Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives and Brothers in Arms: the Pals of World War One, TV review

The first thing Bragg wanted to get straight is that 'Peasants’ Revolt' is itself a misnomer
  • @MsEllenEJones

Melvyn Bragg doesn’t seem like much of a radical, even with those Che Guevara locks blowing in the wind.

A Labour peer since 1998 and a fixture on Radio 4 and The South Bank Show since long before, this Cumbrian lad has been comfortably ensconced in the establishment bosom for quite some time now. If this describes your way of thinking, prepare for a shock. In his new two-part documentary series, Melvyn Bragg’s Radical Lives (Sat BBC2), Red Melv is on the march.

His first subject was John Ball (next week it will be Rights of Man author Thomas Paine), the spiritual leader of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Ball is now best remembered for a catchy line from one of his sermons: “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who was then the gentleman?” But as Bragg detailed in his energetic programme, Ball was much more than just a composer of memorable rhymes.

The first thing Bragg wanted to get straight is that “Peasants’ Revolt” is itself a misnomer. This revolutionary army, he said, was “no rabble on the rampage”, but also “artisans, administrators, one or two knights of the realm”, and perhaps a stray BBC arts presenter, had he been about at the time? We can only speculate.

The “commons” were organised into a full-scale rebellion within four days – an astonishing feat when you don’t have BlackBerry Messenger – and this swiftness gave the story its innate pace. It was the 24 of historical narratives. Bragg’s challenge, then, was not to keep our attention, but to stoke our admiration for Ball. How was a man from a time of “warmongering nobles, plague and poverty” able to not only conceive of a better world but also persuade others to fight and die for it? 

Bragg was aided in this task by plenty of Gregorian chanting, sweeping aerial shots of rural Essex, and most of all by his obvious affinity with the 14th-century cleric. As Bragg retraced the path of the Peasants’ Revolt locations – Colchester, Southwark, the Tower of London – he emphasised how Ball’s preaching was rooted in his Christianity: “Ball, to me, is very much in the tradition of prophetic Old Testament figures.”

Several centuries later, another generation of young British men readied for war. The big difference between Bragg’s history and ITV’s Sunday night documentary, was that this time we didn’t have to guess at their experience. Brothers in Arms: the Pals of World War One was based around extensive interviews with veterans of the so-called “Pal’s Battalions”. They had signed up as young men and, often, boys, along with best friends and brothers from the same village, or street, or factory. Very often they returned alone. 

In this year of centenary programming, we’ve seen big-budget costume dramas, Paxman-fronted documentaries and live-broadcast ceremonies, but it’s only in programmes like these, which include personal testimonies, that television really does justice to our duty of remembrance.

These men, of all ranks and from all over the country, didn’t speak in historian’s clichés. Instead, they described the taste of Royal Navy rum for breakfast, why kilts were better at keeping your legs dry in a trench, and sang the songs they’d sung back then. There was a lot of “by Jove!” and “Aye, we’d never seen nowt...” but though their way of speaking hailed from more innocent times, they spoke of a horror so vivid it might have been yesterday.

Dick Trafford’s eyes were still wide with shock as he recounted responding  to a trench-mate’s request for a cigarette: “I went over and half of his shoulder was missing. He couldn’t reach, he couldn’t get to his cigarettes.”