Last Night's Viewing: Britain's Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones, BBC1
The Meat Market: Inside Smithfield, BBC2
Here's a nice idea. Britain's Lost Routes, a four-part series about the historical arteries of the country, following the trail of ancient pathways long ago overgrown by technological progress and changing priorities. As a way of cutting a course across the landscape it has a lot going for it, a point-to-point that touches on topology and culture and regional difference.
An idea is one thing, though, and its execution quite another, and as it appears on screen, Griff Rhys Jones's latest vehicle is a near-perfect example of how to BBC1-ify a programme. The fact that Griff Rhys Jones is the vehicle's driver is point one. Had this series been intended for BBC4, someone else might have been at the wheel, but on BBC1 name recognition is everything. As the full title implies (Britain's Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones), even the best idea must have a celebrity to hold its hand, to attract our paparazzi attention spans.
The subject for last night's programme was Queen Elizabeth I's royal progress from Windsor to Bristol in the summer of 1547, a journey of 156 miles that took her nearly a month to cover. She had a fairly strong incentive for going, quite apart from the fact that going on tour got her away from the more nagging aspects of statecraft. The moat at Windsor was also the palace cesspit and in summer it delivered an odorous reminder that the Black Death might be dropping round at any moment for an unannounced visit. At the same time, Elizabeth could reward her loyal nobles with a visit and punish those who had displeased her by being an insufferable but unejectable house guest.
Griff travelled in a Rolls-Royce Phantom V, following a route reconstructed from court calendars and Elizabethan maps, and he started by reconstructing the Queen's baggage train on a disused airfield with the help of local volunteers and their cars. That's very BBC1, too, where the budget will stretch to an aerial shot of what looked like a rolling car-boot sale. Never mind that Griff's simple description of the thing actually delivered a more vivid sense of its scale (it would have taken 20 minutes to pass through the villages and hamlets it encountered). Spectacle is essential. And quite a bit of larking about, too. On his journey, Griff frequently met up with the sort of people who wear trousers with zipped pockets and specialised jerkins, people who know everything about the Elizabethan road system or field layout or the brewing of small beer. But their expertise seemed secondary to the opportunity for him to make a bit of a fool of himself, by lumbering through the steps of a galliard or shooting at a plastic deer.
To be fair, it's virtually impossible to prevent quite a bit of real information leaking into the film in among what's meant to be the sugar coating, and in at least one instance it came from the hands-on experience, when Griff took time out to have a go at falconry. The phrase to be "hoodwinked" and to have someone "under your thumb" are both, it turns out, verbal relics of one of Elizabeth's favourite pastimes, the latter deriving from the falconer's technique of pinning a bird's jesses under his thumb to prevent it flying away. To be fair, too, the idea may be strong enough here to survive its execution.
Also in the "rich seam of history" field was The Meat Market. The second of BBC2's films about London markets focused on Smithfield, where men are men and outsiders are nervous. "They've got knives and chain-mail gloves!" explained Mark, who makes a living as a kind of door-to-door meat delivery service. And they use their fists, as you discovered when one buyer enraged Norman by trying to bargain down his prime mince. A simple "no" would have sufficed, Norman.
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