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

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.”

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions