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I haven’t been watching much television recently, but one thing I have managed to keep up with is Tudor Monastery Farm. I was a big fan of the original Victorian Farm, but didn’t really get into the later series, Edwardian and Wartime, simply because they seemed too similar to the original, in terms of farming techniques and home life. However, when I saw that they were doing a Tudor version, I thought this would be much more interesting – and it has proved to be.

The team show us how farming and home management were approached in a time before industrial techniques and mechanisation. Historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold experience life as tenant farmers working on the land of a typical monastery in the early Tudor period. They show us all of the techniques used in this era to grow crops and livestock, manage the home and manufacture products.

The programme covers many early crafts that I have wondered about for ages – how on earth did people convert ore to metal tools? How did they manage to create enormous stained glass windows in this era? How did they make all the woollen cloth that made England so rich?

What you learn from the programme is that in this era, everything that we take for granted now was mind-numbingly time-consuming and their innovation and patience was incredible. Here are a few highlights from the show so far:

Lead

Peter and Tom mine lead ore, before building an enormous smelting fire on a hill and place lead ore on top of it so that it trickles down to produce molten lead. They have some problems with the wind, but when they return the next day they pick up pieces of metal from the ash. They then purify the lead and cast it into bars using sand moulds.

It’s incredible the amount of physical labour that went into creating every piece of metal around in the Tudor period. Some have criticised various aspects of the process (see these comments), but it gives me a bit of an insight into how people got from mining rock to solid metal tools.

Candles

They harvest honey and beeswax directly from the hive, using a feather to brush away the bees without getting their legs caught. Ruth then melts the wax and dips a string repeatedly into the wax until a tall candle forms around the wick.

These candles would have been expensive and used only in churches and monasteries, since they burned cleaner and smelt sweeter. The poor would have used only tallow candles made of animal fat – these would have spluttered and smelled bad.

Paintbrushes

The method used to create paintbrushes is incredibly ingenious, considering the complexity of attaching bristles to a handle. Instead, they take a single feather, cut it in half, and feed the barb through the hollow shaft so that a small section of soft feather pokes out to provide bristles. The simplicity of this idea makes it so brilliant.

Yeast

Yeast is another thing that we just seem to take for granted now – when somebody is making bread or beer, they just add yeast. Wild yeast grows on the skins of fruits and grains, so Ruth shows us how this would have been harvested. She prepares a bowl of flour and water and leaves it in a field of grain and when she returns, the substance appears slightly frothy, indicating that yeast is present.

Wool

Wool was England’s most important export in the Tudor period – it formed the basis of Britain’s economic prosperity in the next few decades. Therefore, a great deal of labour was devoted to wool production and it certainly was a labour-intensive process.

Peter and Tom learn how to shear the sheep, then Ruth spins the wool into yarn before being shown how a weaving machine is set up. After the cloth is woven, it is hung up on tenterhooks, providing the phrase ‘on tenterhooks’!

Stained Glass

When I see stained glass windows in cathedrals, I always wonder how they managed to make them so big while keeping them secure. Ruth practices the techniques they used to make stained glass windows and it is surprisingly quick. The design for the section of window is drawn onto the glass with charcoal before being carved and chipped away at with flint to remove the edges of the design.

The sections of glass are then held together and secured with lead. To make the lead easier to apply, it is melted over reeds to provide flexible lengths of metal to place in between he sections of glass. This is then melted on, providing a secure glass window.

If I have any criticism of the programme, apart from the small inaccuracies that may be present, it is that the weather is always great and the people involved seem to show some element of nostalgia – this is pretty common when people talk about the Tudor era. The awful living conditions, social inequalities and disease are not mentioned, but of course that is not really the aim of the programme. The phrase ‘merry old England’ is even spoken at one point.

The Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas Special will be broadcast on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday 31st December.

Dr Michael Mosley is a wonderful programme maker who is responsible for several other great documentaries I’ve mentioned before, including Medical Mavericks, The Story of Science, Frontline Medicine and several episodes of Horizon. Now he’s presenting a new three-part series called Pain, Pus & Poison: The Search for Modern Medicines.

The first episode deals with the search for medicines to relieve pain. Several of the stories he presents have been presented in his previous programmes, however it’s always nice to have an update. He tells the story of the development of ether for use in operations, which was marked by conflict between William T. G. Morton, who performed a painless tooth extraction with the drug in 1846, and Henry Jacob Bigelow, who arranged a demonstrations where ether was used in an operation on a patient’s neck tumor.

"Ether Day 1846" by Warren and Lucia Prosperi (2001)

“Ether Day 1846″ by Warren and Lucia Prosperi (2001)

He also explains how the drugs Heroin and Aspirin were developed simultaneously and initially Heroin was selected as the preferred drug and marketed successfully by Bayer AG. Aspirin slowly grew in popularity as Heroin’s addictive properties began to cause concern and Aspirin became one of the most popular drugs in the world.

BayerHeroin

Mosley tests the medicines he is talking about on himself, which really brings his programmes to life, proving he’s really serious about what he’s talking about, or at least eager to get high! In this first episode, he conducts several staggering experiments, including rubbing cocaine into his eye before poking it and having himself intravenously drugged with sodium thiopental, to test its ability as a truth serum.

The show is incredibly engaging, and I particularly enjoy his explanations of how the painkillers actually function in the body, something I always wonder about when taking them! The episode concludes with a celebration of morphine, the drug that has endured for 200 years despite huge developments in medicine.

Episode 1: Pain is on iPlayer now, as is the next episode, Pus.

In the last couple of weeks I have been craving modern history documentaries, particularly those concerned with British and American politics. The next few documentary posts contain a few good ones I’ve discovered during my browsing.

Blair: The Inside Story

Several documentaries were made in 2007, on the 10th anniversary of Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister, including this one and The Blair Years. Both are on YouTube and are worth watching. I find this period very interesting as it is the only one I remember personally – my formative years were during Blair’s government. Blair: The Inside Story is presented by  award-winning political journalist Michael Cockerell and is a generally well-balanced look back at Blair’s time in office. It contains fascinating interviews with key players in government, as well as revealing footage of Tony Blair inside Number 10, filmed by Cockerell himself.

The NHS: A Difficult Beginning

This documentary explains how the National Health Service was created and the difficulties it overcame to get established. it was broadcast on BBC4 in 2009 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the NHS. It tells the story of Nye Bevan, Labour’s minister of health, who pushed the reforms through despite enormous opposition from the Tory Party, the press and most importantly the medical establishment. This is a fascinating insight into some often overlooked areas of modern history – definitely worth a watch.

Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain

This documentary was first broadcast in 2009 and cover the period in British history from the death of Queen Victoria to the end of the Second World War. it was made as a follow-up to A History of Modern Britain which covered the period after the Second World War and is unfortunately not on YouTube. It covers a very interesting period which is often neglected in popular histories and Marr continually makes the point that the Britain of today is closely connected to the developments of this period. He’s a great documentary maker and keeps things light and entertaining even when dealing with depressing and controversial topics.

Blood and Guts – A History of Surgery

This is a brilliant set of five programmes which I missed when they were first broadcast in 2008. They are presented by Michael J. Mosley, a medical doctor and journalist, and he is a really engaging speaker who is never scared of getting involved in experiments to show us the old medical treatments of the past. The programmes cover some really fascinating topics such as brain and heart surgery, plastic surgery and transplants.  He has made many other programmes for TV and radio including Medical Mavericks, wchich explores the history of self-experimentation and The Making of Modern Medicine on BBC Radio 4. Other examples of his work can be found on Youtube.

Blackadder Rides Again

This is a fantastic run through of the history of the sitcom Blackadder, broadcast at Christmas 2008 to celebrate its 25th anniversary. For those who don’t know the programme, it covers in four series the medieval period, the Elizabethan period, the Regency and the First World War, with Edmund Blackadder as the protagonist.  It has become very influential in the historical knowledge of many British people – it’s even used in school lessons (it was in mine!). It’s also a great documentary with extra unseen material and interesting interviews with the key players.

A History of Britain

If you want to learn about British history, I think this is definitely the place to start. Simon Schama made 15 episodes in 3 series covering the entirety of British history, broadcast between 2000 and 2002. He also published three accompanying books. Of course it is a very broad overview, and some have complained at the overemphasis on the history of England at the expense of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but I would say Schama does cover these areas in quite a lot of depth compared to some historians! Schama is a very captivating presenter and the use of music and imagery in the doc make it a very relaxing watch.

brummelOn this day in 1778, George Bryan Brummell (known as Beau Brummell) was born in Downing Street London. His father was private secretary to the prime minister, Lord North, and his family was very upwardly mobile, living at The Grove, in Donnington, Berkshire. In 1786 George was sent to Eton College. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

He was also popular among fellow students for his wit, refinement, and a fascination with matters of dress and poise which defined his adult life and, as a schoolboy, earned him the sobriquet Buck Brummell.

Brummell went to Oxford for one term before inheriting  a fortune on his father’s death. He met George, prince of Wales at Whig society balls held at Eton and they became close. Brummell was offered a cornetcy in his personal regiment, the 10th hussars, and was promoted  to captain. He wasn’t much of a soldier and spent most of his time accompanying the prince to social events.

He became a leading member of London society, moving to 4 Chesterfield Street, Mayfair and holding many social occasions for the fashionable elite and aristocracy including the Prince. Oxford DNB:

The years between Brummell’s move to Chesterfield Street and his departure from England in 1816 witnessed the apogee of the fashion for dandyism of which Brummell was the leading exponent. The culture was characterized by its reaction against the excessive dress and manners of eighteenth-century men of fashion whose gentility had been defined by the magnificence and luxury of clothing and the fineness or delicacy of conversation. Dandyism, by contrast, drew on earlier English qualities—independence, self-command, capriciousness, and a hint of puritanism—to offer a rival style based on meticulous but simple tailoring and imperious, and therefore often impolite, displays of mannered etiquette.

Brummell’s concern for elegance and fashion led to a new way of dressing: a move away from breeches and stockings towards full-length trousers, shirts, starched cravats, waistcoats and long coats. He was known for his snobbishness, competitiveness, elegance, self-confidence and display.

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

Statue of beau Brummell on Jermyn Street in Westminster

His personality and celebrity caused him to eventually fall out with the Prince of Wales, but he simply moved to 13 Chapel Street in 1812 to establish a new social circle around the duke and duchess of York. Short of money, he turned to gambling, which gave him mixed success. In 1814 he was denounced by fellow members of White’s Club and left England for France on 16 May 1816. He spent the rest of his life in France, continuing his lifestyle despite further financial difficulties.

There have been many television and film adaptations of his life story, including a 1924 film, a 1954 film starring  Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor and a 2006 BBC TV movie starring James Purefoy.

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.

The Supersizers…

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.

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