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Fourth Series

In which FP rants about Being Human’s writers not being able to coherently plot from series to series


This blog still gets quite a lot of hits from people searching for the locations used in the BBC supernatural drama series Being Human, particularly the house used in the first couple of series. Now, I wrote quite a bit about those two series on here, partly because at the time we lived in South Bristol, the series was filmed largely in South Bristol, and it was quite an enjoyable thing to watch. The last time I wrote about it, though, was to (successfully) predict one of the plot-lines of Series Three; however, when that series made it onto the screen ,I hardly wrote about it at all. I hardly wrote about it because, to be honest, I didn’t think it was very good.

Now, with at least two major characters killed off* at the end of Series Three, you might have wondered whether it was coming back. Google says that Series Four was announced back in March, but I have to say I didn’t notice. I did notice, however, more of those little pink filming location signs which used to pop up all over Bristol. Not by the Black Castle this time, so no more “Box Tunnel” plotline. Instead, this year, filming is going on in (drum roll) Newport, South Wales. Newport, the town city so good they called it Newport! Newport, on the beautiful River Usk, where you can get shot while having your hair done before getting your head stuck in a disused train. It’s that good.**

Newport might be awful, depressing and run down, but Cardiff has plenty of areas like that too. So, the next series of Being Human is going to feature: some sort of dramatic, thrilling climax based around the Newport Transporter Bridge. It’s essentially the only unique thing Newport has; and if you’re going to feature it, you may as well be dramatic about it. Well, either that, or the Manic Street Preachers are going to pop up in the background, which is less likely.

Noticing that Being Human is coming back, and writing this post, has made me think about exactly why I don’t think it is any good any more; why I think it shouldn’t come back. The biggest problem I have with it, I think, is that its writers don’t really have any sense of how to expand on their fictional world but still retain believability. Each series might make sense on its own, but the three series that have been produced so far, put back to back, make no sense at all as a single work: each new series has introduced new elements which completely break the world already established.

If you’ve watched it, you might be wondering what I’m talking about here. So, I’ll elaborate. Stop reading now if you have never seen the programme but might want to watch it in the future.

Series one: we have Emotionally-Tortured Pre-Raphaelite Vampire, trying hard to give up on the whole “killing people” thing; and Evil Villain Vampire, who is going to take over the world and doesn’t see any place for brooding emotional types who think they can live alongside humans in his worldview. Evil Villain Vampire is working in the police, so he can keep vampires under-cover and make sure their crimes don’t get exposed. E-T P-R V learns to rely on his friends, who defeat Mr. Evil Villain – in the workplace, note – and forestall the great vampire takeover. Sorted.

Series two: E-T P-R V and friends are fighting against some religious “scientists” who are trying to cure evil, and exterminate it if curing it doesn’t work. Our vampire protagonist is still being broody because he’s having trouble with the whole not-killing-people thing again. So, introduce Morally-Uplifted Mentor Vampire, who gave up blood-quaffing as a dead loss some centuries back, and who, way back before the start of Series One, taught Mr E-T P-R Vampire how to not kill people to begin with.

Now, this plotline might all make sense if M-U M Vampire (ooh, an apt acronym) lived somewhere exotic, somewhere difficult for a Totterdown resident to get to.*** Or, alternatively, if he’d**** been off on holiday somewhere, out of contact, for the whole of Series One. Touring the Amazon, perhaps, or spending three years trainspotting in Iceland. The only sensible explanation, indeed, is that that was indeed the case and it just isn’t mentioned: because it turns out that M-U M Vampire lives in a very nice house, literally a stone’s throw from E-T P-R Vampire’s workplace – where, remember, the Final Denoument took place in the previous series. Literally a stone’s throw. Not only did Evil Villain Vampire not notice, in the previous series, that an active let’s-not-kill-people mentor character was living two minute’s walk away, but E-T P-R Vampire could have popped round for some advice and a cup of tea in his afternoon break, and still got back to work before anybody noticed.

Series Three: the religious chaps have been defeated, the Core Team have moved to Wales, and the Evil Villain Vampire might not have been defeated quite so thoroughly as we all thought. But, what’s this? There are some other vampires! Who may or may not exist, of course. They might be somewhere in the depths of the Amazon, or they might be deeply under-cover in a second police team devoted to making sure vampire killings don’t get exposed. However, all the vampires are well-aware that these Old Vampires may exist, or may be just a myth that vampires pass down from generation to generation. All the vampires are well aware of the myth, even though it was never previously mentioned. In Series One, Evil Villain Vampire was planning to take over the world, was planning to become Vampire King Of The World, indeed, and nobody seemed concerned that there may, just may, be some possibly-mythical Old Vampires who might still be around and might disagree. In Series Three, it turns out, they were working in the same business as Evil Villain Vampire all along! But didn’t think it worth doing a thing about him, didn’t bother stepping in – although we’re presumably meant to assume that they would have stopped things going too far.

Basically, my point is that: Being Human hasn’t been thought through. It’s been planned one series at a time, and each time a series is made, the previous one isn’t even thought of. No doubt Series Four will introduce some other new characters: maybe a Great Pack of werewolves convinced that werewolves are going to take over the world, which everyone has heard of before and cunningly forgotten to mention. Or maybe the Old Vampires are going to turn out to include the team’s landlord from Series One, who hasn’t been seen for a while. Either way, something new will no doubt come in, and if the previous series are anything to go by, it will be something which would have made a vital difference to everything that has gone before, if we had actually known about it.

I will stop ranting, now. There are ways to do this sort of thing properly, but Being Human is probably beyond recovery. The annoying thing is, it would have been much better if someone had sat down, right at the start, and said: if we do get more than one series, what way will we go? And what do we have to do now, to make sure we can?

* Given that several characters are either dead or undead, and one has been “killed off for good” once before only to return when the writers ran short of plot, this is possibly not a useful measure of whether or not it will return.

** It’s hard for me to describe what an awful place Newport is, seriously, without you thinking I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Doctors in Newport have been known to use “move well away from Newport” as a treatment for clinical depression. Visiting Newport (in the 2010s) is like visiting a small town in northern England (in 1985).

*** Kingswood, maybe.

**** There’s an essay in the implicit and deep-rooted sexism that shows itself in the writing of the female vampires in Being Human, but this is probably not the place for it, and I am not the person to write it. It is, however, no doubt closely related to the vampire-as-sexual-predator archetype. Here, at least, note that only the male vampires are given any chance of redemption other than death; and that the mentor who demonstrates this the most is gay.

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And then again

In which there are updates on a couple of items


Well, hello there. Happy new year and all that.

I’ve broken the silence because, in the post below this one, you might notice that I said the one-off Dirk Gently adaptation broadcast on BBC4 last Christmas “very much had the smell of a pilot about it”. Funnily enough, the BBC agreed with me, so much so that it will be getting a short series in 2012. Whether the series will also be filmed in Easton, Montpelier and St Werburghs remains to be seen. Nostradamus himself would be jealous of my keen-eyed prediction skills.

In other futurology updates: a year ago, I predicted that the new government would last about fifteen months, collapsing over electoral reform. I now have three months left on that one, and the electoral reform has gone the way I always thought it would.* We will see. Nostradamus may not be quite so impressed. In slightly better news, though, we do now have the tea towel that we wanted this time last year. The downside to this: I now have to catch up on all the washing-up that’s been waiting since then.

* Despite being a Yes voter myself. No, not that Yes.

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The Interconnectedness Of All Things

In which a loose adaptation can be better than a faithful one


The problem with no longer having a connected-up TV, and relying on the internet for our TV service, is that we no longer get to see trailers. We no longer get to see trailers, we no longer see adverts in the paper, and so we don’t generally have much idea what’s coming soon on the good TV channels. It’s too easy to miss stuff we’d really enjoy watching.

A case in point: we only just caught Dirk Gently, BBC4’s rather loose adaptation of Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and saw it on the iPlayer with a few hours to spare before it disappeared. I’m glad, though, that we did catch it. I first read the book in my early teens, and enjoyed it despite not understanding half the plot; so, when I discovered that BBC4 had done an adaptation that was merely 1 hour long, I was rather wary. And, as I said, it was a rather loose adaptation, keeping a couple of the characters unchanged, the names of a few of the others, and a couple of the best scenes from the book. One of the earliest scenes saw the titular Dirk, in his office, whitewashing a wall covered in scrawled notes – notes all pertaining to events from the book which had been scythed out of the adaptation. Symbolic, indeed.*

Watching the opening scenes, I thought to myself: that garden wall looks very like our garden wall. Ooh, the decorative stonework on that house looks very like some of the decorative stonework in our street. That street gutter they’re lying in looks very Bristolian, too. And then the camera swung round to show the disused Greenbank chocolate factory, just a stone’s throw from Symbolic Towers.** “Oh, I did see some filming was going on near there the other month,” said K: presumably, this was it. If you saw the programme and are as geeky as me about this sort of thing: most of the action took place on Camelford Road and Co-Operation Road in Easton, and around Falkland Road and Fairlawn Road in Montpelier, with one scene in St Pauls, and a nice shot of a City Farm mural on Mina Road, St Werburghs.

I said above just how loose an adaptation it was. Only the characters of Dirk and his secretary were retained, essentially, from the book; along with the names of the others, some of the best lines, and a flavour of the main plot device. Strangely, though, I thought it a much better adaptation than the one that BBC Radio did a couple of years back. The reason for that? The book’s plot is horribly complicated, and it’s set in what is essentially an alternate universe, hinted at in a pretty subtle way. It’s also, very clearly, derived directly from some of Douglas Adams’ earlier projects.***

Producing a new plot with a similar tone was, in all probability, by far the best way to create a Dirk Gently TV show. It helps with making it a modern-day production: the original revolves heavily around answering-machine tapes. It means you no longer need to know any Romantic poetry to understand what’s going on; you no longer need lots of hints that we’re not in the real world; and you don’t need to try to weld the loose plot-strands of the novel into the tighter mesh you need for a dramatic production. The tone, moreover, was spot on: you could barely spot the join between scenes and lines imported from the book and those written afresh. That matters because the new Dirk Gently very much had the smell of a pilot about it: if its writer is going to try to push things and take it further, it’s good to know that he can write the title character in a faithful style.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was always intended to be a one-off. You could read the ending either way, which in itself was probably intentional. We’d be happy, though, to sit down in front of an hour of Dirk Gently every week. All I can hope is that, if it does turn into a series, that a mathematically impossible sofa turns up at some point. I didn’t miss the book’s alien robot on horseback, or its idyllic Cambridge college scenes, but I did miss the mathematically impossible sofa. And the other thing we have to hope is: we do realise it’s on, and it doesn’t just appear and disappear without us spotting it.

* there were also, incidentally, some newspaper headlines we saw on-screen which were irrelevant to the plot of the programme, but came from the plot of the book.

** We did consider buying a house that was literally a stone’s throw from the shooting locations, but it had a rather nasty damp patch in the living room which looked, even at a glance, to be an expensive fix.

*** Saying directly where it was pulled from would probably be a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the book, so I’ve put it down here: the plot is partly derived from two Doctor Who stories that Adams wrote or co-wrote. If you know this before you’ve read the book, it becomes rather obvious which character is effectively a Time Lord, and where he keeps his TARDIS. None of this appeared in the new adapatation, apart from the general plot device of a time machine, which was handled in a radically different way.

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Vampire-Spotting

In which we suspect that some TV cameras might be taking the train


Regular readers over the past couple of years might have noticed that I quite enjoy spotting the filming locations of the paranormal TV drama* Being Human, filmed in a variety of easily-recognisable Bristol locations: Totterdown, Bedminster, Clifton, St George, College Green, and so on. Not for much longer, though, we thought: although the first two series were Bristol-based, the third series is apparently being moved over to Cardiff. Whether it will be the recognisable Cardiff Cardiff of Torchwood, or the generic anycity of Doctor Who, remains to be seen; but this was all clearly set up when, at the end of Series Two, the protagonists were forced to flee the house on the corner of Henry St and Windsor Terrace for an anonymous rural hideout. No more Bristol locations for us to spot, we thought.

Over the past week, we’ve been doing a lot of driving about moving house; we now know every intimate corner of every sensible route from south Bristol to east Bristol, or at least it feels like we do. So we were slightly surprised to see that, about a week ago, some more of these pink signs have popped up. “BH LOC” and “BH BASE”, as before.

We spotted them on Albert Road, near the Black Castle. “BH BASE” points along Bath Road, towards the Paintworks and the ITV studios. “BH LOC”, though, is intriguing. It points down the very last turning off Albert Road before the Black Castle end. That entrance only goes to two places: a KFC branch, and St Philips Marsh railway depot.

If you watched the second series of Being Human, you might remember that there was, indeed, a rather brutal train-based scene in a First Great Western carriage.** So, expect the third series to include, at the very least, an extension of that scene, if not a spin-off plotline. Or, alternatively, those signs aren’t really anything to do with Being Human at all, and it’s just coincidence that they pop up around Bristol a few months before each series appears on the telly.*** My money’s on that train from Series Two being the root of part of the Series Three plot; but, I guess, we’ll just have to wait, watch and see.

* Well, it started off as a comedy, and got more serious as it went along

** I was impressed that the programme’s fidelity-to-location included shooting that scene in a genuine local train, rather than just finding any railway prepared to get a carriage soaked with fake blood. Of course, it was probably a convenient location too.

*** The third possibility, of course, is that someone in Series Three tries to cure vampires and werewolves of their respective curses by getting them to eat large amounts of fried chicken.

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The Knowledge

In which FP plots to go on the telly again


Regular readers of this site might be aware that, in the past year or so, I’ve appeared on telly a couple of times, showing off my inner geekiness. If you weren’t aware: specifically, I was a contestant on the 2009-10 series of Mastermind, parading my knowledge of French history (I won, hurrah!) and steam trains (lost, but not because of the trains).

It was all great fun and a grand couple of days out. Indeed, if you ever get the chance, I’d recommend going on either Mastermind, Countdown or Jeremy Kyle – they’re all filmed in studios alongside each other – because, if nothing else, the backstage food is very good* and it’s always nice to get pampered.**

Now, I’d never tried doing that sort of thing before, despite people saying “oh, you’re clever, you should enter [latest popular gameshow]”. And I don’t want to turn into one of those people who goes on every quiz show going, popping up every week somewhere across the TV schedules.*** But, even so, now the “you must not go on any other telly” bit of my Mastermind contract has (I think) expired, I’ve started casting an eye across the networks and thinking “maybe I could do that”.

I’m not sure that there’s much TV that I’m suited to, though. Definitely not that Channel 4 thing with Davina McCall, if it’s coming back, just because I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would get through their auditions. The more I look at the lists of game shows that are out there, the more I’m attracted to the ones where you don’t actually win anything material. Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain, for example – not TV but you get the point. I also quite fancy the thought of applying to Only Connect on BBC4, because I think I’m quite good at spotting links between things.**** The only problem is, that’s a team game; I don’t know anybody else who would want to do it (or even who watches it, apart from K), and I never know any of their music questions.

So – does anyone have any other cunning ideas? I will have to ponder it over, and see what I can enter. And, then, watch this space.

* Apart from their meringues, which were the worst meringues I’ve ever had – they had the texture of a stale bread roll.

** There were seeming armies of runners with nothing really to do other than be nice to nervous Mastermind contestants and their families. You couldn’t even try to get yourself a cup of water without a runner saying “oh, don’t get up, we’ll get that for you”.

*** Like the woman who beat me on Mastermind; at least, my mother said she’s spotted her on TV a few times before. I didn’t realise. Another of the contestants, too, was on A Question Of Genius not long ago.

**** If you don’t watch it: the aim is to spot connections between words or statements. A sample question: “12:00am, 1st January, 1970″ is one clue; “Newlyn” is another; the answer is “datum points”, because the former is the time datum for Unix-based operating systems, and the latter is the site of the altitude datum used by the Ordnance Survey. The full questions have 3 or 4 clues, but you get more points if you don’t use all of them.

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In-Flight Entertainment

In which we have a jaunt off to Birmingham to see Flight of the Concords


Off to Birmingham yesterday, to see Flight of the Conchords at the National Indoor Arena, the great hulking ostrich egg sat in a nest of redeveloped Birmingham canalside next to a clutch of restaurant chains. Despite their radio series and their sitcom, I still think that FotC have the feel of a cult hit to them, one of those acts* who nobody apart from us has heard about. It’s slightly surprising, then, to find that they can head out on an arena tour which – in the UK, at least – seemed to sell out within a morning. I wonder if the other thousands of people in the audience all entered to the same thought: “what, there really are other people who have heard of them?”

There was one big clue as to the type of people who like Flight of the Conchords. The merchandise stall. We arrived at the gig almost as soon as the doors opened, and we queued up for the merchandise stall, at the sight of their rather attractive playing-card-style tea towels. “I know this is sad, but I really want a tea towel” said a woman behind us. But when we reached the desk: nope. No tea towels. All sold out. The people who go to Flight of the Conchords gigs – or, at least, arrive early at them – are the sort of people who like an attractive tea towel in their kitchen.

Disappointment of the night: Flight of the Conchords are touring supported by other comedians who have appeared on their TV series, such as Arj Barker and Kristin Schall. Our tickets told us to expect Schall; but the support who appeared was Eugene Mirman. It’s not that he’s a dull chap, it’s just that we’d already seen most of his material, recently, on TV. We’d have liked it more if we hadn’t heard almost all the jokes before.

You could say I’m being slightly hypocritical there, given that I know Flight of the Conchords’ songs from watching their TV series. Their TV series, though, is distinctly different from their show, and their TV characters are subtlely different to their stage personas. “Where’s Murray?” shouted a heckler at one point. “Murray couldn’t make it tonight,” replied one of the duo, “because … he’s a fictional character.” The songs, though, all worked very well on stage, even ones which previously seemed to be very specific to a TV episode plot.**

In some ways I’m not a great fan of big arena shows, partly because you can end up watching the performers on-screen, because the performers themselves are too hard to see. With Flight of the Conchords, though, there was a sense of warmth between audience and performers that really isn’t something you can experience watching a DVD. We were, apparently, a very polite audience. I wasn’t very surprised that the band thought so, to tell you the truth. After all, what sort of behaviour do you expect, from an audience that likes tea towels so much?

* Do you describe them as a band, or a comedy double-act? I’m not entirely sure.

** “Epileptic Dogs”, for example.

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Location, location, location

In which Ipswich is apparently a suburb of Bristol


Regular readers – if there are any left – might recall that back in January I spotted some TV filming going on in our neighbourhood, that turned out to be for a drama about prostitutes, drugs, etc. that wasn’t set “specifically in Bristol.”

Well, indeed. Because it turned up on the telly last weekend, and it turned out to be Five Daughters: a drama-documentary about the Ipswich prostitute murders of 2006. Apparently, the film-makers thought that Bristol’s distinctive Victorian terraces look just like Ipswich’s (former) red-light district. Or that Bristol’s highly-distinctive market, on hilly Corn St, looks just like Ipswich city centre.

Now, I know telly is all about editing, and it’s not actually real. But, even so, we were slightly amused by moments such as: a car driving past the same restaurant (“Al’s Tikka Grill”, also known as the “Hungry Bite Cafe”, on Ashton Road”) three times on the same journey, twice shot from the same angle.* Or, the way that Ipswich seems to consist solely of Ashton Road, a handful of roads off Ashton Road,** and Corn St. The way that they had used a real BBC Bristol reporter for their mocked-up news footage; and the way that the programme cut from clips of real news footage showing the real Ipswich, to shots of supposedly the same location, filmed in Bedminster and looking entirely different. I know it’s a drama, and I know their budget might have been a bit stretched, but I would have thought the crew would have put slightly more effort into suspending people’s disbelief.

* Well, he could have driven round the block

** There was also the A-One Cafe, near the junction of Duckmoor Road and Luckwell Road, and very definitely the A-One Cafe, its name visible all over the place.

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Lights And Action

In which we spot some filming going on, so talk about something completely different


On my way home, last night and the night before, I noticed something going on along Ashton Road. Big floodlights, lighting up the whole street: some sort of night filming was going on.

Being intrigued, I went to the internet to try to find out what it might be. And then I checked my website stats, and found that people have been coming to this site, already, to try to find out what was being filmed. They can’t have got an answer, at least not from me. I haven’t been able to find a complete one, either, but I have found that it’s a drama about “the lives of young women who are involved with drugs and prostitution“, and it’s not specifically set in Bedminster, Ashton Gate, or in Bristol in general. Cheerful, then.

It reminded me, though, to say: you’d be able to tell, just by looking at my website stats, that the new series of Being Human has started now, with new extra dark edginess and even dirtier vampires than before. You can tell, because of the number of people who are asking The Interweb where it was filmed. To be honest, the establishing shots in the new series make it even more obvious than previously: most of them clearly show the street name. For new readers: the Being Human house is 1, Windsor Terrace, Totterdown, Bristol.* The pub, going by the exterior shots, appears to be along Henry St. K and I had a debate about the location of the car park in Episode 1: she said Trenchard St, I said Prince St; and the gay vampire’s house in Episode 2 was on Redcliffe Parade – as anyone who’s visited Bristol probably realised. Handily just round the corner from the hospital, in fact, should you have an urgent need to pretend to be dead.**

* Not in Cardiff, as one searcher seemed to think, presumably as the series was commissioned by BBC Cymru/Wales.

** In fact, I’m slightly puzzled now, why he didn’t pop up in the first series? After all, if you’re going through a major crisis and the self-proclaimed Vampire Leader is promising to destroy you, and you have a friend who has helped you in the past and is probably On Your Side … and he lives about 2 minutes walk from where you work, you think you’d probably pop round at least once. Of course, I know the real reason is that he hadn’t been invented at that point, but never mind.

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Ubiquity

In which there’s a band you can’t avoid


If there’s one band that was ubiquitous in everyone’s best-of-2009 lists the other months, it must have been Florence And The Machine. Everyone, pretty much, loved their debut album, Lungs, and every review couldn’t stop raving about it. We got a copy; and it was, I have to say, pretty decent. I was impressed.

This post isn’t a review of the album, though. This post is a complaint that now, if you turn the telly on, you can’t get away from that album. Over and over again, tracks from that Florence And The Machine album are being used as background music on trailer after trailer. I’ve heard it used to advertise everything from Slumdog Millionaire to The Hairy Bikers to Lard Rise To Candleford,* and more than once I’ve heard successive trailers, back-to-back, with songs from that same album in the background.

The end-of-year lists might well be at fault. After all, the album was released back in the summer, but this wasn’t happening back in October or November. All at once, though, at some point in December, every sound-editing person across the entire TV world seems to have picked up a copy of Lungs and started plastering its tracks all over their output. All channels seem to have had the same idea, all at the same time. It was a good album, but now, you can’t get away from it. Sometimes too much is too much.

* I prefer the typo there to the actual programme.

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So bad, it’s … well

In which we consider the history of kings


Last Thursday’s post, I mentioned Gödel, Escher, Bach, the long, complex and self-referential book by Douglas Hofstadter which features a tortoise, Achilles, a crab, Alan Turing and Douglas Hofstadter trying to find the links between self-referentiality, consciousness, and the works of the three titular men.

Well, I’ve finished reading it now. This post isn’t about that, though, but about a TV documentary I watched some months ago, which was one of the worst I’ve ever managed to see. At the time, it was so bad, I thought: I should start the blog up again so I can talk about how awful it is. On the other hand, it was so, so bad, it really didn’t deserve the effort.* That programme was: Britain’s Real Monarch, by everyone’s favourite let’s-popularise-history presenter, Tony Robinson.

Towards the end of GEB, there’s an interesting segment on counterfactuality. I think it was Umberto Eco who said “anything counterfactual is true”,** but Hofstadter points out that we’re always far more likely to consider some counterfactuals than others. Some counterfactuals are intrinsically more plausible than others. I suspect, myself, that some of this is culturally determined: “but what if it had been raining?” is much more likely to occur to someone brought up in England to someone brought up in, say, Algeria. “But what would have happened if Henry V had been a woman?” isn’t likely to occur to anyone’s mind, though, even if they happen to be thinking about counterfactuals in medieval history at the time, and even though it’s almost a toss-of-the-coin event.

The premise of Robinson’s documentary, essentially, was that back in the fifteenth century there was some dodginess going on in the English line of descent, and that Edward IV was not his father’s son. Hence, he Wasn’t Royal. Henry VII also Wasn’t Properly Royal, but from an illegitimate branch of the family; so his son, Henry VIII, relied on his mother’s royal descent: from Edward IV. Ergo, all our kings and queens since haven’t really been Royal at all, but are just pretending. Our real monarch is an ordinary Australian chap, living in obscurity and unawareness in New South Wales, called Mike.

Now Mike, to be honest, came out of the whole thing rather well, as one of the most sensible people in the programme. Far from being unaware, he was well aware that he’s actually an aristocrat, knows he has a title and everything, and knows exactly who he’s descended from. He was probably also well-aware of his claim to the throne, going by his response to Tony R taking him through his family tree. Being a republican, he was probably also rather bored with the idea.

What annoyed me, though, was the whole concept of the programme: that, if things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, This Man would now be Michael, By The Grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Defender of the Faith and Head of the Commonwealth. If things had been slightly different back in fourteen-mumble-mumble, Mike wouldn’t even exist. He’d never have been born. Neither would his father, his father’s father, and so on. His 19th-century ancestor who gambled the family inheritance away? None of it, none at all, would have happened. It was perfectly possible for Tony R to contemplate that some past uprising would have pushed a Tudor off the throne and replaced them with someone else with True Royal Blood; but not possible for him to contemplate that the family tree of that branch would have changed in any way at all. Even though, of course, their circumstances would have been radically different, they would have socialised in different circles, had different obligations, this documentary relied on the theory that they would still all have married exactly the same people.

The other part of the concept was also, well, rather silly. To my mind, at least, but lots of people still do seriously believe it. That there is, indeed, something in your blood that makes you Magically Royal. Whatever Something it is, it’s very clever, because it disappears if you’re not properly married. I doubt that Tony Robinson seriously believes in that himself.*** It also, somehow, never dilutes, however many prince and princess siblings a king or queen has. If it didn’t, of course, we’d all be very much Royal. The people who still seriously believe in that sort of Royalty tend not to think about where it starts from in the first place: we worship the Queen because she is directly descended from our god, Woden.****

For a long time, as you probably know, there have been disputes in historiography between those who see history as a series of events created by great people and as a series of trends driven by economics, climate and technology. The truth is somewhere in between, but the two styles are as hard to marry as, in the science world, quantum physics and relativity, because they focus on entirely disparate scales. Great People theory is the quantum theory of history: it explains the world by focusing on the tiniest of scales, but at its heart you have to accept randomness as a primary cause of events. Socioeconomic history is relativity: you look at the wide scale of changes in, say, crop yields, and from that explain how society changes just as you can explain a planet’s orbit. An individual invention doesn’t even matter, because someone else would have invented it. Both of these are entirely acceptable ways of looking at history, and both are true, even though they can seem to be incompatible on the surface. Where you go wrong, though, is to base your history from a Great People perspective whilst assuming its events are as fixed and predictable as the onset of the Little Ice Age. That’s the mistake that Tony Robinson made, and all the other writers who have followed the “God Save King Mike!” line of reasoning. History doesn’t necessarily follow iron rails.***** Mike The Friendly Australian isn’t the real King of Britain, despite what his bloodline might be, because kingship in the real world is a little more complicated than that.

* Yes, it really was less well-thought-out than this chap’s documentary work.

** At least, Umberto Eco’s translator, who I think is usually William Weaver, in Foucault’s Pendulum.

*** He was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party for a few years last decade; given that political background it’s unlikely.

**** I’m not the sort of person who hangs around genealogical websites, but I do seem to remember, a few years back, seeing a Mormon-driven one that displayed family trees for everyone it knew about. Moreover, “everyone it knew about” included quite a few of the ancient pagan gods of Europe. If you looked up someone linked to the British royal family, then it would, entirely serious and deadpan, give you their family tree right back to Woden/Odin, as their ancestors had claimed was the case.

***** Bear in mind, too, that Way Back In The Mists Of Time the succession wasn’t fixed in any case. It could be willed, or a king could be chosen. William I wasn’t followed by his firstborn son, at least not as King of England; and kings before him were picked by a council from the eligible aristocrats.

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