Mark Steel: Please stop jazzing up our history

Next we'll have a group of lesbians coming into Cromwell's tent
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The Independent Online

There seems to be a rule that anyone who thinks they should be taken seriously has to spend most of their life complaining about the BBC. So after an incident such as the Russell Brand answerphone programme, newspaper front pages had articles such as, "Why has no one been sacked? Anyone – it doesn't matter who. What about the manager of my local Woolworths?"

But a more distressing crime of the BBC is the way they've treated Oliver Cromwell. About once a year there's a series about him, usually involving an earnest presenter, and dramatisations in which an actor beckons to heaven and proclaims as if he's Hamlet "Fain be my blessed Lord, that from this merry day parliament shall rule this ancient land." But to start with he was from East Anglia. So it's more likely Cromwell went around mumbling, "It be a rum ol' do if we lose. Then that King be roit full o' imself 'e be."

Partly this must be due to the BBC snobbery that assumes anyone historical and important must have been posh. Which is why there's always some costume drama on Sunday nights in which everyone wears a gown and, if this was really what it was like in 1820, no one could even have gone to the toilet without saying, "Sire, I regret the occasion requires me to call upon your esteemed graciousness and beg thee inform me of the whereabouts within your splendid, nay magisterial surroundings as to where I may take a humble dump."

But with Cromwell there's added scorn, for he's depicted as a religious maniac, which doesn't go down well at the moment. His apparent dislike of music, entertainment and fun has led to him being portrayed as a forerunner of al-Qa'ida. But most of this is untrue or misleading. He danced, he employed an organist at Hampton Court, and he went to pubs. He did ban horse racing, largely because it was used by Royalists as a meeting place to plot against parliament. But mostly his Puritan ideals were in opposition to the opulence and extravagance of the aristocracy. Because we have to remember, in those days many Lords considered it natural to ponce about on a Russian billionaire's yacht as if this was their right as ordained by God.

Whereas the French and Americans have countless films and plays addressing their civil wars, we're embarrassed by ours, with only the odd mention of Cromwell as if he's an uncle who we never mention since he got jailed for an unfortunate incident with a tortoise.

It seemed all this might be put right with a new series about the English Civil War, written by the brilliant Peter Flannery, and it's on Channel 4, as the BBC, it seems, kept rejecting it. But while I haven't seen it yet, the publicity says it is "as much about what happens in the bedroom as what happens in the battlefield." Bloody hell, what have they done to Cromwell now? It might be excellent, but I daren't watch it in case it starts with a group of lesbians coming into Cromwell's tent after the Battle of Naseby, gasping, "These round helmets have made us so sweaty Oliver" under some 1970s Hammond organ jazz.

Maybe this is the future for historical dramas, so there'll be a series on the Corn Laws called My Big Whig with Sir Robert Peel played by Jodie Marsh. And a study of Joan of Arc filmed as a phone-in chat line, in which Joan lies on a bright red couch in a towel purring, "Ooh hello Tom from Colchester, are you feeling on fire? I am." Then the BBC, in its more formal tone, will commission a series on the Reformation called Strictly Dissoluting the Monastries on Ice.

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