‘World Without End’, ‘Chivalry and Betrayal’ and why the Middle Ages mattered…
With the recent recovery of Richard III’s remains from a Leicester car park and the subsequent public interest in his demise, a blow which condemned us to centuries of Tudor rule and historical drama, it appears that television producers and schedulers have an important decision to make about the past. What period is more worthy of their investment, the history of the same old bloody Henrys, or those of the rulers that preceded them, the Plantagenets and early Lancastrians?
Whilst Channel 4’s attempt to resurrect Richard, titled Richard III: The King In The Car Park, was a bizarre mixture of CSl-style archaeology and barmy analysis – ‘So medieval people really did have faces’ – their decision to give a leading Saturday night slot to a big-budget TV adaptation of World Without End, Ken Follett’s best-selling historical novel, should be applauded.
Although the eight part mini-series, which finished last week, played hard and fast with the facts and fabric of Edward III’s reign and medieval life (spoiler alert: in the series finale it was revealed that Ben Chaplin’s Edward II had miraculously pulled a Tupac and come back from the dead), it still captured the essence of English society at the time of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War, and despite its flaws, managed to be thoroughly entertaining. The fact that the concept was based on a novel enabled those in command of the screenplay to paint their community of Kingsbridge in small, patient brushes, and their characters earned our sympathy or hatred without exhibiting endless martial prowess or pouting too much. Moreover, the spectacle revolved around ‘small’ struggles as much as ‘big’ ones, devoting plenty of time to the ecclesiastical and tenurial disputes which were a regular feature of 14th century life, and bypassing swashbuckling, chivalric knights in favour of far humbler heroes. Even in its most ridiculous, Monty Python-esque moments, it was a fun and compelling argument for more of the medieval on our TV screens.
As rulers, the mop-haired Plantagenets of this period deserve more attention than they get. Edward III, brought to life with an intense, steely gaze in World Without End, should have spawned far more documentaries and historical series than he actually has. The BBC must be praised for devoting ample time to his long reign in their new BBC4 series on the Hundred Years’ War, Chivalry and Betrayal, presented by the charming, albeit unintentionally patronising Dr Janina Ramirez.
Dr Ramirez regularly introduces herself as a ‘cultural historian’ like it’s some sort of hereditary defect, but her new take on the war integrates cultural, political and military history wonderfully well and uses period artefacts and settings to stunning effect. There’s a little bit too much of an obsession with the personal appearance of historical figures (particularly their faces, which seems to be a running theme here) and the script is occasionally plagued by anachronistic nonsense about national identity, class and so on, but thankfully, it’s more than just a bunch of historians talking about heraldry.
The first two instalments of the documentary series shed light on aspects of the Hundred Years’ War all too frequently ignored, i.e. the systematic campaigns of devastation known as chevauchees, and French raids on the South Coast in the 1370s, and the political analysis was, for the most part, very accurate.
For once, guest historians reminded us that Crecy, Agincourt and the Peasants’ Revolt weren’t the fun and games of knights and peasants, as some would suggest, but devastating historical events in which wasteful chancellors were slaughtered by taxpayers, French knights were crushed by their horses and other knights were suffocated under their own armour. Unlike those programmes helmed by David Starkey or Niall Ferguson, it wasn’t one ‘expert’ opinion on the subject, presented as the final word, but a multi-faceted research project. I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to the third and final instalment, which airs next Monday at 9PM on BBC4.
Hopefully, these new programmes on Channel 4 and BBC4 will lead to a larger re-assessment of the Middle Ages amongst both broadcasters and the viewing public. I hope the former will realise that medieval politics and society don’t need to be sexed up or explained using modern ideas or even presented as alien curiosities to make compelling viewing, and I hope the latter will help them by taking an interest in the world pre-Ann Boleyn. The Middle Ages were, after all, important in their own right.Tagged in: Chivalry and Betrayal, historical drama, Ken Follett, period drama, Plantagenets, Richard III, World Without End
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