Last Night's TV: The Normans, BBC2<br />Dan Snow's Norman Walks, BBC4<br />Newlyweds: the One-Year Itch, Channel 4

Simon Usborne@susborne
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:03

If the invitation to spend a Wednesday night immersed in Norman history wasn't enough to make you stick an arrow in your own eye (I'll admit most history documentaries leave me cold – but read on for the conversion) you were rewarded with a double bill in which we learned there was a lot more to 1066 and all that than a fatally skewered king called Harold and that big bit of tapestry in France you got dragged to see on your year-six history field trip.

"Norman Night", as the BBC was well advised not to bill its pair of programmes on this momentous but, thanks perhaps to listless teaching and drab museums, slightly un-sexy period in our history, began on BBC2 with The Normans. The prosaic title set the tone for a resolutely traditional documentary that spilled first blood in a less consequential battle between two very different presenters as they guided us through the lead-up to the battle (that big one in Hastings).

On one side (BBC2): Professor Robert Bartlett, who's about as hardcore as it gets when it comes to history. Google him – he's "widely regarded as one of the world's most important medieval historians". His job, which he did with the sobriety and authority you'd expect from someone that proper, was to put 1066 in context as a turning point in the nation's history.

Then Dan Snow, who, to be fair, is no slouch in the history department (he spent ages there at Oxford) bounded on to the battlefield armed with walking boots and enough charm to lay waste to legions of women of a certain age (says my mum). In Dan Snow's Norman Walks, the gangly presenter followed in the footsteps of William and his fellow conquerors on their fateful march from the Sussex coast at Pevensey to the site of their showdown with Harold, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings.

So who won this clash of styles – the bescarfed Oxford don with his textbook delivery, or the arm-waving, stile-vaulting celebrity historian in the North Face jacket? I'll call it a draw, but if there was a victor it was the viewer because Bartlett and Snow made a winning double-act. Although stolid at times, Bartlett's tone let the history do the talking, and the programme was refreshingly free of sound effects, graphics or, horror of horrors, lame reconstructions.

Bartlett introduced us to William the Bastard, the illegitimate son of an embalmer's daughter who, while pregnant, as the myth goes, felt something "stir and grow" inside her as an "enormous tree" cast its shadow over Normandy and beyond. And so it did. With characteristic ruthlessness, William consolidated a realm that had been founded less than three centuries earlier by Viking pirates, and, with the fear of God and a knack with swords and horses, set about expanding its borders towards England, where the heirless King, Edward the Confessor, was about to die.

But it wouldn't be plain sailing across the Channel for William – there were two other claimants to the English throne and both were called Harold. Earl Harold Godwinson was the richest man in England and reckoned the throne had been promised to him. But King Harald Hardrada of Norway had other ideas and it was while English Harold was fending off Scandi Harald up North that Norman William set sail for the south coast, forcing a battle-weary English army to hurry back to Sussex and defend the kingdom.

As Snow recounted with the breathless enthusiasm of a newly qualified teacher to Bartlett's elbow-patched professor as he reached the conclusion of his first walk near Hastings, the ground became saturated with blood as Harold and his men were out-muscled and out-witted by William's cunning company of bowmen and knights. And so Britain was changed forever. Snow and Bartlett will be back next week to tell us how – in their own ways. Watching them felt a bit like going back to school, but this was telly education at its best.

There was a good game to be played while watching Newlyweds: the One-Year Itch, in which Cutting Edge cameras revisited some of the 50 couples who last year had invited film crews to their weddings (were they nuts?). Things kicked off with a downer. British marriages, we were told, are most likely to crack in those crucial first 12 months. Thereafter, we were held in suspense, the show geared to defy expectation and, often, prejudice by interviewing couples separately until the final reveal.

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Ooh, they're definitely not still together, we were meant to believe as we were transported back to Thailand and the wedding of Roy and Thip. After the ceremony, Roy transplanted his political science graduate bride to a new life as a cleaner in a grey West Yorkshire suburb. And yet, there they were a year later, totally besotted and giggling like teenagers as they ate fish and chips round Roy's coffee table.

It was the same story for Sue and Hugh. Hugh had been so drunk on his wedding day he had hiccuped up his way through the ceremony, unable to repeat anything after anyone. Sue spent her big day in tears, but if there was a thread to string together a documentary that flitted between about a half-dozen couples, it was that marriage ain't easy. No surprises there, but watching the ways in which our couples kept it together was invariably heart-warming. As Hugh himself said, perhaps recalling his disgraceful performance on his wedding day: "We still have the odd hiccup – everybody does – but we're happy."

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