock Holmes [Benedict Cumberbatch] and Doctor Watson [Martin Freeman] is completely successful. Reviews of Sherlock in the press have generally been very positive so I’m hopeful that it will be recommissioned at some point in the future.
The first episode A Study in Pink is a take on the original novel featuring the meeting of Holmes and Watson, A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887 The drama spent a good deal of time and effort introducing the main characters which I think, due to the fame of the original, is time well spent. Arguably, many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories are more about exploring the character of Holmes and his skill than about the storyline itself and therefore I was delighted that the writers and Cumberbatch portrayed him so effectively, depicting him in a way that was original, yet close enough to the text to please devoted Holmes fans like me. Cumberbatch has form, having played Stephen Hawking in the BBC’s 2004 drama Hawking.
Martin Freeman did worry me when I first found out he was playing Watson, because, although I like him as an actor, he has tended in the past to only play one kind of character. The character of Watson has been played in a variety of very different ways over the years so he did have some flexibility and I was pleasantly surprised by his acting. The first episode dwelt on the doctor’s past as a soldier and the effects of this on his character, which I think Freeman dealt with sensitively. By the end of this episode there was a great relationship developing between Holmes and Watson which I thought to be a fantastic tribute to Conan Doyle’s aim.
I found the first episode more enjoyable than the second, possibly because I find the exploration of the characters more interesting than the drama of the storyline, even though the writing is solid and the plot was engaging in both episodes. I felt Watson does revert from the troubled soldier to a simpler sidekick role in the second episode, but I wouldn’t attack Freeman or the writers for it as this does happen in many of the original stories, in order to focus on the murder story.
I realise I’ve barely touched on the attempt to adapt Sherlock Holmes to modern day London and I suppose this could be seen as a credit to the writers that the setting change is so smooth and comfortable that it does not require that much criticism. Holmes uses black cabs, mobile phones, nicotine patches and the internet, but other than that the modernity of their world doesn’t jar at all. In fact this may highlight that, apart from technological advancements and because we are used to modern dialect being inserted into period drama, the19th-century society of Holmes’ creation is not that much different from our own and it does not ruin him to set him in the modern day. Oddly the main thing that throws me off when watching it is the fact that Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson are now known as Sherlock and John!
The storylines used are, as expected for a prime-time modern drama, more exciting and fast paced than some of Conan Doyle’s short stories, though by no means all of them. Both episodes have featured serial murders and seem at times to dwell on bizarre, eerie and sinister plots, more so than Conan Doyle did. However this does fit with Holmes’ desperation for cases out of the ordinary and I expect that more extreme cases needed to be used due to the fact that Holmes in conjunction with a full modern forensic science department would easily steam through simpler murder cases. I would say that the characterisation is stronger than the storytelling as so far the plots seem to be leading up to a Doctor Who style dénouement when Holmes deals with Moriarty (who is behind all of the crimes) directly in the final episode, but I will wait to see how it is concluded.
Overall the series is a great success and proof that great drama can still be made and great old characters like Sherlock Holmes can still be reinvigorated with good writing. The writers have managed to tread that difficult line between making good exciting drama and retaining the beauty of the original text. They gain the respect of those who know the stories very well, particular in the first episode when they tweaked the dialogue between Holmes and Inspector Lestrade over the clue of Rache, which changed the plot, made the police look equally stupid as they did in the original text and made me smile. If you haven’t seen it already do watch the first two episodes, they’re still on iPlayer and the final instalment is on BBC 1 next Sunday. Here’s hoping for a second series!
A new documentary series, Victorian Pharmacy, started on BBC 2 on Thursday inspired by the popular Victorian Farm, this time domestic historian Ruth Goodman, pharmacy professor Nick Barber and history of medicine student Tom Quick deal with the world of Victorian medicine. The first episode dealt with really fascinating topics and tested many of the Victorian treatments on volunteers to see what effect they would have had. The programme also explored the development of the Victorian Pharmacy from herbalism through chemical experimentation to the creation of commercially sold medicines with the John Boot’s establishment of Boots the Chemists in 1849.
It is well known that the Victorians had a very limited understanding of how diseases were transmitted and so hygiene was of little importance in the pharmacy, however the programme does shockingly demonstrate to what extent this was the case. For example patients were provided with a special bowl to spit phlegm into; however the team explains how the Victorians used the tuberculosis-ridden bowl again and again because they considered it ‘clean’ as long as the phlegm was washed out with water. Additionally, during the period, blood-soaked bandages were just washed in water, hung up to dry and reused on other patients, before the Victorians realised the dangers of contamination. The Guardian:
Last night’s episode started promisingly enough, with Goodman and her new team –– decking out their shop with carboys full of brightly coloured potions and stacking the shelves with a range of mysteriously named remedies. But it wasn’t long before a very large fly appeared in the ointment. As Barber pointed out: “Anyone could be a chemist in those days and they killed people if they got things wrong.” Understandably, this wasn’t a chance the producers were prepared to take. So what we got was Victorian Pharmacy With 21st Century Health and Safety Regulations, which rather undermined the whole point of the programme.
Of course it is unrealistic to expect a thorough retesting of all treatments to the point of causing fatalities, but what I find more interesting is the exploration of the history of medicine and the wide range of roles held by pharmacists. Victorian pharmacies also worked on making exotic foods that required precise recipes. For example a recipe for curry powder was brought back from India and given to pharmacists John Lea and William Perrins to be made up. It was suggested the mixture could be a sauce, however the result was considered disgusting by the makers and by chance was left to ferment in the pharmacy cellar. The fermented mixture was found later and, tasting much better, began to be sold as Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce in 1838. In the programme, Ruth Goodman tests the original recipe and interestingly the unfermented version tastes much nicer than the creators’ verdict suggests. This exploration of the intricacies of the role of Victorian pharmacists and their part in the creation of existing brands is what I found particularly interesting in this episode of Victorian Pharmacy and I look forward to the next programme, Thursday 9pm BBC 2.
There’s nothing quite like a proper full-blown David Starkey series on a famous Tudor and I have been thoroughly enjoying his new 4-part documentary on Henry VIII – one of many programmes celebrating the 500th anniversary of his accession to the throne. Starkey has been approaching these programmes in just the sort of way that highlights why I love history so much, i.e. returning to the original documents, filming them and drawing conclusions from them. It’s quite a traditional style of documentary, with plenty of calligraphy and actors voicing the original letters written by the historical figures.
Henry viii and his world are long gone, or at least it can seem that way. But hidden in the world’s great libraries are magical objects that can bring that world vividly to life once more. They are the books, manuscripts, plans and letters that Henry and his contemporaries read, touched and wrote. Through them the dead can speak again
That’s the best thing about history in my opinion: that we can look at objects and documents that Henry VIII actually read and touched! For example, in the first episode, Starkey went to film a written account of Prince Henry’s Knight of the Bath ceremony and whilst looking at it, he found that Henry had actually annotated and corrected the document years later. The fact that things like this can still be found even now is incredible and shows that history is by no means a dead subject!
In the first episode, I also enjoyed Starkey’s analysis of Henry’s handwriting, concluding that his mother, Elizabeth of York, must have had a hand in teaching her son to write as their handwriting is so similar. And you can really see why he believes this, when you look at the way they each wrote their ‘y’s for example.
The basic direction it seems that Starkey is coming from is that Henry grew up in a female dominated world and always loved to have women around him when King. He was more emotional than might be expected and it was this combined with his entanglement with Anne Boleyn that turned him into a tyrant.
The more I study Henry, the more I’m convinced that the answer doesn’t lie, at least to begin with in the seismic political and religious conflicts of his reign. Instead it came from closer at home. The conflicts in his own heart and family
We still have the last episode to look forward to, which is on Channel 4 next Monday.
As a big fan of the BBC’s Robin Hood series, I was very excited to watch the first episode of the new series, which started last week. Friar Tuck has finally been introduced, but now he’s black, athletic and cool, marking a huge jump from the fat white balding portrayal of the friar we have been used to.
Brother Tuck, played by David Harewood, manages to encourage Robin to return to his old ways, in order to save his people from Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. I personally love Harewood’s portrayal of Tuck and his ability to stand up to Robin, but immediately I knew I’d find plenty of criticism in the press about the historical accuracy of having a black friar. From The Times Online:
Helen Phillips, Professor of English at Cardiff University and an expert in medieval literature, said: “Sub-Saharan Africans wouldn’t have been converted by that point, they would have had other religions. North Africans would have mostly been Muslims. Also, friars came from upper-class families, as did monks. The kind of families from which friars were drawn wouldn’t have been in any sense African.”
Yes. I think most people are aware when watching Robin Hood, that historical accuracy is not a key priority. The way they dress isn’t accurate, the way they speak isn’t accurate, it’s unlikely they would have used their bows like guns, and travelling to the Holy Land in the 12th Century would have been a bigger deal than one scene change.
Normally, historical inaccuracies would annoy me too, but this series isn’t meant to be accurate, it’s meant to be fun and it is. We have to remember that Robin Hood himself was only a story in the first place, so let the BBC have poetic licence to keep us entertained, and historians: Calm Down!