History on TV: why bother?
It's exciting to see my period (namely the mid-Tudor era) represented on TV. Henry VIII, who features in the early books, is a towering, titanic historic presence, so we get plenty of him. Elizabeth as queen is equally popular, and gets a lot of attention. So I wondered if the Timewatch Guide to her might give us some insight into who she was, rather than simply repeat the fairly well-trodden anecdotes of which even the relatively uninterested might already be aware. She - Elizabeth - is a much more fascinating character in many ways than her father, whether for the purposes of writing entertaining historical fiction or just for sheer historical interest. So I was a bit disappointed with the programme for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as is presumably evident from the books, I think that understanding Elizabeth the adult woman comes from understanding her as a teenager. I have my own inventions to offer some sort of insight, but I didn't think this programme added anything. I suppose that's a reflection on the fact that I've got a reasonably wide range of Elizabeth literature, fiction and history, under my considerable belt already, but I do ask the question: what is this doing that the last half-a-dozen programmes didn't? It's a perennial problem, because it's relatively rare for something really new to be discovered, found, theorised, but it seems to be relatively common for history programmes to be commissioned. It's also the case that this particular programme was a sort of literature review, pulling out what might have been at the time new ideas, but they weren't new to me.
Secondly, I think that the Philomena Cunk spoof programmes have - or at least ought to have had - a Spın̈al Tap-like influence on the making of history TV. You shouldn't just do all the cliches: walking towards the camera through convincingly period-authentic forest, sitting in a darkened room lit only by a burning fire, that peculiar cadence that is supposed to lend significance to relatively mundane sentences; all represented here, in spite of their being sent up.
Thirdly and finally it'd be nice to hear about the Tudors without having their relevance to now being emphasised. They are interesting, regardless of whether they are like us. It would make more sense to highlight the differences, would it not, than to simply collapse the 400-year gap as if the Tudors are just like us? In my own writing, I have tried to show exactly how the atheist is an unusual character, viewed with anything from suspicion to ridicule by even his own friends. I have tried to show how dedication to religion is critical to understanding the age. Hence the title. Faith meant something different then, being as it was so central to almost everyone's world view.
So, programme makers, let's try to have history on TV that brings something new to the table. There is a vacancy. In History. I'm not proposing myself to fill it, but someone ought to.
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