Roy’s West End View: History is bunk …and it ends just outside London
This is going to sound like a rant from an embittered nationalist who, like those wee terrier dogs that can’t resist a nip at any likely passing ankle, take offence at practically anything and sometimes nothing at all.
But truth will out. There I was, happily watching a BBC item about how a ship carrying the future James VII and II, which ingloriously sunk off the Norfolk coast in the late 17th century, has been officially identified and will no doubt be treated to the full Mary Rose treatment.
Mary Rose sank in the Solent during the reign of horrible Henry VIII and its remains, now lovingly preserved in a special museum in Portsmouth, tell us vast amounts about the Tudor navy we didn’t know before the vessel was exhumed from its watery grave.
Now it’s the turn of HMS Gloucester, originally discovered off the Norfolk coast back in 2007 but only recently confirmed to have been the ship carrying James, then Duke of York, when it foundered in 1682.
It was a catastrophe, which cost the lives of 250 crew and passengers. James, who only narrowly escaped, is blamed for not ordering “abandon ship” until it was too late.
King James II of England and Ireland & King James VII of Scotland
So what is my petty problem with the exciting news of this latest maritime marvel?
Only that the Beeb, in its gushing excitement, described the ultimately luckless Stuart dynast as “the man who was to become the future king of England”.
At this point the Beeb-watch claxon sounds the alarm. What about “and Ireland”, “and Scotland”. He was James II of England and Ireland, and James VII of Scotland …but Auntie’s report just didn’t care. Or didn’t know.
The Beeb blather got worse, speculating that all sorts of major events in British and European history might not have happened had James drowned along with the rest of the unfortunates.
James, as students of the Jacobite wars will know, later fled the country when William of Orange was invited by leading government and military men (technically traitors) to invade England and deprive him of his throne.
The Scots Guards held fast for their rightful king in Edinburgh Castle, and Bonnie Dundee died leading his Highlanders to victory for the Stuart cause at Killiekrankie – but down south the military cheerfully turned their coats to usher in the erstwhile Stadhouder of the United Provinces.
James was seen as a Catholic absolutist monarch partial to stuffing the highest positions in government and society with members of his own religious-political tribe, and like his dad Charles II (“the Merrie Monarch”) was frequently much too cosy with the aggressive superpower of France, and its maleficent ruler Louis XIV (“the Sun King”).
The Glorious Revolution of 1688?
The BBC report described the putsch which drove James from his throne (rightly or wrongly – and that’s a long argument) as “the Glorious Revolution of 1688”.
Well, yes, it was glorious for the new Protestant team who took over, but hardly for the legitimate monarch and his subjects – but as history is written by the winners (as Napoleon observed) the Beeb are happy to go with the Official Version, as taught to generations of bored and indifferent schoolchildren.
I admit this nit-picking is a bit petty, for in this case the version of events presented by the BBC so glibly and almost automatically, is just par for the course.
Everyone knows that Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Did he, aye? Is that why he issued preliminary orders for retreat before 40,000 Prussians under Marshal Gebhard von Blücher came to the rescue against all probability and in the nick of time?
There are probably about ten serious European versions of that epic postscript to the Napoleonic Wars, but the British account is taken as read on this side of the Channel.
There are plenty of authentic English and British success stories to recount (although the Spanish Armada isn’t one of them – the weather scuppered the Spanish fleet, and the Dutch kept the Duke of Parma’s invasion army stuck fast in Holland) but too many key elements of Our Island Story are misrepresented, mythologised and endlessly repeated as accepted fact.
Obsession With The Tudors
In films and TV dramas, meanwhile, there’s a ludicrous obsession with the Tudors, and in the interplay between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I …who are invariably depicted as meeting up for a right good natter whereas in reality they never met at all.
Then in The White Queen we see the young Edward IV falling in love with his secret wife-to-be Elizabeth Woodville in classic romance novel style – but don’t see him becoming the bloated wreck who died of a stroke at 40, or her becoming a grasping arrivist filching everything in sight for her greedy relatives.
John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough
Apart from an ancient TV series and an even older movie, both completely forgotten, the one man you’d imagine would be the perfect subject for a drama series about a great Englishman is John Churchhill, first Duke of Marlborough – soldier and statesman extraordinaire, the man who settled the Sun King’s hash both politically and militarily.
It would be the perfect counterpoint to that rather cheesy TV series Versailles, and help to shine a small light on a fascinating and colourful era of history far more important than anything that happened in Tudor times …but instead yet another Elizabethan romp, “Becoming Elizabeth” is on the cards.
They should have packed it in at Blackadder – the only Elizabethan drama of recent times I’d watch again.
Marlborough does turn up for about five minutes on a quick visit home from his campaign in Flanders in “The Favourite” – a dark masterpiece, which really does do its historical setting justice – but otherwise the only Churchill we’re likely to see on screen is Winston (whose greatest hero was Marlborough).
The Virtual Exclusion of Scottish History
Meanwhile in Scotland we’ve got Neil Oliver’s sparky if often contentious forays into Scottish history, the wildly inaccurate but fun portrayal of the ’45 in Outlander and …that’s about it.
For the Scottish and British audience Scots generally are either whimsical Hebridean inebriates or moronic Glasgow neds.
For the international audience Scots all wear kilts, drink lots of whisky, and live in castles up glens.
Don’t get me started on Macbeth, a pack of lies about a perfectly good Scottish king written to butter up a truly horrible Scotsman, James VI and I.
Kilts-and-heather nonsense sells well, and biopics about poets or authors or scientists are a far more difficult proposition.
But while we can’t do much about the virtual exclusion of Scottish history and people from major league TV and film drama (apart from Mary Queen of Scots, interminably) we certainly can make the point, with terrier –like persistence, every time the BBC gets it wrong, horribly, ignorantly wrong.
We can also hope our developing movie industry (this would have seemed a joke ten years ago) inspires some decent historical drama to go with all that convenient scenery.
Best Scottish Film In A Historic Setting
Meanwhile I’m going to watch a replay of Alex Guinness (with his bright orange hair) in the magnificent “Tunes of Glory” – equal pegging in my book with “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (both coincidentally featuring the late, great Gordon Jackson) for the honour of Best Scottish Film in a Historic Setting.
They don’t make them like that any more.
Roy Beers, June, 2022
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