History programmes show that Game of Thrones isn't so OTT after all

For some telly-dons 'sexed up' will always mean 'dumbed down', but that doesn't mean a GoT-influenced view of medieval life is inaccurate

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The Independent Culture

Old Sarum is the name of the site in Wiltshire where archeologists have found the remains of a huge royal palace, previously forgotten to history. For any Game of Thrones fan, it's near impossible to look at the artist's rendering of this 12th century structure and not think of the three-dimensional maps of castles, forts and cathedrals used in the HBO show’s title sequence. Writer George R. R. Martin has long acknowledged the debt of influence Game of Thrones owes to medieval history. It’s only more recently, however, that his series has begun to return the favour.

BBC2 is currently three episodes in to Secrets of The Castle, in which the costumed historian Ruth Goodman bears a passing resemblance to Catelyn Stark. On BBC4, Castles: Britain’s Fortified History will be hoping to benefit from the interest fictional locations like Winterfell, Harrenhal and Castle Black have generated in medieval military architecture and Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty, the new Channel 5 series, is even more explicit about this connection. “The Plantagenet story is more shocking, more brutal and more astonishing than anything you’ll find in Game of Thrones,” boasts presenter Dan Jones.

Those who saw BBC2’s more staid series The Plantagenets earlier this year, will know that history programmes aren’t always eager to draw parallels with fiction - and with good reason. There’s a danger that the demand for exciting TV entertainment will supercede their duty to the historical truth. For some telly-dons ‘sexed up’ will always mean ‘dumbed down’, but does that mean a GoT-influenced view of medieval life is inaccurate? Not necessarily. In fact, these lives may have been more intrigue-filled than we’d previously realised. Only this week, scientists studying the DNA of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, found evidence of illegitimate birth and infidelity in the line leading back to Edward III.

The fantasy drama Game of Thrones is no replacement for real history, of course, but if it helps to make programming about the past more accessible, that’s no bad thing. Especially since the drama of Game of Thrones can help us grasp the spirt of a different time in a way which documentary can’t. GoT is famous for its gruesome battle scenes, and as all the historians reiterate, the ever-present threat of violence and death was one of the defining features of the medieval period. The notorious ‘Red Wedding’ scene in series three is shocking, but it’s nothing compared to The Black Dinner (circa 1440), one of several real-life massacres which inspired it. So if you think GoT is OTT, it might be time to brush up on your history.

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A scene from BBC4's 'Brian Pern: A Life in Rock'

'Fast Show' star’s life of Brian rocks

Here’s a stocking filler for the TV comedy fan in your life: Comedy and Error, the surprisingly dark 2012 memoir by comedian Simon Day. Day is still best-known for his characters on The Fast Show (Essex eco-warrior Dave Angel was my favourite), so his return to our screens on BBC4 next week is occasion enough for a mini-retrospective.

After a troubled adolescence, featuring periods of homeless and a Borstal sentence for theft, Day got his big break when he took a job in fireplace shop. The premises above happened to be used as office space by comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, who soon recognised his talent. His work with them, and later on The Fast Show, led to the sadly under-watched gem that is Grass, a 2003 sitcom about south London pub-know-it-all who goes into witness protection. It’s been a while, but web-series turned rock mockumentary Brian Pern: A Life in Rock (BBC2, Tuesday, 10pm) is proof that Simon Day is at the top of his game.

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