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Returning to History

I feel rather guilty that it’s mid-March already and this is only my first blog of 2013. Work and various other projects have been keeping me busy, but I have also watched some great history programming over the last couple of months. I studied Medieval and Modern History at undergraduate level, and although for a while afterwards I didn’t want to read or watch anything remotely academic, a keen interest in certain eras and events has recently rekindled. TV documentaries are a great way of accessing new knowledge or gaining alternative insights into more familiar historical topics, so here are three programmes that I have greatly enjoyed recently: all history-based and all, coincidentally, broadcast on the BBC.

Lost Kingdoms of South America

A Quipu

A Quipu

One of my favourite second-year modules was called ‘Blood and Steel: The Spanish Conquest of the New World’ and it sparked my interest in both European expansionism and Mesoamerican civilizations. Lost Kingdoms of South America, on BBC Four, was equally fascinating and introduced me to cultures I don’t think I would ever have heard of otherwise, such as the Chachapoya and the Tiwanaku. Presented by Dr Jago Cooper, a curator at the British Museum, each of the four episodes examined people who built powerful kingdoms in some of the harshest environments of South America, long before the Inca hegemony and the Spanish invasion. Particularly mind-blowing are quipu, also known as talking knots, which may hold further stories about these civilizations but are yet to be decoded due to their complexity.

 

Queen Victoria’s Children

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

I’ve never studied the Victorian era in any depth, but I was nonetheless aware that the unrequited love between Victoria and her husband Albert is widely considered one of the great romances of history. Whilst Queen Victoria’s Children supported this, it also presented a very different side to the monarch’s domestic life and I was quite shocked to learn just how flagrantly horrible she often was to her nine sons and daughters. If I have a child and my mother refers to me as a cow for choosing to breastfeed I shall not be amused!

 

The Holocaust and My Father: Six Million and One

Although I’ve watched numerous Holocaust documentaries, this was something quite unique and in many ways one of the most emotive films about the Nazi atrocities that I’ve come across. Israeli filmmaker David Fisher, whose parents survived the Holocaust, travels with three of his reluctant siblings to the camps in which their father was interned during the 1940s. Archive stills and footage were kept to a bare minimum, yet the realities of being a prisoner were still extremely vividly portrayed. Seeing an Austrian town where, incredibly, people now have homes in buildings that were once part of the concentration camp machinery was quite bizarre and seemed somehow disrespectful and morally wrong. Unusually, the focus was on second-generation survivors of the Holocaust and the different reactions of each sibling as the journey progressed were raw, passionate and truly moving.

 

Next on my historical ‘to watch’ list: Chivalry and Betrayal: The Hundred Years War.

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Strictly in the Spotlight

For the last six or seven years, Strictly Come Dancing has been the highlight of my television calendar. From September to December I religiously watch every live show, every results show, and most episodes of its sister programme It Takes Two. With Series 10 reaching its grand conclusion last night, I thought I’d take a few minutes to share some of my thoughts on the 2012 competition and explain why I’m such a Strictly addict.

Let’s start with something positive: why do I love Strictly? In short, because it’s fun and nobody’s livelihoods are at stake, unlike in some reality/entertainment shows I could mention (cough X Factor cough). There are no real sob stories, everyone genuinely seems to get on well every year, and it makes me smile. Dani and Vincent Viennese Waltz

Series 10 has been no exception to these generalities. An excellent celeb line up, the addition of Darcey Bussell to the judging panel, and a great new pro dancer have all contributed to making twelve fantastic weeks of television. Oh and the dancing’s been rather wonderful too!

If I had to pick a favourite dance of this series it would probably be Dani and Vincent’s Venetian-themed Viennese Waltz; it was so beautifully choreographed and performed. I had been routing for this couple, nicknamed Team Smurf, when the final kicked off last night, and I do believe that with a different show dance they might have won. It was such a shame that nerves took hold and that perhaps their show dance was a tad too ambitious.

I always feel a bit of loyalty towards some of the professional dancers who have been on the show a long time, so much so that I admit it actually affects my voting to a degree. I never do vote until the last two weeks of the competition, but right from the start I wanted Vincent, James or Flavia to be in with a chance of finally lifting the Glitter Ball trophy. Of course I would never vote for the pro alone, which is why I was delighted to see that all three had celebrity partners who not only seemed to be nice people, but who steadily developed as talented dancers.

JamesDeniseCharlestonHowever, it seems I have been in a minority when it came to supporting James and his partner Denise van Outen. It actually saddens me a little to write something negative about Strictly, but it has been truly disappointing to read how vindictive and unpleasant some fans have been about Denise and her performance background on various forums/social media channels this year. So what if she’s been on stage and danced in Chicago? Kimberley is from a musical background and appeared in Shrek, and several past contestants have also attended stage school and had some dance training. Was there ever a backlash like this against them? I don’t believe so. It’s a shame that, for whatever reason, people were so vocally negative about a contestant who actually trained around 100 hours more than anyone else in this year’s competition and who didn’t have prior experience in the Ballroom and Latin disciplines. The mistakes she made  – and there were a few – should have been proof that she was learning too.

Right, I’ve got that off my chest and promise to rant no more in this post. On to the final!

After Dani left I still had my hopes for Denise (what a spectacular show dance!), but had an Louis-FlaviaSCDChampionsinkling that it would be Louis or Kimberley taking the crown after the second round of voting. Kimberley was absolutely fantastic over the second half of the competition, whilst Louis had found his inner performer and proved his popularity by never being in the bottom two. Any of the four finalists would have been deserving champions, so I wasn’t disappointed when Louis and Flavia were declared the Strictly Come Dancing 2012 winners. With the judges’ scores only putting one point between all of the top three couples, it was always going to come down to a slight popularity vote and that gymnastic physique may well have swung it in the Olympian’s favour!

I could go on for many more paragraphs, discussing dresses, more dances, the wonderful Lisa Riley, Halloween night, the judges, and the bewilderment I feel whenever Claudia Winkleman appears on screen, but I’ve probably babbled long enough. Suffice to say there will now be a Strictly-shaped hole in my weekends and I have absolutely loved this series. Bring on the Christmas Special and I look forward to more FAB-U-LOUS dancing in autumn 2013!

For the last few Tuesdays, we’ve been faced with a dilemma. When the clock strikes ten, do we tune in to Fresh Meat on Channel 4, or Cuckoo on BBC Three? Having spent all year watching and re-watching The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother to the point of over-saturation, it’s a little frustrating that when two genuinely amusing British comedies hit the screens, their programming slots collide.

The return of Fresh Meat heralds a new term at the fictional Manchester Medlock University. There’s a new Dutch housemate, a tiny triangular beard – sorry, soul patch – and boozy-bix has downgraded to meaty-bix, thanks to Howard taking a job in an abattoir. The success and appeal of Fresh Meat undoubtedly lies in the fact that almost anyone who has been to university can identify with at least one of the characters at some point in every episode. JP’s appropriation of biros and mouse mats, for example, could have been scripted by my boyfriend, who once collected seventeen free pens and a wooden spoon at a societies fair.

Competing with the students for screen time is Cuckoo, a new sitcom starring Greg Davies as a middle-class, Lib-Dem Dad whose daughter returns from her gap year with an American ‘spiritual ninja’ called Cuckoo – who she has married and brought home to live with the family. Andy Samberg, of The Lonely Island fame, plays Cuckoo and is a brilliant counter to Greg Davies as Ken. Whether he will save the world by selling baked potatoes remains to be seen, but even the more cringe-worthy scenarios have been more funny than painful and I’ll be happy to watch a second series if it gets re-commissioned.

Of course, it’s not as if the decision of which one to watch on Tuesday at 10pm negates ever seeing the other, as we have the wonders of Virgin Media’s catch up service at our disposal. It just means I have to decide which regular tea-time show gets relegated in Fresh Meat or Cuckoo’s favour: that Big Bang episode I’ve seen three times already or the HIMYM that was originally broadcast two seasons before the episode I watched only yesterday?

The Moomins: From Finland With Love

This week I reached the grand old age of 24 and my lovely boyfriend treated me to a meal out, a book, a CD and a cuddly Moomin. Now I know that reaching my mid-20s probably makes me too old for soft toys, but seeing this fluffy Moomintroll in the centre of a Waterstone’s display instantly transported me back to the 1990s cartoon series that I loved so much as a child. Tom claims I’m hard to buy for (I beg to differ) and sensing my inner battle over whether I could justify the purchase, he confiscated said Moomintroll and took him to the counter. He had a birthday gift quite literally in the bag and I was delighted at the prospect of soon receiving my very own Moomin, guilt-free.

Moomintroll

For those who don’t know, the Moomins are a family of small trolls with a vague resemblance to white hippopotamuses. They are gentle creatures who enjoy whistling, eating pancakes and going on adventures in the countryside around their home; the tall, blue, cylindrical Moominhouse. Amongst their friends are harmonica-playing Snufkin, fastidious Sniff and mischief-making Little My.

As with the creations of Smallfilms (The Clangers, Noggin the Nog…) I feel there’s an inherent charm in the world of Moominvalley. My parents read me the original books long before I watched it on TV and it was wonderful to hear about eggshells that turned into floating clouds and a voyage to the Island of the Hattifatteners. All good stories have an element of suspense, however, and both the literary and cartoon incarnations of the Groke genuinely terrified me!

The first Moomin books were created by Finnish author and artist Tove Jansson in the 1940s. Although there have been several television adaptations of her work, the one with which most people of my generation are familiar is the 1990 collaboration between Japanese, Finnish and Dutch broadcasters. It had an upbeat, memorable theme tune (surely a must for any successful kids’ TV show?) and is widely considered responsible for the subsequent ‘Moomin Boom’ which saw Moomintroll, Snufkin and Co. become one of Finland’s biggest exports. Moomin World opened in 1992 and the Finnish trolls have acquired a cult status amongst young and old fans alike.

As of last autumn, there is also now a specialist Moomin Shop in Covent Garden, to which I dragged the long-suffering Tom during our first trip away together earlier this year. Whilst I greatly enjoyed browsing shelves of Moomin matches, Moomin trays, Moomin lunchboxes and every other conceivable piece of Moomin merchandise (except, coincidentally, a soft Moomintroll like the one I now own!) it was all rather overpriced and I left the shop empty handed.

Covent Garden’s Moomin Shop

The fact that the Moomin franchise has become a massive commercial venture does not, however, diminish the joy I derived from reading the books and watching the cartoons when I was younger. Tove Jansson’s gentle-paced stories have enchanted generations of children and it’s testament to their timeless quality that, almost two decades after I first encountered them, I’m still delighted by her characters and their innocent adventures.

Like millions of others around the world last night, I tuned in to watch the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. It was the first time in months that I’ve sat in front of the TV for four solid hours, but every second was worth it. From the a cappella opening lines of Jerusalem to the beautiful convergence of 204 flaming copper petals to create the Olympic cauldron, the final result of Danny Boyle’s creative vision was, in a word, spectacular.

The Ceremony truly encompassed the best of our ‘Isles of Wonder’, with a very British sense of humour. Whoever came up with the idea of Mr Bean doing Chariots of Fire deserves an Olympic medal for comedic genius. The industrial chimney stacks rising into the stadium gave an awesome sense of anticipation and Her Majesty greeting James Bond was another highlight.

The only aspects of the Ceremony that didn’t really do it for me were the text messages that kept popping up during the section celebrating British music: I’d have rather just listened and enjoyed the dance routines. Having said that, it was undoubtedly an event ‘for everyone’ and I can only jealously imagine what the atmosphere in London must have been like.

I’m not sure it’s within my lexical ability to satisfactorily describe the scale and spectacle of the five Olympic rings joining above the Stadium and showering golden fire towards the floor below, but suffice to say that if you did miss the Ceremony last night, you need to get on iPlayer now. I doubt there’ll ever be another occasion that sees Lord Voldemort, Mary Poppins and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the same place, after all.

Hats off to everyone involved, from the huge cast to the masters of technical wizardry behind the scenes. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ has well and truly begun and Great Britain has done itself proud.