Last night's viewing - Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip – an Emotional History of Britain, BBC2; 7/7 Bombings: Conspiracy Road Trip, BBC3

 

I'd never heard of Lumpy Stevens five days ago and now I can't shake him off. The first mention came in Patricia Cox's series Servants: the True Story of Life Below Stairs, where he illustrated the unexpected closeness of some servant/master relationships (the Earl of Tankerville hired him as a gardener because of the quality of his cricket). Then last night he cropped up again in Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip – an Emotional History of Britain, as a participant in one of the more quixotic foreign-policy initiatives of British history.

The Duke of Dorset, then ambassador in Paris and alarmed by republican stirrings, decided that the perfect antidote to Gallic over-excitability would be to get the country interested in cricket. So he arranged a tour, with Lumpy Stevens as one of the star players. Unfortunately, things had already gone too far for this uniquely British tranquillizer to prove effective, and the team were forced to up stumps and head home.

Exactly why this bizarre attempt to hold off ancien régime change featured in Hislop's programme, I can't entirely recall now. But the real point was the French Revolution, credited here with initiating a sea change in British emotional history. Before that time, Hislop argued, the notion that we might pride ourself on our emotional reserve was unthinkable. After visiting London, the great scholar Erasmus remarked on our positively Continental effusiveness: "Wherever you come you are received with a kiss," he wrote, "you cannot move without kisses." Much later, "sensibility" – a delicate and responsive attitude to deep emotions – became a badge of pride among the lettered. But then the French Revolution showed how dangerous giving in to the passions could be and a different strain in British life, the mannerly (and manly) control of feelings came to the fore.

That's the crude précis, anyway, and it's one of the pleasures of Hislop's programme that a crude précis won't quite do justice to it. He stays alert to the fact that a history of feeling can never be quite as categorical as a history of battles. Contradictory emotions exist simultaneously, and ambiguities of response will further confuse the picture. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy's reserve and self-control is, by turns, a failure of good character and a triumph of it. And the paintings of John Zoffany offer evidence both for the display of sensibility and the fear of where it could lead to if the bridle was taken off altogether. But Hislop finds ways to bring a bit of order to this muddle. As he argued here, the broad shift could be emblematised by the difference between Nelson and Wellington as national heroes; the first tender-hearted enough to ask for a farewell kiss and the latter establishing iron as a desirable raw material in the national character. It helps that he can turn a Gibbonian phrase too. Cueing up next week's episode, in which Empire stiffens the backbone even further, he said this: "We were going to be modest about our national pride – and inordinately proud of our national modesty."

Self-control and inherent stoicism came in handy while watching 7/7 Bombings: Conspiracy Road Trip, in which Andrew Maxwell took four conspiracy theorists from Leeds to London in an attempt to pry their cherished theories from their convulsive grip. It wasn't easy. "I'm not defensive and I'm not weird," said Tony, after getting into a row with another participant over his ferocious credulity. Actually, he was a tiny bit weird, but he also proved to be more open-minded than you might have predicted. He'd been convinced that home-made explosives wouldn't have been powerful enough to cause the level of destruction seen on 7/7. So Maxwell found a boffin who mixed up a paste of black pepper and hydrogen peroxide and used it to destroy a London bus. I half expected Tony to say that the BBC had secretly rigged the test with Semtex, but he didn't. Welcome to the light, Tony.

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