The Normans: Part 2 – 1086 and All That

As time goes by, TV gets excited about different bits of history.  The Tudors have held sway for a good 10-15 years, with David Starkey expostulating as he stalked amongst the piles of Tudor mansions, and he voiced over many shots of ladies in ruffs and white face paint staring into a dramatic and vastly expensive array of candles.

Now we have the Normans as the new sexy period of our island story. Craggy Professor Bartlett stalking among cathedrals and wasted castellated sites.  Fewer costumed extras.  More sweeping shots over the English landscape.  And the inevitable use of imagery from the Bayeux tapesty.

There’s still the same emphasis on individual personality, but less personal emotional onslaught and whim, and more socio-economic, gender, linguistic analysis and strategic swathes of change.

And the thrust seems to be a re-presentation of history – you all thought Domesday book was a big tax gathering exercise? Think again – it’s about re-writing the history of England. Cathedrals to worship God?  Nope – it’s imposing Norman identity on England.  Pretty much everything comes down to power play and domination.

There’s also a happy use of parallels from modern society.  Vikings as the terrorists of their day. The Saxons as counter-insurgents inside England. Impoverished refugees fleeing famine. It all makes for a more vivid and enlivened perspective on early medieval England.

Professor Bartlett however doesn’t do simulataneous stalking and talking. He tends to stand looming into the camera.  Like a craggy eagle god he soars over years of history and miles of English countryside.

He’s not afraid to explain nearly everything – gender roles, strategic battle plans, linguistic change.  I’m not so sure whether his “cold and muddy names of animals in the field are old English yet when it’s cooked and on a table it’s French” line is right in all its particulars.  But it does make for a good illustrative soundbite.

He’s also good on buildings as the symbols and reality of power and oppression – taking in castles and cathedrals across the land.  The stonework also offsets his cragginess to a T.

Prof B is also happy to be shown walking amongst modern society – helping to remind us that these medievals were essentially us without showers and iPhones.  I don’t recall seeing Starkey mixing with current hoi polloi – he was always keen to emphasise historic difference and distance.

Bartlett’s also quite happy to dress like an unprepossessing academic, in a variety of badly fitting shirts and woolly scarves. Not for him the sharp Italian styled overcoats and effete leather gloves favoured for the cold outdoors by David Starkey.  Maybe it’s a salary thing.

The trouble with all this shifting fashion (historic rather than sartorial) is that everyone wants to do the same period at the same time.   Whole sections of Prof B Part 2 seemed interchangeable with the competing programme I’d seen the day before on the Domesday book.  But Bartlett didn’t get to fondle the book itself as his competitor academic did.  There are clearly some things which sheer cragginess alone cannot command.

In the end these serious romps through history are just the kind of thing that TV should be doing.  Bringing new reflections to bear on what otherwise would be a dry and dusty past – bringing vividly to life the foundation stones of our modern English society.

Posted by arialbold

PS It’s curious that the music used in these programmes is always so 19th century:  sub-Tchaikovksy programme music designed simply to reflect the mood and message (grandeur, violence, calm peace).  We don’t get historically accurate medieval tunes.  Nor jolting modern jazz/pop – which could bring some fresh illumination.   I think that’s the next step forward in these productions.  Take note chaps.


Filed under Documentaries

4 responses to “The Normans: Part 2 – 1086 and All That

  1. Penelope Parker

    You are right about parts being interchangeable, but then they also add a further dimension to each other. I wish some of these programmes were on earlier for older children to watch (but not the rude bits).

    It is sad that images can not be placed on the screen without dull music having to be added. When a sound engineer with creativity is allowed to work on a programmes like this it can add so much more to the experience.

  2. pauseliveaction

    I saw the first episode of this, and thought it was quite interesting (I liked the Bayeux tapestry bits – it was nice having it explained frame by frame as it were). There were far too many shots of Prof Bartlett from different angles, though. From the side, front, back, above, below, outer space. And my mum got very irritated by the fact that he didn’t take his gloves off once.

  3. inkface

    Maybe they hide a terrible secret (I’m reviewing a spooky, atmospheric book at the moment so I’m prone to overdramatising)

  4. chumbles

    I really enjoyed the first episode, although Prof “Statler” Bartlett, does have a niggling habit of putting forward ?his views as though they are the one true view. But I understand the need to sustain the narrative and it’s difficult to do it convincingly in two or more ‘voices’.

    After the first episode, the sanctification of the Normans has become a little irritating; they were a blood-thirsty, land-hungry bunch of power-mad villains who dressed up their vices as virtues. You might gather I favour the Saxons rather more!

    But your postscript is spot on; I believe that there might be a more complete immersion in the period with some less anachronistic music such as plainsong (I know, a couple of centuries out)… But equally, some re-enactment would be fun – getting a few hundred blokes dressed in full Saxon armour to run up to Stamford Bridge, hack away at some wood for 10 hours, kip in a field and then run all the way back to Hastings, might give some idea as to why I think the Normans were really, really lucky to win!