Unnatural Histories; Tales from the Royal Bedchamber

Unnatural Histories was a series with a message, and in the case of one of the episodes it even seemed to have some subliminal messaging going on (and perhaps the other two and we just didn’t spot it). The basic premise was that the series was looking at three great “wildernesses” which have been made national parks and investigating whether or not it’s really true that these are the last great spaces untouched by the hand of man. Each episode concentrated on the history of a particular national park – firstly the Serengeti, secondly Yellowstone and thirdly the Amazon rainforest (bits of which are national park but they were thinking about the whole region). The message was the same in each case – that the concept of untouched wilderness is really just a nasty little racist hangover from the days of white imperialism. In all three cases people have been living in and shaping the land and ecosystem for thousands of years. So the narrative of the “pristine, untouched wilderness” erases the native peoples from the picture – like the way we talk about the “discovery” of the Americas in the 15th Century despite there having been people living there for 12,000 years who thus discovered it some time ago. It’s a narrative that only works if you consider Europeans as the only “real people” in the situation.

It definitely succeeded in being a thought provoking series – we kept pausing it to talk about it while watching. I think there’s something to be said for keeping some parts of the world as a viable habitat for wildlife rather than just building cities over everything (in particular the Amazon which has a significant affect on global climate too). But the way in which these parks were created and the way the people who lived there were treated was appalling. In both the Serengeti and Yellowstone native people were moved out involuntarily and prevented from using the land the way they used to – but tourists could still go onto the land and often cause more damage than the locals would’ve. In the Serengeti big game hunters were positively encouraged at the same time as local people were prevented from hunting for food. Removal of people is also altering the ecosystems of the parks – for instance elk in Yellowstone grew in numbers to an extent where wolves had to be reintroduced to prey on them. The Amazon was even more complex – in that there was a significant reduction in population by diseases brought by the first Europeans, possibly up to 90%. So the human part of the ecosystem had collapsed prior to the attempt to preserve the “wilderness”, but the effects of that human population hadn’t entirely unravelled.

It’s difficult to know what can be done, tho. These ecosystems were sustainable with populations of about the size that they had, who lived in traditional ways. And the modern world inevitably changes that, and I don’t think any of it is in ways that should be prevented. Modern medical care keeps people alive for longer, so the population grows and consumes more. Once you’re aware of conveniences like clean running water and electricity you’re going to want them – and that requires space and resources. And these aren’t things you should deny people to keep them “traditional” enough to live somewhere. But how do you police the land use effectively? And without that turning into its own nastiness? And if the people were moved out a couple of generations ago like in the case of Yellowstone then do they still have the knowledge and so on to live the way their ancestors did?

So yes, a very thought provoking series with more questions than answers.

(The possible subliminal messaging was in the Serengeti one, btw – every time they switched from black & white footage to colour or vice versa there was a frame or two of a still image of two Masai standing against a sunrise (or sunset).)

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber was aired to coincide with the birth of William & Kate’s son. It was presented by Lucy Worsley (who did Fit to Rule that we watched last year), and was a chronological look at the bedchambers of the English & British royalty over the last 700 or so years. It wasn’t quite what I expected in that I was expecting more about the birth or not of heirs to the throne, but really it was about the beds and the rooms. So we were shown several rather nice looking beds from various points over the centuries. And she explained how pre-Victorian times the royal bedchamber was actually a state room – and the people who had access to it were some of the most important people in the country because they had the most access to the king.

I don’t think there was anything in this programme I didn’t already know, but it was nice to see the examples of beds etc.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 1 and 2 of Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness – three part series presented by Waldemar Januszczak about the Rococo art movement, as a sequel to his series on Baroque art.

Episode 1 of Border Country – programme about the history of the area of Britain around the England/Scotland border, presented by Rory Stewart.

Episode 1 of Mind the Gap: London vs the Rest – two-part series about the increasing gap between the economy of London and the economy of the rest of Britain.

Episode 4 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Episode 1 & 2 of Pagans and Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn