November 01, 2019
This written piece is about history as presented on TV and radio in what are delivered as non-fictional expositions.
By the bye I’m going to add in stuff about the TV shows Sharpe with Sean Bean – about history portrayed as in a sort of limbo between fiction and non-fiction in the adventures Sharpe gets into.
Firstly there is today what we never got at school (back in the 1950s for me) the sheer realpolitik brutality of the analysis and documenting of events which are taken as topics in TV and radio history programmes (documentary).
Just as our post modern tastes in movie entertainment have moved into territories not broached heretofore – Marvel spills and thrills and evil geniuses – comic book spectacular wall to wall action like Daniel Craig’s Bond and Jason Statham’s The Transporter – grisly and previously verboten themes and violence such as Liam Neeson’s Taken and Sarah Lund’s The Killing – this kind of raw to the bone fiction is a phenomenon commonly not seen before in UK on TV until say 25 years ago.
Sharpe is in a class of its own. Fiction but set in factual surroundings of Napoleonic wars and battles – but ever with the human face of Sharpe himself presented full to the camera. Nonetheless Sharpe episodes dissect and display their history qua fiction with the keen delicate knife of the kind that post modern TV and radio documentary history presently uses. This baton has been passed on from earlier ‘fun’ shows like Sharpe, and as a little more diluted and off centre from shows like Robin of Sherwood.
I have seen a couple of years back on TV some ‘reconstructional history’ or else call it some ‘dramatised representative historical fiction’ - which showed actors as Viking and Gothic type warriors acting out ‘authentically’ reconstructions of actual recorded-in-history-books skirmishes and forays. The language and style of speech were appropriate to their times; as were the weaponries and the sorts of impasses and decisions commanders took and resolved as difficulties of war.
The show was pretty gory and astonishingly tough to weather. No stirring music nor camera angles, shots changes of panning and so on; nothing but men’s feet hitting the boards of a fording bridge or a jangle of arms. Clothing etc ..all as imagined it was. Just the raw events and how brutal and nasty they were, was brought home – into the living room.
But Sharpe has treacheries, frictions of class and of rank; cowards, cads, rogues, characters commanders, fighting and love affairs and betrayals. As it used to say the now defunct News of the World newspaper proclaimed ‘All human life is here’. These dramatic utilities are all integrated and inserted into Sharpe’s late 18th early 19th century backdrop of England, Britain at war with France.
The Napoleonic backdrop embraces these utilities as being tools and levers within which the show operates. The clash between Sharpe’s commonplace social background and the elevated backgrounds of near all officers in general is made much of – a central theme. Sharpe then is a soldier and an officer professionally and is professional in all he does – but there are many other officers he encounters who are not ‘natural gentlemen’ as is Sharpe. They are low and scurrilous, unfair and uncouth, superior and disdainful; all the social sins of aristocracy. We are led to believe it was commonplace for superior sorts to act like this in those days.
Use of position to gain revenge to break another person, to steal, and to commit adulteries, we see are common faults of higher ranks. People with power and among people subservient – almost inevitable one would say?
The social criticism of aristocracy that arises then is powerful – the injustices, the dastardly arbitrary abuses and whims of power enacted – because we can – are the nosebag contents for ruminators watching TV at home.
One episode has Sharpe after victory against Bony in Yorkshire now and called to lead his company of men against mill workers who are astir for better conditions more pay. Many of Sharpe’s men have been demobbed back into civvy life and have been cast off by government like spent matches.
Sharp encounters some of his former soldiers among the people causing ‘unrest’; to the mill owners; and now employed making cloth. He has been called upon by the army in league with capital to shoot and it seems to cut down and kill these restless proletarians. You can see the social conflicts arising.
Further, the mill owners are ‘self-made’ risen from lower orders rags to riches. They are sensitive to this fact; especially to how the landed gentry perceive and treat them – as being ‘not of their own’. Another social clash and pressure, and it adds much irony to Sharpe’s and the ex-soldier-mill working people’s positions.
You can see here amongst the drama setup and its set pieces something close to being a realpolitik criticism of history, of the social strata, and of the behaviours caused by privilege in those old times. One might say at bottom and be right that – sai la vie – such are mankind - but nonetheless the social order is shown as having allowed, even encouraged, much bad behaviour and callousness.
Thus when we get to history TV shows per se that document the reigns of English or Continental Kings and Emperors - today we do not get Alfred scolded for burning the cakes; and Canute in his throne the waves lapping him; or Bluff King Hal, or Richard Lionheart. Instead we get sometimes a profile of what appears to be psychopath of wild bloodthirstiness; or maybe instead a concerned and calculated ruthlessness that topples all faith in humanity if taken without salt. You get men and women in positions of great power devoting their lives to wringing money out of their subjects so as to be able to fight wars to get more power and property, lands and influence.
You get profiles of men and women who have little social scruple if any; and only prevented by a brute opposition from taking all they can get for themselves – whole dynasties of them Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts, Barbarossas, Popes, Charlemagnes, - all driven, madly driven by a craving and addiction to being Somebody and causing a Big Splash in the world.
Keats writes in his Nightingale Ode about his bird ‘Thou wast not born for death immortal bird/No hungry generations tread thee down’. These princes and potentates I am talking about here are presented on TV as being the treaders-down of multitudes of ‘hungry generations’ in relentless pursuit of a wholly cruel greed and ambition.
See for instance Simon Sebag Montefiore and his TV series’ on Popes and on Jerusalem and on Italian City States. See Robert Bartlett on TV on Thomas Beckett and on The Plantagenets – two admirable historians – along with the sober judgment and measured starkness of Mary Beard on The Romans and Carthage – less brutal and bloody but nonetheless no prisoners taken in the telling.
This is our fare on TV commonly as history these days. No holds barred tell it like it is stuffs – indeed the course of history is seen to have been a dreadful thing as the rich and powerful lived it.
Plato’s Odysseus was quite correct to have chosen the lot of a common man from the heap when after a thousand years Purgatory to atone for former life-choices he is allowed back into the world reborn again. Plato has him say modestly, soberly that ‘The best chance of a man being happy rests in the course of a plain ordinary lifetime’. Another great Athenian, Sophocles I believe it was, proclaimed gloomily and even more sadly: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead’ - thus pointing to the vicissitudes of life and at how they can arrive at any time; and how for a full summation of a man the business of his life has to be past.
But let’s retrace a Little now. I wrote that life was dreadful - ‘as the rich and powerful lived it’.
Yes we sit there and drink in almost as if it were Daniel Craig and Jason Statham doing impossible thrills before our eyes, almost as works of entertainment and leisure – these ghastly retailings of history without frills, and of stuffs certainly not for children, or as the TV used to warn “not for those of a nervous disposition’. We lap it up sitting cosily at home warm and on sofas as ordinary people living Odyssean ordinary lives.
I asked my wife I said: “Do you not think the same dreadful ‘history’ is going on today every bit as stark and dreadful as that stuff?’ She replied a little blasé: ‘No, things are done differently these days”. Point blank she said so. Of course I though she was wholly mistaken; and that of course things go on just the same.
One only has to read/listen to the news and put the twos and twos together. I stopped listening to the news wayback because such dastardly unjust and cruel nasty things continue to go on. If ‘we’ are doing them to ‘them’ we are the good guys and if ‘they’ are doing things to us ‘they’re’ the bad guys. And we get whitewash and sometimes praise and self -congratulation, and they get reviled and dragged through the mud utterly always. Simple as that. Maybe here and there a few ‘mea culpas’ our side but only to salve consciences before getting into the saddle again.
Think of the Iraq Wars – how many people there – Iraqis - died daily for five or six years due to the consequences of it – what my nation put in place – on what are now commonly accepted as having been false pretenses, and supported by the uninformed of our nation as being a (politically well calculated piece of opportunism) ‘keejerk’ reaction to the 9/11 atrocities.
Think of the fate this week of al-baghdadi the ISIS terrorist. Bombed. Assassinated. By missile strike probably remotely. A terrible type of event we have become inured to, and so become oblivious to its horrendous out of order nature. It began in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wars there - ‘friendly’ drones went in and obliterated targets – too often obliterating women and children along with the target terror people. It was shocking then and was openly loudly publicly questioned as a practice – even in war. Right now no-one blinks a second time at al-baghdadi – just deserts for most people.
You have even in UK people clearly mentally ill and not fit to plead nor to even testify against or for themselves; who are by our courts ridden roughshod over and given horribly outrageous sentences of 20 or 25 years – more than many a cold blooded compos mentis murderer gets. That old but humane sentencing ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ wherein a person deranged was sent to a prison hospital and treated there – and if responsive to treatment had a half-chance of release – where now has that humane sentencing gone to?
The justice we mete is become moreso like revenge with a club hammer than ever – often class based, and on ethnicity. In recent years that certain leniency where circumstances attenuated has been disappearing – in our courtrooms and in our public attitudes – too much TV realpolitik maybe – and Marvel vengeance movies?
I was saying to my friend today that the word ‘real’ meaning in Spanish ‘royal’ - and I believe derived from the same root the two words – says so much about us and about our history. The word ‘prince’ comes from the Latin ‘princeps’ as does the English word ‘principal’. Thus a prince is the first in rank. Thus I deduce that princes and royalty are to be considered more real than that Odyssean ordinary person. This I can only take to mean that their needs desires wants and aims are primary; whilst the rest of us are more or less ‘also rans’.
It seems from all this that it is clear that rank, and position and power and influence are corrupters of behaviour. Lord Acton the historian said famously; “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” I can see his dictum has substance.
The common talk is of people of merit rising to the top. The truth appears to be moreso that people with ambition and often having many other carnal and possessive appetites, for being looked at and remarked on the streets as being ‘a figure’, ‘a person of renown’ and so on; these persons most often claw their ways to the top and become not so much la crème de la crème but rather the scum collected on the surface of a dirty dish wash.
Merit is not to be ascribed to people who proclaim their merit – these people exclaim all day about themselves and ‘what wonderful fellows they are’. Their common phrase is that they comprise together ‘the great and the good’ - humbug!
The British Prime Minister takes the unofficial title of being ‘First among equals’ a title which is nonsense logically-speaking and an expression that cannot be made to make sense. But it prevails as what might be termed a sort of ‘legal fiction’.
They defend privilege as something they’ve earned or served for and so deserve. To use the sort of political arguments they have spent their lives retailing – let us turn the import on its head and ask – is not every exercise of privilege a baseless statement of ownership and works out to be an actual denial of a boon to another? In their own buy and sell terms, of weighing scales and counting desks, is not every personal loss an offence with them, and every personal gain a sordid revel and delight?
Thus they make alliances and also harbour hatreds against enemies, even within their own class and ranks – and often live out a purpose to further the causes of those alliances and to thwart discomfit and even to ruin their enemies. There was a guy in charge of a large government office and I was told by an associate of his that he thought him to be ‘a good hater’. I thought then that to live a life as with that sort of epithet as a badge of honour – no thanks!
They award themselves honours of ‘sir’ this and ‘lady’ that, thus apeing the aristocrats who made way for their dominion arisen out of industry and commerce, just like Sharpe’s mill owners who wanted to be regarded as part of the furniture in the ruling class.
Ordinary people are not angels – all of us have things to answer for – some of the ordinary folk don’t rise up the ladder because they are simply idle or they are recklessly negligent of their own and their families’ interests, and so these become burdens to others or to the tax revenues. Some do not rise because they are not constitutionally capable for one or more of many possible reasons.
That leaves many who do not rise simply because they are not by nature hard-boiled nor ambitious to put themselves forward in competition with others for lives and for prizes which on the whole swallow up one’s natural innate psychical freedom and one’s human decency.
And in this unwillingess to join the fray to be a Somebody, in this I tend to think rests that hope of happiness invested in the common life which Odysseus and Plato longed for and considered the best choice
One is able to see why monks and nuns will go into seclusion for a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to run away from all this turmoil and disaster? But then, maybe we have been placed here to consider upon it?