Last Night's Television - Winds,BBC4; Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, Channel 4
Completely blown away
Tuesday 28 April 2009
The last of three documentaries about British weather conditions,
Winds interested me on several levels, not least of which was the title. The first programme in the trilogy was called Rain, the second Snow, and the third Winds. So why pluralise it? The answer, of course, is obvious. You can't call a British television programme "Wind", because everyone will think it's about flatulence, a national obsession even greater than the weather. I realised this when I told other members of my family that I was about to sit down in front of a documentary about wind, and farting noises followed me out of the room. That could just be us, I suppose, but I don't think so. Ask 10 passers-by what they think of when they hear the word "wind", and I bet more of them will say baked beans than the Beaufort scale. Even when Winds opened with a solemn voice saying, "we ignore this elemental force at our peril", there was still some room for misinterpretation.
Anyway, you can now read on safely in the knowledge that I have got flatulence out of my system, although paradoxically, it might never have occurred to me had the programme-makers not opted to add that prim, party-pooping S. In all other ways, it was an estimable documentary, featuring some marvellous newsreel footage of people struggling to walk into fierce headwinds, and that celebrated recording, made during gales in 1940, of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state twisting like a ribbon, before collapsing into the river below.
Between these scraps of footage there was rather a lot of science about wind. Indeed, I was blown back to my O-level years and found myself trying to memorise a line about wind being an interraction of temperature, pressure and the Earth's rotation. I'm not normally sorry that my exam-taking years are behind me, but I've found that as I get older I acquire bits of knowledge that positively demand a sharp pencil and a desk in a quiet room, with an invigilator padding up and down the aisles. The only alternative outlet for that definition of wind is the next lull in conversation at a dinner party, but it would have to be a hell of a lull.
Anyway, last night's programme was the only one of this trilogy that I saw, but I'm told that the others were excellent, too, and it's good to be reminded that there's a great deal more to Britain's weather than idle chit-chat over the garden fence. I can also now tell you that in relation to its area, Britain experiences the highest frequency of tornados in the world. It's a good job we don't believe, as the ancient Greeks did, that wind is a punishment sent by the gods, although the poet Ian McMillan astutely observed that there is still a sense of wind as a curse, recalling that his mother used to talk about particularly bitter north-easterlies coming "straight from Siberia" as if to torment us.
On the other hand, the programme emphasised that winds can also bring blessings, such as the 24,000 cases of finest Scotch whisky washed up on a Hebridean island in 1941, as chronicled in the film Whisky Galore!. And in 1588, strong winds were rather more influential than the Royal Navy in overwhelming the formidable Spanish Armada.
That said, Elizabeth I at least had a strong Royal Navy at her disposal, and for that she was indebted to her father Henry VIII, who started to develop England as a naval power following his break from the Roman Catholic church, which dramatically altered his country's sense of identity. In the concluding episode of Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, David Starkey effectively presented Henry as England's first Euro-sceptic, not only building up the Navy but also funding the construction of coastal fortifications – so extensive and long-lasting that they were deployed as recently as the Second World War – from his morally indefensible but highly lucrative sacking of the monasteries. Under Henry, said Starkey, the English Channel, which had been a highway to the continent, now became a defensive moat.
This was all highly fascinating, but now that the series is over, I'm still not sure whether I was fascinated more by Henry, or Starkey. I have alluded before to Starkey's eerie resemblance to Steve Pemberton from The League of Gentlemen – perhaps his next project could be a series on local history for local people? – but last night I also noticed elements of the late Kenneth Williams, intensified by the cameraman's unfortunate habit of filming "the rudest man in England" from below, giving us a view up his nostrils.
I also suggested earlier in the series that Starkey, perhaps subliminally, considers himself to be a kind of reincarnation of Henry VIII, and blow me down if he didn't go and confirm it, telling us that England reflected its most famous king's character "and to the extent that it still does, we're all still made in Henry's image". Some of us more than others.
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