Last night's television: Throne together, not thought out


Critics - including myself - complain that TV history is all Nazis, Nazis, Nazis, plus the occasional excursion into Tudors. In fairness, the Stuarts don't do too badly. I can come up with three reasonably lavish attempts to do the 17th century: a series called Plague, Fire, War and Treason a year or two back, Jeremy Hardy's one-off England's Fight for Freedom back in 1999 (both of those on Channel 4) and, of course, Tristram Hunt's unintentionally hilarious Civil Wars on BBC2.

In terms of subject matter, then, last night's Blood on Our Hands was hardly breaking new ground. It didn't serve up much novelty in terms of technique, either, using the familiar method of filming dramatised reconstructions in slow-motion, heavily colourised, with lots of blurry bits. Blood on Our Hands went further than most in its willingness to throw in any visual device to add on-screen variety. The thing that really rattled me was the frequent use of black-and-white stills: there seemed to be an assumption that black-and-white photography is more authentic, because back in 1640 they wouldn't have had colour. Every TV history producer ought to be made to watch Peter Watkins's 1964 film about Culloden, which recreated the physical horror of warfare and its aftermath using approximately three men and black-and-white film. Watkins even managed to give a fairly full account of why the battle was being fought in the first place.

Considered as an example of television technique, then, Blood on Our Hands was pretty awful, and if you were looking for a beginner's account of the politics behind the Civil War, it wasn't terrifically lucid. It was even a step back: both Hunt and Simon Schama, in his A History of Britain, moved beyond an old-fashioned Roundheads vs Cavaliers account to emphasise the wider context of the Civil War, particularly the role played by Scotland. The Scots barely got a look-in here, though, oddly, the American Puritans did (fascinating to note that, only 20 years after they'd disembarked from the Mayflower, they'd developed distinctive American accents).

What the film did do well was to emphasise how traumatic the Civil War was for Britain, with a greater proportion of the population slaughtered than in the First World War. The film dwelt on the contemporary accounts of atrocities committed by both sides: massacres of surrendered soldiers, mass rapes and mutilations of women, children having their fingernails torn out. At times, it tried too hard to tell the story in modern terms (did they really have "spin doctors" in the 17th century?). Elsewhere, though, the sheer weirdness of the past was what struck you: when a Puritan mob sacked the house of the Royalist Lucas family in Colchester, they broke open the family crypt, decorated their hats with hair cut from corpses, and paraded through the streets banging together the bones.

There was a message for the present here: if you didn't understand the depth of this trauma, you'd never grasp why politics in this country has developed such a strong tradition of reform by consensus, an allergy to radical change. Another thing: Charles I was an arbitrary ruler who ignored parliament, and whose wife was constantly being attacked in the press... Does this remind you of anybody? I'm going to start stockpiling tinned food.

Meanwhile, the forces of the Establishment are moving closer towards their goal of crushing our hero in Judge John Deed, and I'm starting to lose patience with him myself: does he have to sleep with everybody involved in every case he conducts? G F Newman's drama is still a pleasure, but an ever more barking one.

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