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The Rise of the Clans

Neil Oliver‘s

latest history series has been shown through December on Monday evenings (BBC1 Scotland) and twenty-four hours later on BBC4.

The first part, of three, showed how the power vacuum caused by the sudden deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter was resolved through the clan system and John Balliol’s abdication so that alliances were formed behind the remaining claimants Robert Bruce and John “Red” Comyn, culminating in a brawl in the Dumfries Greyfriars, during which Comyn was fatally stabbed. Robert I’s reign, including his strategic triumph as he unexpectedly arranged a pitched battle at Bannockburn is also explored.

The second part explores how, after the reign of David II, Robert I’s son, Clan Stewart evolved from a branch of the (Norman) Fitzalans, who are now Dukes of Norfolk through their Howard marriage, to supply every Scottish monarch from 1371 and every English monarch from 1603, now through the Bohemian marriage of James VI and I’s daughter. The reigns of the first three Stewarts were narrated, the weaknesses of Robert II and Robert III, the absence and the authoritarian – Lancastrian? – royal style of James I together with the conflict between Robert III‘s sons were used to show how James’ assassination and the ensuing executions, organised by his widow Joan “Beaufort”, resolved this before the end of 1437. Gradually, from James I’s time, the Stewarts succeeded in gaining power from the MacDonalds, who held the Lordship of the Isles.

Finally, we focus on Mary, simultaneously the last Stewart and the first Stuart, through her marriage to Henry, Lord Darnley (of the Lennox Stuarts), and his mysterious death at Kirk o’Fields, up to her dethronement and exile. The clan chieftains played a significant part in her initial downfall, as they plotted to reverse Knox’s organic Reformation that had taken place during her absence. At this time, her half-brother the Earl of Moray allied himself to the Earl of Morton, the leading Douglas. Then, after marrying the (Hepburn) Earl of Bothwell, Mary fled south – and her life ended at Fotheringhay where Richard III’s had begun.

As usual, this evocative series features realistic dramatisations in which Oliver appears almost as a witness in some scenes. The detail exceeds that of his A History of Scotland and, as usual, nobody featured in the episodes is beyond reproach.

Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen ….

Lucy as Elizabeth I

Lucy Worsley can always been relied upon t)o be entertaining, and her latest documentary – BBC – Lucy Worsley’s Fireworks for a Tudor Queen (2018 – is well up to standard.

BBC – Lucy Worsley's Fireworks for a Tudor Queen - 2018

As the title suggests, she was going to reproduce the sort of amazing fireworks display that might have been created for Elizabeth I. In this particular case, a specific display produced at Kenilworth in 1575 by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester,  as his last-ditch attempt to win the queen’s hand in marriage.

Elizabethan fireworks

Lucy was in no doubt that the queen was sorely tempted, but in the end Robert received the thumbs-down. The display had cost him a huge fortune, and availed him of nothing. Well, such high stakes might have seemed like a good idea at the time, I suppose, but afterward. . .? Perhaps not.

I knew nothing about early fireworks (or modern ones, come to that) but viewers were guided through an enthralling demonstration of how gerbs, girandolas (which look  like wildly sparkling willow trees when spinning), rockets, a flying, illuminated dragon, and so on were produced. It was a hazardous process, with one spark being capable of combusting the whole darned lot!

The display was painstakingly recreated from a 16th century drawing, and looked quite uninspiring before it was lit. After all, we are accustomed to modern fireworks, which have quite spoiled us for the delights and novelties of their earlier counterparts. But the moment it was “set off”, the Tudor display was quite a sight to see, and the real Elizabeth must have been as enthralled as Lucy’s version.

Lucy's dragon

The illuminated dragon was splendid, floating across the scene as regally as the queen herself. Well, almost. Its landing wasn’t quite to royal standards.

Anyway, I loved the programme, and thoroughly recommend it to everyone.

modern fireworks

modern fireworks

 

A visual and literary appreciation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Simon Armitage….

lud's church, staffs

 Most people, even if they haven’t read/tried to read, the ancient British poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, will at least know the opening scene. It’s Christmas at Camelot, and King Arthur and his knights are enjoying themselves, feasting and celebrating, when into the hall rides a huge knight who carries a sprig of holly. He is normal enough in every aspect, except for his gigantic size and the fact that he and his horse are emerald-green from head to toe/hoof. He challenges anyone to decapitate him, and Gawain steps up to the challenge. Swinging his sword, he lops the giant’s head, which rolls across the floor. The knights, being rather sozzled, kick it around…until, to their horror, the Green Knight’s body rises and comes across the pick up its head, which it puts back in place on its neck. Then he utters a solemn challenge to Gawain that twelve months hence, he, Gawain, is to find the Green Knight, who will return the decapitating favour. Chivalry demands that Gawain accepts the challenge, and the gist of the long poem that follows covers his journey to find the Green Knight’s lair.

This 600+-years-old alliterative work, written around 1400, is one of the jewels in the crown of British poetry. Originally it had no title, but over the centuries acquired the one we all know now. Alliteration is one of the hallmarks of English poetry, and Simon Armitage, who has written his own updated version of the poem, not only recognises the importance of this “tool”, but incorporates it into his work. Thus his chosen words are in the narrative of the amazing BBC4 documentary which goes by the same title as the poem itself. I have just watched it on BBC iPlayer, and do not know if it is available elsewhere, but if you can watch it, I hope you do.

The film is beautifully filmed during a very soggy English winter, and endeavours to follow the route of Gawain’s quest for the Green Knight. It is full of nature and the scenery, introducing ancient British legends and creatures long gone from our shores. We are reminded, visually, of how very lovely and unique the land is in which modern man still lives. Gawain is a devout Christian in a world filled with the supernatural. He encounters wild men called wodwose, trolls, giants, bears…and the occasional boar. And a very sexy lady who leads him from the straight and narrow into a curtained bed, where she has her evil way with him.

There are some fine set pieces in the film, especially a sequence filmed at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. A wonderful array of authentic medieval food is laid out on a white-clothed trestle table in the hall, with greenery adorning windows, tables and furniture. A large fire flickers and crackles in the hearth, and it is so atmospheric that it captures and holds the attention , lingering long after Gawain has moved on.

The story reaches its climax (it is thought) at Lud’s Church in Staffordshire (see illustration above). The soggy English winter is relentless, and just before this there are scenes higher on the Peaks, where clouds clings to the summit, and figures and scenery are misty shapes.

Be warned that the film is a bit gory when it comes to killing, gutting and skinning a pig, but that was the only part where I had to look away. There is an excellent soundtrack of eerie, otherworldly songs and music. The whole adds up to a staggeringly beautiful documentary, showing how close to paganism medieval Christians actually were. I thoroughly recommend it, especially if you need to be reminded that Britain is unique and can offer far, far more than most of the world. Well, in my opinion. I adore my homeland in all its seasons, and am proud to be part of it.

I mentioned earlier that poet Simon Armitage has written his own version of this ancient poem, complete with updated language and the very necessary alliteration. I have ordered it, because I know, from this documentary, that it must be well worth reading. Thank you, Simon and the BBC for an hour of pure enjoyment and beauty.

Postscript:

I have now received and delved through Simon Armitage’s updated version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and it has lived up to my hopes. Of course, there have been other such updates, but in my opinion they do not compare. As for the original in Middle English, well, it’s beyond me completely. The following describes the startling arrival of the Green Knight at the Christmas feast in Camelot.:-

An oþer noyse ful newe neȝed biliue,
Þat þe lude myȝt haf leue liflode to cach;
For vneþe watz þe noyce not a whyle sesed,
And þe fyrst cource in þe court kyndely serued,
Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster,
On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe;
Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware and so þik,
And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete, [folio 93r]
Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were,
Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene,
And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride;
For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne,
Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,
And alle his fetures folȝande, in forme þat he hade,
ful clene;
For wonder of his hwe men hade,
Set in his semblaunt sene;
He ferde as freke were fade,
And oueral enker-grene.

Hmm, yes. Totally beyond me. Whereas the same passage from Simon Armitage’s book brings it all wonderfully to life for my modern self:-

Because another sound, a new sound, suddenly drew near,
which might signal the king to sample his supper,
for barely had the horns finished blowing their breath
and with starters just spooned to the seated guests,
a fearful form appeared, framed in the door:
a mountain of a man, immeasurably high,
a hulk of a human from head to hips,
so long and thick in his loins and limbs
I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant,
or a massive man, the mightiest of mortals.
But handsome too, like any horseman worth his horse,
for despite the bulk and brawn of his body
his stomach and waist were slender and sleek.
In fact in all features he was finely formed
                    it seemed.
          Amazement seized their minds,
         no soul had ever seen…
         a knight of such a kind –
         entirely emerald green….

So yes, I do recommend this book. Read and enjoy.

Armitage - Gawain

Available in hardback, paperback, kindle and audio.

 

The Black Prince’s jupon recreated….

Black Prince's Funeral Achievements

The BBC is renowned for its amazing documentaries, and one of the latest series is titled A Stitch in Time, in which fashionable clothes from the past are recreated by modern crafts. The episode that really interested me was the one about the Black Prince’s jupon, i.e. the tight-fitting, brightly-coloured tunic he wore over his armour. The original was for centuries displayed above his wonderful tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, but as it was slowly disintegrating, a replica put in its place.

Amber Butchart, the programme presenter, was permitted to see the original, which is rarely exposed. It was sadly faded, and gave no idea at all of what it must have looked like when worn by the Black Prince. The replica gives more of an idea, because it has colours, but even so…how did Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, appear when wearing it?Black Prince

The programme had included armour as well as the recreation and stitchwork of the new replica, and at the end we were treated to a view of the finished garment. It was absolutely fabulous, and so brilliant that only a prince or a king could have possibly have worn it. I have snipped the following picture from the programme, and it doesn’t do justice to the completed jupon, which was astonishing—breathtaking—and a feast for the eyes.

Black Prince - Recreation

I cannot speak for the rest of the series, but for me, this episode alone made it all worthwhile. Recommended viewing!

 

Art, Passion and Power: The Story of the Royal Collection

Andrew Graham-Dixon has been on our screens for almost a quarter of a century; – he is tall, slightly grey, drawls a little and is an excellent art historian. His latest series tells the story of the Royal art collection – from Henry VIII and Holbein, Charles I and van Dyck, the Protectorate selling the collection off but Charles II rebuilding it, William III, the “I hate all boets and bainters” years of George II, George III’s careful acquisitions, George IV and Brighton, Prince Albert and the (profitable) Great Exhibition funding many London colleges, right up to the present day with Queen Mary and her dolls’ houses. Sadly, it says little about the pre-1509 era, although there is or was surely something from then in the collection.

If you cannot access the iPlayer for geographic reasons, or are too late, all four parts should now be on YouTube OneTube.

Invasions

 

SamWillis

I have watched Dr. Sam Willis on several occasions and regularly enjoy his programmes, particularly his artillery series. With the prematurely grey beard, he is usually much more informative than Dan Jones, who is of a similar age.

 

However, part two of his Invasions fell below this standard. It featured a lot of black and white film of William I as a control freak drafting the Domesday Book, building castles and organising archers; John as “evil”, “Perkin” as “an impostor” and Elizabeth I speaking at Tilbury. John was shown stealing a puppy, hanging several and blinding someone for taking deer from a royal forest – a penalty actually introduced by William I. “Perkin”‘s imposture was referred to at least four times with a clip from “The Shadow of the Tower”, whilst Willis didn’t think about the possibility that  he falsely confessed to save his wife and child, which Wroe, Fields and Lewis have considered.

It wasn’t quite as simplistic as many Jones programmes because we were told about Louis the Lion being invited, by some nobles) to ascend the English throne from 1215-7, the Barbary pirates and the Dutch Medway raids of Charles II’s time. As a result, I shall be watching the final episode.

Lucy does the Glorious Revolution

lucy-in-armour

Did anyone watch the second episode of Lucy Worsley’s fib-busting series last night? I didn’t quite make it to the end because I was so tired, but saw enough to understand that she did to James VII/II exactly what she did with Richard III. By that I mean she concentrated on the deeds/misdeeds of the winning side. Like Richard, James II became no clearer as a man and king as the programme progressed. James was Catholic and “unpopular in a Protestant country”. Full stop.

We were shown the letter from a handful of peers that “invited” William III to visit Britain and some Dutch archivists explained how it would aid his campaign against Louis XIV, another Catholic. Lucy explained just how laughably improbable the “warming pan” stories were and how James Francis Edward’s birth would stop the Catholic monarchy from just dying out when his father passed away, as he did within thirteen years of his dethronement. William’s propaganda emphasised that his coup, from his landing at Brixham, was bloodless. This was true in England but not in Scotland and Ireland, where James and his supporters fought back, as you can see here.

Lucy was as watchable as ever, cheeky and entertaining. And when she was dressed up, she was delightfully sleek. I continue to love whatever she does.

You can read about this second episode in the series here.

Lucy does WOTR fibs….

lucy-worsley

I awaited Lucy Worsley’s latest series with great eagerness. Her impish character and entertaining presentation is always worth watching. And so it was again on Thursday, 26th January, in the first episode of British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley. It concerned the Wars of the Roses.

Well, obviously, as a Ricardian I was keen to know what she would have to say about Richard III, but the programme was about the wars in general and how they have been immensely misrepresented through the centuries as a thirty-year-long blood bath that terrified and depleted the entire realm. The truth was that most people hardly noticed what was going on, because it was strife among the nobles, not the populace. It has been estimated that out of the thirty years, there were only thirteen weeks of actual fighting.

One actual example of carnage and bloodshed was Towton. There was an excellent account of the carnage. Lucy stood at the top of the steep slope, where the Yorkists were positioned, looking down to the level meadow and winding river at the bottom. She reminded us that the river was in flood at the time. The Lancastrians were trapped between the Yorkists and the floodwater. It was really demonstrated how the Yorkists were able to rush down and slaughter the Lancastrians. A horrible, horrible battle, but the only one of all the WOTR battles to produce such devastating killing in such huge numbers. 28,000.

Towton aside, the universal version of events in those thirty years is courtesy of the Tudors, especially Henry VII, the first and most devious of a devious pack. The fifteenth-century conflict is “a tapestry of different stories woven together by whoever was in power at the time”—cue Henry VII, darn his usurping little socks. That man a master weaver of lies!

As a result of his machinations, it’s as if there was such a huge conspiracy to lay blame on Richard III that the whole of English history has somehow been tainted by it. Cruelly, Henry’s lies took root, and Richard was damned. That was made clear throughout the programme.

We saw all the Tudor embellishments—masonry, paintings, literature (read Shakespeare). Henry even saw to it that  illustrations predating his accession were doctored to include his badges and symbols, thus pretending that his ancestry and right to the throne had been there all along! There was very little of which he did not think and take steps to correct. One almost has to admire his thoroughness. But what a natural-born LIAR!

There weren’t many glimpses of Richard. Least of all the real Richard, because the programme was all centred on the myths, as the series title makes plain. But Henry’s endless untruths were just accepted, without any real attempt to prove them to be so.  Nothing was said to show how good a king Richard had been in his brief two years. No mention of his Parliament, for instance, which definitely proved  him to be a just man with the welfare of the people at heart. I doubt if Henry knew what welfare was, except when it applied to himself. As for justice…forget it. Anyway, one sentence about the Parliament would have gone a long way to redress the balance.

As for Richard’s physical appearance, it wasn’t until the very end that Lucy went to Leicester, and Richard’s skeleton had a look-in, but not the modelled head that gives such a good impression of what he actually looked like. The fine statue by the cathedral featured in one of the final scenes, but even then we had to see Henry again—a little statuette brought by someone who has started a Henry VII Society to rival the Richard III Society. This gentleman moaned that Henry was now being maligned. Well, Horrible Henry, have a dollop of your own medicine!

All that said, it was still enjoyable. Lucy is wonderful viewing, and if she told us black was white, I might have trouble arguing. Except where Richard III is concerned, of course.

See a clip at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04png88

 

 

DIGGING FOR BRITAIN–NEW NEWS ON the BATTLE OF BARNET

Like Bosworth, the actual site of the Battle of  Barnet has been the subject of much conjecture, especially as the area is heavily modernised. On the latest episode of DIGGING FOR BRITAIN, airing on BBC 4 on December 20 at 9 PM,  experts take a new look at the site and believe they can now pinpoint its actual location.

Hopefully, this programme will raise the profile of battlefields in general, which always seem in danger of being built on, as well as increasing awareness of the importance of this battle, in which Warwick the Kingmaker was slain and Edward IV was victorious. It was, of course, the 18 year old Richard of Gloucester’s first major battle as the two opposing armies railed against each other in a thick mist.

In itself, Barnet would have been a crushing defeat for the Lancastrians, having lost Warwick in the fray, but their insistence on pressing for a second confrontation only a few weeks later at Tewkesbury brought about the complete ruin of the Lancastrian House, with the death of the Prince of Wales, Edward of Lancaster, upon the field.

 

 

The Wars of the Roses. The final battle at Barnet

The return of an old favourite

Time Commanders, the television programme that replayed old battles from a studio and saw a Norman army lose at Hastings – oh yes – is back after eleven years. There will only be three episodes and Richard Hammond has given way to the somewhat louder Gregg Wallace but it will be on BBC4 tonight at 21:00, set in Carthage (202BC).timecommanders

The other battles will be Waterloo (!) and Chalons (451 AD).

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