Category: Factual

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.

Four Rooms

Meet the Dealers Behind the Doors

Four Rooms first aired on Channel 4 last summer and has returned for a second series this week. The format is vaguely reminiscent of Dragon’s Den, except objects rather than inventions are brought under the scrutiny of a quartet of dealers.  From Elvis’s golf buggy to a hangman’s noose, no item is too obscure to be showcased in the hope of making big money for its owner.  The inevitable catch? Each dealer makes an offer on the item in question, but this is only valid for as long as the owner of the artefact is in that dealer’s room.  If they exit without accepting the money, they cannot return and there is no way of knowing whether a more profitable offer will be made.

It’s an interesting study in tactical game play, on the part of the owners as much as the dealers.  Some people enter a dealer’s room with no obvious strategy and appear clueless of worth, whilst others gain an edge because they’ve done some research. Of course, there are also those who appear not to respect the dealers’ specialist knowledge and then lose out because greed gets the better of them.

Take the man in Series One who was offered over £1000 for a piece of tattooed human skin preserved in a jar. He hadn’t paid a penny for it, yet refused to accept this offer from dealer Emma Hawkins, despite the fact that her specialism is all things macabre. Each to their own, but a grand certainly sounds more appealing to me than a somewhat grim mantelpiece ornament…

Emma is not appearing in Series Two but has been replaced by another female dealer, Celia Sawyer. She joins Jeff, Gordon and Andrew from Series One and has already purchased a piece of artwork by Marlon Brando for £5000. Wednesday’s episode also featured a chair that J.K. Rowling sat on whilst writing her first Harry Potter novels, Francis Bacon’s paintbrushes, the original music score for Psycho, and an antique dildo. The chair failed to sell despite offers in excess of £50,000 whilst the stainless steel dildo was bought by Jeff for £1100.11 and a kiss, no tongues. All in day’s work!

What with one thing and another – finishing my MA, job hunting and numerous family events – it’s been rather a long time since I blogged.  September was a pretty good month for me telly-wise though, with the BBC kindly broadcasting the Strictly Come Dancing launch show on my 23rd Birthday and Series Two of Downton Abbey starting a week later.  Who Do You Think You Are? returned as my staple 9pm Wednesday night fare in August and I made a couple of new discoveries that completed a very satisfactory weekly TV menu, keeping me entertained as the evenings drew in this month. So, without further metaphors (I really should stop with the food analogies!) here’s a breakdown of my Top Five summer-into-autumn shows…

My Own Route 66 Adventure: Pops

5.     Billy Connolly’s Route 66 

I was drawn to this four-part ITV series for two reasons.  Firstly; it was made by Maverick, where I was lucky enough to have a placement earlier this year.  Secondly; I travelled halfway across America in May, including a short stint on Route 66, so I was fascinated to see what else this iconic road has to offer.  Although Connolly didn’t visit Pops, the only landmark on Route 66 that I went to, the series did provide an insight into both the physical and cultural breadth of the USA.  It’s hard to imagine somebody doing a better job presenting this sort of travelogue than Connolly, hitting the highways on his trike and telling stories about people and places with honesty and humour.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am now following the programme that’s taken over its Thursday evening slot: Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey.

4.     Who Do You Think  You Are?  

This is one that divides my housemates, some of whom claim  that who your great-great-grandparents were really has no bearing on you.  Whilst there is a degree of logic in this, I  have always seen WDYTYA as a fascinating avenue into history first, a genealogy programme second.  You never know what  era of history might be encountered as the celebrities trace their ancestors.  Larry Lamb’s episode was one of my favourites in this latest series: his mother’s family were travelling showmen, famous for their menagerie of exotic animals, and he actually tracked  down a previously unknown relative in America.   J.K. Rowling’s journey took her to France and Germany, giving an insight into the impact of the Franco-Prussian war on ordinary families.  No two episodes of WDYTYA are ever the same, historically or in the reactions of the celebrity participants.  It may be a little bit of sentimentality that draws me in as well as the history, but regardless of my friends’ opinions I’ll  certainly watch the next series when it reaches our screens. 

The Formidable Grandmother: Maggie Smith

3.     Downton Abbey

It’s all happening at Downton Abbey and the twists and turns this series have seldom brought happy news for the Crawley family.  It’s hardly surprising, given that the Great  War has been dominating the bulk of the storylines, but it would be nice to have some small glimmer of hope for Lady Mary and Matthew or for Mr Bates and Anna in previews of the next week’s episode.  Intriguing as all the relationships are at Downton, whether they’re platonic,  amorous, or crossing class boundaries, the heightened drama seems to be prohibiting even one match between two characters being satisfactorily cemented.  The costumes and setting are exquisite and Maggie Smith is still delivering superb lines as the Dowager Countess, but I’m hoping for more resolutions and less mini cliff-hangers over the coming weeks.

2.     Fresh Meat

Fresh Meat is a  new Channel 4 comedy that follows the escapades of six university students  forced to share a house after missing out on their places in Halls.  The characters and situations are often exaggerated for effect, but nevertheless strike a surprisingly realistic chord about the  ups and downs of moving to a new city and living with strangers.  Its appeal lies in the subtle but astute observations about how Freshers deal with the strains of University life,  creating new identities (who can forget the Pussy Man?) and desperately trying to please and impress new acquaintances, even if it does lead to one night stands with housemates.  The main characters represent a bunch of stereotypes who aren’t actually as stereotypical as they initially seem; from posh lad JP to alternative, don’t- care Vod.   We’ve all got mates who remind us of at least one person in Fresh Meat, or can personally identify with some of the scenarios – even if we wouldn’t admit it!  Each episode leaves me chuckling and it’s no surprise that a second  series has already been commissioned.

Russell and Flavia's Foxtrot, Week 3

 1.      Strictly Come Dancing

Admittedly something of a guilty pleasure, but I’m an avid Strictly fan, including tuning in for It Takes Two most week nights.  Sometimes I think it would be worth becoming famous just for the slight chance that I could be asked to take part in Strictly.  Not for the hair and make-up, but just for the opportunity to learn to dance with a professional like James (hint hint!) or Vincent, who’s certainly the best match for me height-wise…Dreaming aside though, I love watching Strictly because it’s solid entertainment: a visual spectacle, that ‘journey’ element, and plenty of amusing moments.  Yes, it’s sad when somebody leaves undeservedly, like Rory Bremner last weekend, and occasionally the judges go a little OTT, but nobody’s livelihoods are at stake in this competition; it’s really a very positive process.  Indeed, the ballroom bug seems to infect all who take part.  Russell Grant may not be the best dancer to grace the floor, but is truly a joy to behold as he learns each new routine.  I’m slightly apprehensive about seeing what Nancy Dell’Olio and Anton present this Saturday in the Halloween Special, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything.  Besides, it wouldn’t be so fun to watch if I couldn’t voice my own criticisms about dresses and routines.  My favourite to win? It’s early days yet, so perhaps I’ll save that for my next blog…

The other morning the radio gently announced something about the Horrible Histories cast performing at the Proms.  In my semi-dreaming state I thought I might’ve imagined it, but a quick Google search (once I was more alert) confirmed that there will, in fact, be a performance of several musical numbers from the TV series at the Royal Albert Hall this afternoon.

Some of History's Most Horrible Characters

Like many people my age, I grew up reading Terry Deary’s Horrible History books.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when a friend recommended the CBBC series last year, but found I genuinely enjoyed the sketches and musical numbers that have been created for television, using Deary’s work as a basis.  What’s not to like about Spartans breaking into song and dance High School Musical style?  Kids love guts and gore and there’s plenty of that to be found in the past, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there have already been three series of Horrible Histories.  However, it’s not every day that a show written for children, albeit by adult comedy writers, gets its  best sketches showcased in six Sunday evening slots on BBC1, presented by Stephen Fry.

Horrible Histories takes to the Stage

Indeed, it seems that Horrible Histories has become something of a phenomenon.  A few weeks ago myself and five fellow  history graduates went to see it on stage, at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.  We were definitely the oldest people there  (who weren’t chaperoning our own offspring anyway!) but although it was clearly geared at a younger audience, we all came out satisfied that our £12 tickets had been well worth the money.  The Ruthless Roman Army captured a Celt and took her to Rome, educating her about the brilliant and disgusting aspects of their culture along the way.  A highlight of the first half was the How To Look Good Roman sketch, in which fashion tips were given to our Celtic “girlfriend” with true Gok Wan panache.  During the interval everybody was given “bogglevision” glasses and there were shrieks throughout the theatre as 3D spears, floating heads and even a crocodile seemingly made their way towards the audience throughout the second half.  Of course, everything was eventually resolved with a little help from Boudicca’s ghost and the Romans fled, never to attack the Celt’s farm again.

As well as its transition to the stage, it’s rumoured that some of the Horrible Histories songs will soon be available on iTunes.  The accompanying CBBC website is also definitely worth a look in, if only for the interactive Terrible Treasures game, where you explore four different periods of history before taking the Time Sewer Challenge.  The whole Horrible Histories brand has become a full package of subtly educational entertainment, appealing to an older audience as well thanks to the comedic skill of the writing team.  The next stop is the Royal Albert Hall, Series 4 is on the way and as far as I can see, the only way is up for this show and the retelling of more gruesome delights from history.

To my mind, how you watch television is not just about the physical act of positioning yourself in front of a screen.  It’s also to do with how you consume the content as it plays out before you.  Last September I finally began a media-related course after seventeen years in education.  I have no regrets that I didn’t take this path sooner, but it began influencing the way I think about television and film surprisingly quickly.

Paul Merton investigates the early years of Hollywood

Take the module on Documentary Film Making in the autumn term.  After the very first seminar I found myself questioning whether objectivity can ever truly be achieved, as we debated whether reconstructions should be used in the documentary genre.  The basic argument against reconstruction is that it plants an image in the viewers’ minds which may not resemble the situation it purports to document.  Fair point, but I believe reconstructions can actually be used to positive effect in many documentaries.  Let’s return to Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood: not only were situations in dining rooms and hotels recreated, but Merton himself then appeared as part of the scene to guide his audience through what was happening.  I particularly liked the fact that these scenes were shot in black and white, complete with monotone Merton.  Not something I’d seen in a documentary before, but very engaging.

The main reason it’s taken so long to write this blog is that I’ve been filming, digitising and editing footage for my own documentary – and moving house, but that’s another story. The three-part series on the Birth of Hollywood was well-timed, as it also made me consider the practical aspects of making television and films. How interviews are framed; the cut away shots that interviews are interspersed with; transitions between different narrative sections; the soundtrack…it’s surprisingly hard to decide on these things when producing your own work.  So tempting to go for overkill on the effects and forego the content, but Birth of Hollywood proved that keeping things simple with a few innovative touches is definitely the way to go.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s become impossible for me to watch anything without dissecting how it’s been put together and thinking about how I might do something similar in my little Marmite film and my Robin Hood documentary.  It’s not a bad thing, even if I do wonder just how many identical beige suits Paul Merton owns and whether they’re now dispersed across America.  Ideas can come from anywhere and I actually enjoy television all the more for having an insight, albeit a tiny one, into the many decisions that determine each scene.