Last Night's TV: Heist, BBC4
Those Were The Days, ITV3
Lock, stock and scraping the barrel
Thursday 24 April 2008
"Edward I: unacknowledged pioneer of administrative reform or 'slap-headed ponce'? Discuss, using your knowledge of contemporary documents to back up your arguments." Or, alternatively, don't bother with the historical documents at all but just have it large with a lairy crime caper that appeared to have done most of its research at the nearest Blockbuster, rather than in the National Archives. Heist, audaciously billed as part of BBC4's Medieval season, took a real event as its source – the theft of Edward I's personal treasure from a vault in Westminster Abbey – but by the time they'd finished having fun with the Guy Ritchie pastiche, virtually none of the source was still visible.
"Oi'm the biggest criminal genius you've never heard of," announced Dick Puddlecote, introducing himself to us from a gridiron in hell, as an energetic demon prepared to shove a heated pitchfork up him. Despite his circumstances, he appeared remarkably sanguine. He was untroubled by the flames licking around his naked body and prepared to be ruefully philosophical about the misadventure that had brought him so low. He explained his back story: a disastrous business venture in Flanders, a failed attempt to obtain compensation from Edward I, and then the decision to seek redress by a more direct route. "This," he said, "is the story of how I got my revenge on the pisspot king... with a little help from my friends."
Dick didn't have a lot of respect for Edward, who had, he said, "two great loves: kicking arse and raising money to kick more arse". But he was impressed by the fact that Edward stored a lot of his money and plate in Westminster Abbey. Recruiting an abbey gatekeeper called Guillame de Palays and a sacristan called Adam de Warfield, Dick hatched a plan to infiltrate the abbey walls with a cartload of wine tuns, one of which would contain two accomplices who could burrow into the vault from an adjacent cemetery. Essentially, it was "Lock, Stock and Seven Big Barrels", complete with jokey police mugshots of the principals, heavy metal on the soundtrack, and a wearying dependency on the verb "swiving". Though the robbery started well, the gang was dismayed to find that they'd broken through directly beneath the monks' lavatory. "Doesn't make a difference," said Dick, "just means it's less of a pleasant working environment." Less pleasant, that is, than tunnelling through decomposing bodies.
I think it's possible that Heist won't have appealed to historical purists. When Dick visited John of Newmarket, who he hoped would fence the goods, he found him reclining on a medieval lounger by his pool, quaffing wine from a goblet with a little paper umbrella in it. And even historical impurists may have hankered for a little more hard fact in among the "cack" jokes and the cinematic pranks. Tiny traces of real history remained in the thing – like crumbs in the beard of a messy eater – but the cheery indifference to anachronism meant that you would only have noticed if you already had a grasp of the basic details. There was the odd good joke, though. "What are these?" asked one of Dick's accomplices opening an ornate box containing what looked like decaying cigars. "St Peter's fingers," Dick replied. Accomplice's eyebrows lifted in comprehension, then dipped again. "But there's 12 of them..."
Overlooked historical detail is also the point of Those Were the Days, a new ITV3 series that knits red-letter days from 20th-century history together with memories of more local resonance. So, while 20 July 1969 will figure in most timelines as the day man first landed on the Moon, it also marks the day on which Ron Hill took his first marathon win and Pat Wheeldon won the Miss British Isles beauty competition. In this case, private memories and the public event inevitably became entangled, such was the public excitement about the Moon landings. The band Thunderclap Newman, coasting on their first and only chart-topping hit, found their evening gig interrupted by the venue manager coming on stage to give periodic updates on Apollo 11's progress.
It's a good idea, one that restores an intriguing edge of polyphony to television's usually one-note treatment of the recent past. It reminds you that a lot of other things were happening on that day and that in the case of some of the people they were happening to, such as a group of Portsmouth residents arrested and imprisoned for protesting against an entrance fee for a local park, they loomed rather larger than one giant leap for mankind. But at an hour long, Those Were the Days stretches the notion a lot further than it can comfortably go. It was fun hearing about Ron Hill's 1969 version of marathon carbo-loading – a pre-race diet of porridge oats, three marmalade butties and a slice of his wife's fruit cake – but most contributors were beginning to run out of things to say by the time the second ad break came round.
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