Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities

In Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities James Fox picked three different cities each in a single year of the 20th Century, and looked at how each was the focal point of cultural developments at the time. The first episode covered Vienna in 1908, the year Sigmund Freud revealed his Oedipus Complex theories. Many of the most notable artists or musicians of the day were in the city – Klimt, Schiele, Schoenberg. It was also a turning point for world politics, being the year when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia Herzegovina. And Adolf Hitler was living in Vienna that year, he had come to study art but was rejected by the school. The politics of the day were perhaps formative for him, as Vienna’s mayor was very anti-Semitic.

Episode 2 looked at Paris in 1928, the last hurrah of a golden age between the wars before the Great Depression set in. And there was a lot going on in Paris at the time, for instance the surrealist movement (Magritte, Dali and so on) was taking shape. Gershwin was in Paris, Hemingway was in Paris, Cole Porter was in Paris. A lot of black Americans were also in the city, having come to fight in the First World War and preferring the way they were treated in Paris to back home. Many of these were musicians, bringing jazz to Paris. It was also the city where Mondrian was working on his minimalist paintings of lines and primary colours. And where Le Courbousier was planning to replace the old cluttered and chaotic buildings of the city with the architecture of The Future.

The third episode was about New York in 1951. Now when Fox opened the programme by positioning it as the place and time where much of modern culture was born we were a bit sceptical, but by the end of the episode he’d sold me on it. New York at this time was the birthplace of modern advertising, it was also where some of the enduring types of TV shows were born (live sports events, sitcoms). But it wasn’t just a city of conformist consumer culture, it was where the counterculture of the 50s was rooted. Kerouac wrote On the Road in New York in 1951, Pollack did some of his best work just outside New York that year, Thelonious Monk was playing be-bop and Modern Jazz that year. It was the city where the Actors Studio was, where actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean worked on learning Method Acting.

I really liked this series, both the concept and the way it was made. I liked the visual style of the series, appropriately for programmes that featured a lot of art it felt like care had been taken to be artistic with the filming (not in an over the top way). And each of the episodes had a slightly different feel, to go with the different flavours of the cities in them. James Fox was a good presenter – I’ve not seen any of his programmes before and thought part way through this series that I should look out for anything else he’s done. It turns out I’ve already recorded two of the other things he’s done (A History of Art in Three Colours and A Very British Renaissance) so I’m looking forward to those.

Also watched this week:

Episode 4 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.

Kate Adie’s Women of World War One – a one off programme about what British women did during the war, and the difficulties and prejudices they faced in doing it. And also about how that taste of freedom and demonstration of their capability did change women’s lives in the future, no matter how much the establishment tried to return to the status quo after the war.

Episode 2 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.

Episode 1 of Jungle Atlantis – two part series about new archaeological discoveries at Angkor Wat.

Episode 1 of The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire – two part series about the soldiers from the Empires of the European powers who fought in World War One.

Episode 5 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.

Mud Sweat and Tractors; Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures; The Crusades

Mud Sweat and Tractors is a four part series about the changes in farming in Britain over the last century or so. It split it up into four areas – milk, horticulture, wheat and beef – and treated each as a separate story, so each episode seemed quite self-contained. Each time there were two or three farming families chosen who had photographs and video footage stretching back to the 1930s. So they made good case studies and could talk about why they or their Dad or Grandad had made particular decisions at particular points. And the old videos were good for showing what the actual changes were. As well as this there were several social historians or experts in other parts of the farming/food production process who could talk about the wider trends that the individual farmers & their decisions fitted into.

Separating it out like that worked for telling the individual stories, but I think I might’ve like a bit more explicit drawing together of the themes that affected all the areas of farming. I could work some of them out, it just would’ve been nice to see more discussion of it in the actual programmes. Some of the commonalities were that the Second World War, and the aftermath of it, were a turning point – farming had been in decline before that, but during the war food imports were cut off and so increased production was important. After the war there was concern that Britain shouldn’t return to the pre-war situation, so farmers were given financial incentives to stay farming and to increase food production. And a lot of effort put into scientifically improving the breeds and technology used in farming. And the common theme after that is of food production getting too high – too much that wasn’t being eaten – so the subsidies go and it gets much harder for farmers economically. In addition some of the previous good ideas become seen as not such a good thing – things like the increase in chemicals used in horticulture in the post-war era (like DDT). Or things like breeding beef cattle for larger size & less fatty meat, but then it turns out that doesn’t taste so good so you have to compensate and fatten them up a bit.

It was interesting watching this with J. I grew up in a town so it was just history for me, and someone else’s history if that makes sense. But J grew up in a very rural area, right near farms. For a while his family rented a house on a farm, most of the rest of the time they lived in a 10 house village with working farms around them. So a lot of the 70s and 80s footage included things he remembered seeing as a child. I think we watched one bit of it three or four times in the last episode, because it included a hay baler that was exactly the sort he’d been fascinated by as a little boy. It had a robot arm, and somehow hay went in, was moved around by the arm then came out as square bales. Which was kinda fascinating to watch 🙂

In Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures Richard Fortey visited 3 particularly important and rich fossil beds, and talked about what they’d taught us about the evolution of life. One commonality of the three is that they have fossils with the soft body parts preserved, which means we know so much more about the animals than is generally possible from fossils.

First (and most obvious to me) was the Burgess Shale – a section of the Rockies where early multicellular organisms are well preserved. We’d just seen that on the David Attenborough programme we watched recently (post) so this wasn’t new ground for us. Still nice to see tho, particularly as I remember reading about it when I was a teenager. The second episode took us to China and to some new fossil beds there which are re-writing our ideas of how birds evolved and what the differences between dinosaurs and birds actually are. This is because these recently discovered fossils include several feathered dinosaurs. And the last of the three fossil beds was in Germany, with many fossils from early in the explosion of mammalian diversity after the dinosaurs died out. These well preserved fossils include lots of bats (already looking very sophisticated), early horses, and the earliest known primate fossils.

This was an interesting series 🙂 I’m sure I’ve said before that I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was in my early teens – until I worked out that it would mean lots of being outside grubbing about in the dirt & rocks! So I particularly like seeing these sorts of programmes, and all the cool stuff that’s been discovered since I was reading so much about it.

We also finished watching a series about The Crusades this week. It was presented by Thomas Asbridge, and I’m pretty sure we’ve seen it before – but not during a period when I was blogging about the TV we watch so I can’t be 100% sure (this is one incentive to keep writing up the programmes we see!). Sadly the reason we’re pretty sure we’ve seen it is because the irritations seemed familiar. Some of that was the style – whenever there was a static image (like a painting from a manuscript) they’d tilt it or pan around on it in a particular irritating fashion. And there was a lot of over dramaticness to the script and the way Asbridge presented it. And for all it was billed as “groundbreaking” I didn’t really have any “wow I didn’t know that/remember that” moments (and I don’t think that’s just because I think I’ve seen it before).

It covered the Crusades in three chunks. First the start, and the initial successes (and their attendant brutalities). Next was Richard the Lionheart vs. Saladin. The final episode looked at the Muslim success in driving out the Christians, and at how it was actually the need to fight the encroaching Mongol Empire that drove this and the effects on the Christian Crusader Kingdoms were more of a side-effect.

Overall it was interesting enough to keep watching, but not as interesting as I’d hoped.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears – a look at how the geography of the USA affected the colonisation and history of the Wild West.

Episode 1 of Secrets of Bones – series about bones, their biology & evolution.

The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Continuing with our recent WWI theme we watched a one-off programme about the tunnels under the Somme battlefield presented by Peter Barton. The title (The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars) and a bit of the introductory segment have an air of Discovery Channel-esque “we will Solve The Mystery!”, but the programme as a whole steered away from that and was very interesting. It combined the history (who built the tunnels & why) with footage from an archaeological dig at the site which included people going into the tunnels for the first time since the battle of the Somme itself.

The conventional image of WWI fighting is of men in trenches, going over the top, barbed wire, and artillery bombardments. What’s often forgotten or not known (and certainly I hadn’t really thought about before) is that both sides also tunnelled under the enemy trenches and detonated explosives underneath them. This happened all along the Western Front, but Barton was concentrating on telling us about the Somme battlefield (because of the archaeological dig, I assume) where the mining was also planned to play a large part in the battle of the Somme. Mining has been a part of siege warfare for centuries, if not millennia, and Barton showed us some mines under the walls of the castle at St Andrews, Scotland which had been dug in the 16th Century. He said that the way mines were dug hadn’t really changed in that time – dig under the enemy fortifications hopefully without being heard, hollow out a big chamber and stuff it with explosives, blow up the enemy above you. And the counter tactics are also much the same – listen for tunneling, dig towards the noise (from below if you can, above if you must), enter their tunnels or blow them up first. So if you took a 16th Century miner and dropped him into a WWI group of miners he wouldn’t need much training to get the hang of the few technological differences.

The British miners were not drawn from the Army. Instead they were firstly sewer diggers (claykickers) and later coal miners who were brought into the army structure & given uniforms, but really just there to do their one job – dig tunnels (quietly). Often these were men who’d been refused when they tried to join the infantry – generally as they were too old, which for this job meant only that they were more experienced. Barton spent a bit of time showing us (with the help of some demonstraters) how they built the tunnels through clay or through chalk, and also gave us an idea of the physical difficulties and dangers the men faced. There were all the risks that are normally associated with tunneling or mining, but also the constant fear of being detected. Barton pointed out that mining was one of the most brutal aspects of a brutal war. It had significant effects on the morale of the normal infantry, knowing that their trenches might suddenly be blown up. And for the miners it was worse. If one side detected the other mining, they would tunnel to underneath them and then detonate explosives directly under they enemy tunnel. But first they would wait and listen till as many men as possible were in the tunnel above. And once the first explosion was done, they’d dig out a new chamber to fill with explosives, then once they heard the rescue party come along for the first casualties they’d blow out the second chamber. All about maximising the dead from a single detection of a tunnel. During the war detection technology increased in sophistication. At first it was simply a matter of listening through a pipe, or setting out a tray of water and watching for ripples. But later much more sophisticated detectors were invented that could detect tunnelling at up to 100 feet away in clay, or 250 feet in chalk.

The plan for the battle of the Somme included two extremely large quantities of explosives under the German trenches, which would break the German lines and also take out some troublesome machinegun posts. One tunnel was dug as planned, the other couldn’t quite get close enough so two chambers were built at that end with enough explosive that the distance didn’t matter. And all the explosives were detonated as intended – Barton walked round the top of one of the craters that still exists today, it’s absolutely huge. But through no fault of the tunnellers it was not enough – in particular the one under the machinegun post had been detected late in the process and the Germans had evacuated their guns and troops, then set up again once the explosion was over. The other explosion also didn’t do as much damage to the German troops or their morale as the planners had hoped. And so the easy victory the British Army had hoped for turned into one of the biggest disasters of the war, with more than 10,000 casualties on the British side in the first day alone.

A sobering programme, as WWI programmes often are. Barton did a good job of not just explaining the facts, but also of getting across something of what it would’ve been like to be there.

We watched very little TV last week, the only other things was episode 2 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

The Necessary War; The Pity of War; David Attenborough’s First Life

The Necessary War and The Pity of War were a pair of programmes from the BBC about the First World War that aired a couple of months ago. In The Necessary War Max Hastings put the case for WW1 being, ultimately, necessary despite the loss of life etc. And in The Pity of War Niall Ferguson argued that it was all a terrible and costly (in terms of lives) mistake – this programme finished with a debate. I found myself not entirely agreeing with either position, although I preferred Hastings’s presentation as Ferguson was more than a touch smug and flippant. Both were looking at this from a very British perspective, the question wasn’t so much “was the War worth it?” as “should Britain have gone to war in 1914?”.

Hastings’s main point was that at the time the decision to go to war was made it seemed the least of all possible evils. He argued that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then there was a reasonable chance that Germany would’ve overrun France, and then Britain would later have faced war with a much bigger Germany which would be more capable of disrupting British shipping (and thus the British economy and empire). So he suggested that at the time, and with hindsight, war seemed inevitable the only question was “now or later?”. He also discussed how the atrocities perpetrated by the German army as they rolled over Belgium meant that this was the moral choice as well as the politically sensible one and that a Europe dominated by the Kaiser’s Germany would not be a pleasant place to live. I was somewhat less convinced by his attempt to present the Versailles Treaty as a good thing just because it was better than what the German’s would’ve imposed if they’d won (there’s a lot of room between that and “good” after all).

Ferguson on the other hand thought that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then the world would’ve been a better place both in the short term and in the long run. But I’m afraid he didn’t convince me at all, except that I do agree that with the benefit of hindsight the First World War was an appalling waste of lives and didn’t even produce a lasting peace. His arguments were mostly appeals to emotion and he also used counterfactuals to illustrate what he thought would’ve happened if Britain had stayed out of the war. His key idea was that he thought the conflict would’ve remained European without Britain’s intervention, and that a Germany that had conquered or otherwise overrun France and Belgium wouldn’t have expanded further. There was a strong air of “who cares about the French and Belgians” although he didn’t go as far as to say that – but having recently watched both The Necessary War and the series based on Hew Strachan’s book about WW1 I was struck by his complete lack of mention of the way the Belgian and French civilians were treated by the advancing German army at the beginning of the war. It wouldn’t’ve fit very well with his “playful” suggestion that a Europe “dominated” by the Kaiser’s Germany would’ve been “just like our modern EU” (although he conceded that Angela Merkel is rather nicer than the Kaiser). He didn’t come across as having much more than wishful thinking to back up his idea that peace and harmony would’ve reigned as soon as Germany finished conquering Belgium, breaking the back of France and defanging Russia.

The debate at the end of The Pity of War was both with experts, and with the audience for Ferguson’s lecture (he lectured, Hastings did more of a standard documentary programme). No-one seemed to agree much with Ferguson and he got taken to task for his flippancy about the EU by a rather formidable woman in the audience too 🙂

In the end I think I agree with Hastings that the choice to go to war was the best one that the British leadership could see at the time. And I think without the examples of WW1 and WW2 we wouldn’t all be as wary of global modern warfare – which doesn’t make them good things at all, just sadly inevitable.

David Attenborough’s First Life was a two part series about the origins of animal life on our planet. It goes before his series about the evolution of the vertebrates (which we watched last year), and so only mentioned vertebrates right at the very end. Although it was called “First Life” he really wasn’t interested in anything except animals, and so we didn’t get to see much about the prokaryotes (who were the first life) or even eukaryotes prior to the development of multicellular organisms. And plants were only ever mentioned in passing.

So in episode 1 he covered the evolution of organisms like sponges, and looked at the fossil record of a group of now long extinct animals which had a different body plan to our own. These were all sedentary and had grew by branching with each branch being a smaller version of the whole organism. These died out (Attenborough said “inevitably” but I’m not quite sure why), and the last part of that programme looked at the Cambrian Explosion which is the name given to the sudden rise of diversity of animals with a more familiar body plan. These were generally capable of movement and have head ends and tail ends to their bodies. And even teeth! Episode 2 focussed on arthropods, and in particular the insects and the colonisation of the land. In particular he looked at the way that the development of hard shells to fend off predators lead to being able to leave the water (because their bodies didn’t collapse or dehydrate). And we were shown lots of awesome trilobite fossils from a particularly well preserved fossil bed in Morocco.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 3 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Episode 1 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Episode 1 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.

Inside the Animal Mind; Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure; Royal Cousins at War; The Great British Year

Inside the Animal Mind is a three part series presented by Chris Packham that looks at what we know about how animals think and what that tells us about our own thinking. The first episode covered animal senses, the second looked at how intelligent animals are and the third investigated the effects of being social on animal intelligence. In each episode Packham showed us the sorts of experiments currently being done to extend our knowledge of animal minds. For instance one of the questions he looked at in the first episode is how do dogs seem to know when their owners are due home from work? It’s not like they can tell the time after all. It turns out that this may have something to do with scent levels in the house – if you bring into the house something smelling of the owner earlier in the day, which increases the scent levels, then the dog doesn’t react at the normal time.

The first episode was mostly setting the scene for the meat of the series – making sure we knew a bit about how information gets into the animal brain. The next two episodes were mostly concerned with the overall question of how unique are humans. What, if anything, sets us apart from the other animals. So the second episode concentrated on some of the most intelligent animals – primarily a variety of crow species. These birds solve can solve complex puzzles, use tools and even plan for the future. That last was illustrated by an experiment where a couple of crows were kept in a large cage that could be partitioned into three – overnight they were kept in one end or the other, during the day they had free range of the whole cage (and were given plenty of food). They weren’t given a choice about which end of the cage they spent the night. If it was one end they would get breakfast in the morning before the partitions were removed, if it was the other they wouldn’t. So after that pattern had been established they were given places to hide food (little sandtrays) in each end of the cage. During the day they’d hide some of the food they were given, and they’d hide a significantly higher proportion in the “no breakfast” end – knowing that if that was where they ended up then they’d want more food in the morning than if they ended up in the breakfast room.

The last episode concentrated mostly on dolphins (tho also other intelligent social animals, like chimps). The idea is that being social helps to drive the development of intelligence and in particular intelligence to do with communication and recognition of others (and oneself) as individuals. Things we think of as human traits, and some of these traits take a while to develop in young children too – a child won’t recognise his or herself in the mirror until the age of 2, and the ability to realise that other people have other perspectives takes longer than that. Dolphins are one of the few animals to recognise themselves in a mirror – they had footage of a dolphin very clearly admiring himself in a mirror in the water. They also had some footage of how this was first observed – the biologists were observing dolphin mating via a one-way mirror, and when the dolphins realised there was a mirror there they oriented themselves so they could watch themselves while they were mating.

The series didn’t try to provide an answer to what sets us apart from animals – just pointing out that many of the things we think make us special have been found in at least one other species. And yet, there must still be something that means we are the ones with civilisation and advanced technology not the others, but we don’t yet know what that is.

I’d been expecting something a lot more shallow, so this series was a rather nice surprise. Worth watching.

We’ve started watching some of the World War I related programmes that the BBC are broadcasting at the moment. The first three that we’ve watched were sort of prequels to the war. The first was a biography of Edward VII (Edward VII: Prince of Pleasure), and the others were a two part series about the descendants of Queen Victoria who were ruling England, Germany and Russia by the outbreak of the war (Royal Cousins at War). I’m lumping these together to talk about because they had clearly been made by the same team, and had the same format and aesthetic. Each one had a (faceless) narrator, as well as a selection of experts on the subject, and they were very focussed on the biography of the individuals and how that intersected with the politics. At times that did make us feel they overstated the importance of (for instance) the English King in the politics of the day but mostly it stayed on the right side of the line.

The mission of all three programmes seemed to be to humanise the people they were talking about, and one of the tricks they used to do this was by colourising black and white photographs of them which suddenly makes them seem more real. In the two Royal Cousins at War programmes they also had video footage taken by the royals on their holidays – so all messing about a bit and hamming it up for the camera. And of course there’s a soap opera quality to the dysfunctionalness of Queen Victoria’s family. The Edward VII programme spent a lot of time looking at the way the relationship between Victoria and Edward was a vicious circle – she felt he was useless and shouldn’t be trusted with responsibility. So he frittered away his time on women and parties, and whenever he did get given something to do he’d end up doing daft stuff like showing official documents round to his friends to get opinions. Which then meant Victoria had proof he was useless. So that meant by the time he came to the throne no-one, not even himself, thought he was going to be any good at being King. As it turned out, he was good at the job – he was charismatic and much better than his mother at the public performance side of royal duties.

This is also the last hurrah of powerful monarchs in Europe. While Edward VII and his son George V didn’t have much overt power, as constitutional monarchs, they had even less after WWI was over. Their role was still important in terms of diplomacy, however. Edward’s ability to get on with people helped to sweeten relationships with countries such as France – a visit from Edward helped get public opinion onside before the “real diplomats” sat down at the negotiating table to discuss what became the Entente Cordiale. And George’s lifelong friendship with his cousin Tsar Nicholas helped shape the alliance between Russia and England.

At the other end of the spectrum Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas were still autocratic rulers and so their personal qualities and opinions did have a large part to play in politics and foreign policy. They weren’t entirely free to do what they wished – public opinion and the opinions of their politicians did matter, but they had more genuine power than the British monarchy. And sadly neither were particularly competent. Tsar Nicholas seems to’ve epitomised “nice but dim” and combined this with a strong sense of his duty to preserve the authority of his throne. Which doesn’t end well.

The story of Wilhelm is the sort of thing that if you wrote it as fiction people wouldn’t believe it. He was the son of Victoria’s eldest daughter and she had been married off to the Kaiser Wilhelm I’s eldest son with a mission to liberalise Germany. Her husband (heir to the throne) is more liberal than his father and than Wilhelm II would turn out to be – so if only he’d lived to rule longer than a few months then history might’ve gone very differently. Wilhelm II had a very troubled relationship with his mother – he had had a difficult birth, and his left arm was damaged in the process. His mother couldn’t bear the fact that she had a crippled child, and Wilhelm himself felt inadequate – which only got worse as he got older and bought into the militaristic culture of Germany at the time. As future Kaiser he should be the epitome of perfection, and yet he was physically crippled. This sense of humiliation isn’t helped along by relations with his extended family. Edward VII was married to a Danish princess, whose sister was married to Tsar Alexander. Prussia had invaded Denmark, and defeated the Danes, in the 1860s and the Danish royal family had never forgiven them. So the two sisters would organise jolly family holidays … to which Wilhelm was not invited. He seemed to go through most of his life overcompensating for his disability and for his perceived lack of friends. He also seems to’ve been a rather nasty piece of work, too – so even tho some of it was out of his control, he did make his own problems worse.

These programmes were an interestingly different perspective on the run-up to World War I, and I realised how little I know about Germany of that era & Kaiser Wilhelm in particular.

We also finished off watching The Great British Year. This was a nature series, about the wildlife of Britain across the year. I don’t really have much to say about it – the point was very much the visuals, and they did have some spectacular footage 🙂 And there were red squirrels, but not enough of them for J’s tastes 😉

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Unnatural Histories – series about human influence on areas of the world that we traditionally think of as “untamed nature”.

Episode 1 of The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

The Stuarts; Bible Hunters

For some odd reason the BBC had a new documentary series about The Stuarts and then only aired it in Scotland. I can see that it was intended to tie in with the upcoming vote on independence but it was straightforwardly a documentary rather than a piece of propaganda. So I’m not really sure why it was kept north of the border. We only spotted it because I’d recorded something else off BBC2 Scotland to avoid a clash, and there was a trailer for The Stuarts.

The presenter was Clare Jackson, who I don’t think I’ve seen anything by before, and her thesis was that the Stuarts were the defining royal dynasty of Great Britain – despite the actual creation of the United Kingdom only happening almost by accident at the end of the Stuart era. She took us through the whole 17th Century (and a smidge beyond) in chronological order. The first episode covered James VI & I, and the early years of Charles I. The accession of James to the English throne in 1603 after Elizabeth I’s death had been a time of optimism – for James and for his new country. James’s dream was to unite the two countries in the same way that the crowns were now united, however he wasn’t able (even with his high degree of political skill) to persuade the English in particular to do this. Jackson also covered the seeds of Charles I’s autocratic leanings – in particular she pointed at his visit to Spain, whilst he was trying (and failing) to negotiate a Spanish marriage for himself. At the court of the Hapsburgs he got a taste of how royalty “should” be treated.

The second episode covered the civil wars and the Restoration. In this episode Jackson was keen to stress how the way we’re taught British history today (particularly in England) simplifies and prettifies this collection of conflicts. We’re often presented with it as “democracy vs. autocracy”, and the parts of the war outside England are often ignored. She said it is better compared to modern conflicts like the violence & genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And she emphasised the Irish parts of the Civil Wars, which were not pretty in the slightest and still have repercussions today. Cromwell is a divisive figure – either a hero (from a Protestant point of view) or a villain (from the Catholic point of view). She also pointed out how Cromwell was by the end King in all but name (hardly the champion of democracy that English school history would like to portray him as) and after he died his power and title passed on to his son. Who was sufficiently bad at the job that Charles II was invited back to England.

The last episode could be thought of as the long decline of the Stuarts … we started with the disaster that was about to be James VII & II. Charles II had been fairly astutely focused on remaining King – he might’ve had Catholic leanings and a Catholic wife but he’d stayed a Protestant (until his deathbed, perhaps). His brother James, however, did convert to Catholicism and was fervent about it – he resigned public office rather than give up his Catholicism. Charles never managed to sire a legitimate heir, so James was next in line to the throne. Charles did his best to mitigate the problems with his having a Catholic heir – he had James’s daughters brought up Protestant and married them to good Protestants (like William of Orange, a diplomatic necessity as well as an internal political one). So when James did come to the throne it was seen as a brief blip before Mary & William took over – dealable with. When James’s new wife had a son this changed and it was time for more direct action, William was invited to invade (this is the Glorious Revolution) which he did and by chance he won bloodlessly. William and Mary, and then Mary’s sister Anne after them were childless so after Anne the next possible Stuart heirs were the Catholic descendants of James. And this is what finally brought about the creation of the United Kingdom that had been James VI & I’s dream. England wanted the Protestant Hanoverans to inherit after Anne died, Scotland would’ve preferred the Stuart heir – and so the crowns and thus the countries would part unless Parliament succeeded in passing the Act of Union.

A good series, I really don’t know why it was confined to the Scottish bit of BBC2.

Bible Hunters wasn’t a promising name for a series, but actually it turned out to be pretty good (with some flaws). Jeff Rose took us through the 19th and early 20th Century attempts to find or confirm the truth of the Bible. The first episode focussed on the New Testament, and the efforts of 19th Century scholars and explorers to find early copies of the Gospels. The idea was to show that the Gospels were indeed the inerrant word of God, and that the narrative of Jesus life and ministry was correct. Egypt was the target of these expeditions because of the early monastic tradition in the country dating back to much nearer the time of Jesus life than anything in Europe could do. Some monasteries (like that at Sinai) have been inhabited continuously since at least the 3rd Century AD. What was found shook the certainty that nothing had changed as the Bible was copied and translated over the centuries. In particular the ending of the Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to’ve been written first) was different, and different in an important fashion. The modern end of that Gospel has Jesus seen after his resurrection, and the women who went to his tomb are instructed to go forth and tell people the good news. The 2nd Century version of the text ends with the women finding the empty tomb, being told by an angel that Jesus has risen, and being afraid and telling no-one. The programme built this up as being a cataclysmic blow to the faithful, and certainly it causes a lot of problems if your faith requires the words in the Bible to be literally the whole truth and literally unchanging.

The second episode looked more generally at what expeditions to Egypt showed about both the general truth of the biblical world view and the construction of the canonical texts of the Bible. As the history of Pharaonic Egypt began to be examined it cast doubt on the accuracy of the Biblical stories about the history & age of the Earth. For instance when the Dendera zodiac was found it was thought to be 12,000 years old (now known to be false, it’s Ptolemaic) and how did that square with Usher’s careful calculations about the Earth having been created in 4,004 BC? And other Gospels were found buried near old monasteries – which had been hidden after the official choice of the four we now know as being the canonical books. These included a Gospel according to Mary Magdalene, which gave a bigger role for women in the early church than in later times. And also Gnostic Gospels.

The format of the programme was Rose going to various places in Egypt, and also talking to various academics from a variety of institutions about the history of the people who found these things and the history of the ideas. And it was interesting to watch, but I kept running into things that made me stop and think “wait, is that really true?”. Which then casts doubt on the accuracy of other things that I didn’t already know something about. For example Bishop Usher’s calculation of the age of the Earth was mentioned, and Rose told us that “everyone believed that the Earth was only 6,000 years old” at that time. But as far as I was aware by the time Usher was doing his calculations there were a lot of people (if not most people) who thought the Earth was much older than that – Usher was more of a last-gasp of outdated thought rather than mainstream. I could be wrong, it’s not an area I know much about but things like that let the doubt in. Another example was that the EEF (forerunner of the modern EES) was presented as being solely about proving the truth of the Bible when it started – but when we visited the EES last September (post) we were told that although the biblical links were used to get more funding preservation of the ancient monuments as things in themselves not as “it’s in the bible” was also an important goal. The discrepancy could well be down to spin, but again this lets doubts creep in about the accuracy or spin on the rest of the programme.

I am glad I watched it, but I don’t know if I’d trust it on the details without cross-checking the facts.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of Henry & Anne: The Lovers that Changed History – two part series about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, part dramatised documentary presented by Suzanne Lipscomb.

Episode 2 of Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England – this was part of the BBC’s Tudor Season in 2013. It’s a series about life in Elizabethan times from the perspective of the differences between now and then, what you’d need to know if you could travel back there.

Robins of Eden and The Rabbits of Skomer – two rather retro-feeling mini nature documentaries, lasting just 10 minutes each.

The Joy of the Single – programme about singles, talking to various music industry people. Covered things like the history of the single as a phenomenon, the physical object of a 7″ vinyl single and the sort of emotional impact that various singles had on these people.

Episode 2 of The Great British Year – series about British wildlife and countryside over the whole year. Lots of gorgeous shots of animals, and timelapse sequences of landscapes.

Blink: A Horizon Guide to the Senses – programme presented by Kevin Fong about the senses. Not much new footage, instead it made use of the last 40 years of Horizon to pull out illustrative bits and pieces from the archives. Some neat things to see, but in other ways it felt a bit shallow.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt (Ep 2); Strange Days: Cold War Britain; Rise of the Continents

The second episode of Alastair Sooke’s series about the art of Ancient Egypt covered the Middle Kingdom (briefly) and most of the New Kingdom. He only picked a couple of objects from the Middle Kingdom – both from Senusret III’s reign. He gave the impression that this is because the New Kingdom was the Golden Age, which is true in some ways, but the Egyptians themselves looked back at the Middle Kingdom as their “classical age” where art and culture first achieved great heights. I think it’s a shame he didn’t make it more clear the reason it gets short-shrift in programmes like these is because not as much survives for one reason or another. Often because sites were re-used or updated by New Kingdom Egyptians wanting the association with past glories.

The other eight treasures on the programme were from the New Kingdom between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun. As well as looking at some of the iconic art from her reign he spent some time talking about the iconography of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh. Pharaohs are male, so Hatshepsut was represented with all the male accoutrements and a masculine body in her official art works. One thing I hadn’t realised before (or had forgotten) is that it was during Hatshepsut’s time that the term Pharaoh actually started to be used – it translates to “the palace” so it’s the equivalent of talking about the White House doing X or Y in the USA (and surprisingly the example Sooke used was Brits talking about the Crown which I don’t even think is the best of the possible UK equivalents – No. 10 would be better).

There was obviously some considerable discussion of the new art style that Akhenaten brought with him when he changed the state religion. Both in terms of the slightly bizarre body shapes of the earliest stuff, and the new informal poses and domestic scenes on official art works. Which does give a very different impression of the royal family of that time, even as I remind myself it’s propaganda first & foremost. Obviously the bust of Nefertiti featured in this section, you can’t really miss it out. But the item from around that era (just before it) that struck me most was the little glass fish, that’s now in Berlin. I’ve seen it before & it’s a lovely piece, but what made it the highlight of this programme for me was that they showed us how it was made. I’ve read about how these glass objects were made before but it’s different actually watching it happen. And as always I’m somewhat in awe of what people were able to do before the advent of modern technology.

Obviously the programme ended with Tutankhamun’s mask – another iconic piece you can’t miss out, which also illustrates how what we have to admire depends so much on chance. The next episode covers the rest of Egyptian culture up to Cleopatra, quite a wide range. There’ve been a few clips of the temple at Abu Simbel, so presumably that’ll feature 🙂

This week we finished watching Dominic Sandbrook’s series about the Cold War – Strange Days: Cold War Britain. This three part series looked at British history from 1946 through to 1989 through the lens of how the Cold War affected politics and culture. So part of the series was Sandbrook telling us about the major events of the Cold War, and giving some indication what life was like on the other side, to give us context for the effects on Britain. And the other part was looking at events in Britain from a perspective we don’t always think of. Some stuff was obvious when you thought about it – like the popularity of James Bond films tying in to revelations about Russian spies in the UK. And the John le Carré novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as the much less glamorous and more cynical take on the same thing. Other things less so – consumerism being a part of how we differentiated “us” from “them” makes sense when I think about it, but I’d never’ve thought of how capitalism was in some ways kept in check by a desire to prove it was better than the alternatives. Which made more sense when Sandbrook talked about it than I have quite managed to articulate here!

The threat of nuclear war and how that shaped our culture was one of the strands running through the programmes, and the various attempts government made to prepare people for this. Sandbrook highlighted several times the contrast between the almost optimistic government handbooks which aimed not to panic people (even if this backfired at times) and the bleak films and TV serieses which were closer to what the reality might be. He showed us clips from The War Game (a 60s film that wasn’t shown on TV for about 20 years) which was a meticulously researched documentary, and Threads (an 80s film) which was more overtly fictional. Both grim enough even in excerpt that I know I don’t want to watch them in full. In the third programme Sandbrook also mentioned a book he’d read for class when he was 10 (I looked him up on wikipedia, he’s a couple of months younger than me) – as he started to talk about it I knew exactly which book he meant before the reveal. It was “Brother in the Land” by Robert Swindells, which I’ve read. Once. I’ve dipped into it occasionally since, and it’s still on my shelves, because I remember it as a good, well written book. But I’ve never re-read it cover to cover, despite my love of post-apocalypic novels. It’s just an extremely grim and depressing and unrelentingly bleak tale of the first months after a nuclear war. I read it at about 13 or 14, a few years after it was published, and it’s stuck with me since then – it must’ve been pretty traumatising to read at the age of 10 particularly when you had to think about it for school rather than stick your head in the sand (I’ve always adopted the ostrich approach to the idea of The End of the World As We Know It catastrophes).

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression. I liked this series, in particular I thought they did a good job of mixing archival footage with new stuff seamlessly switching between the two in a way that made the old stuff seem more immediately relevant. I even liked the somewhat overblown style, but I think J found the sweeping generalised claims made at times a little irritating.

We also finished another series this week – Rise of the Continents – which I really enjoyed so I wanted to say a few words about it even though this post is already quite long! This was a series about plate tectonics and the geological history of the earth, presented by Iain Stewart. Each week Stewart looked at a different continent (Africa, Australia, the Americas and Eurasia) and followed the geological story of the continent after it split from Pangea (the supercontinent that existed when the dinosaurs roamed the earth). He showed us the evidence that tells us about this geological story, and he also showed the impact that geology has had on both evolution and on human history. He’s a geologist so was strongest on that subject, pretty good on palaeontology but said a couple of dubious historical things we noticed (but otherwise was OK on that). Basically what you’d expect as he got further from his actual area of expertise. He was also a charmingly enthusiastic presenter.

One reason I enjoyed it so much is because I think the idea of plate tectonics is inherently cool. The earth not being static but consisting of vast sheets of crust all moving around and crashing into each other is awesome. It’s also an area I don’t know much about – I think the last time I read a book on it was in the 80s, when the science was still fairly new. So there were all sorts of things I didn’t know, and most of them were in the “neat facts” category. Like did you know that as India travelled on its way to crashing into Eurasia it moved over a magma plume, which turned a big chunk of it into a zone of volcanoes. This thinned the land so India started to move quicker. But also while it sat over this region for a few hundred thousand years the amount of volcanic eruption dumped toxins in the oceans and changed the climate – so this is thought to have contributed to the decline of the dinosaurs (before an asteroid finished them off). Or did you know the silver mines in South America exist because of subduction of the Pacific Ocean floor carries water down under the land. I can’t quite remember how Stewart said this then lead to the silver deposits, but the very idea of water being carried down under the crust is one I’d not thought of before (and it’s kinda cool as a concept).

I think J didn’t like the visual effects on the programme much – there were quite a few transitions where they used a jumble of still shots and mixed up audio before Stewart explained something. It didn’t bother me as much though.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 2 of Sacred Wonders of Britain – Neil Oliver visits several sacred sites in Britain dating from prehistoric times through to the Reformation.

Episode 2 of The Brain: A Secret History – Michael Mosley series about brains, minds and experimental psychology. We never managed to record episode 1 but we decided to watch the other two anyway.

Episode 6 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

TV This Week Including Witches, Sir Gawain, Ottomans, Musical History, Plastic & 20th Century Britons

The King’s War on Witches: Revealed

This Channel 5 documentary was about the witch hunts in England and Scotland in the 17th Century. As context it talked a little about the witch trials in Europe, which hadn’t spread to England & Scotland until after James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) began to believe he was the target of a conspiracy of witches trying to assassinate him. As the programme pointed out he’d been the target of more physical assassination attempts several times by the time of his wedding, so when a fierce storm blew up on his & his new wife’s way home from Denmark it didn’t take much of a leap of imagination for him to believe it was deliberately raised to kill him. Once safely home he had several local wise women, or cunning folk, and healers rounded up and eventually under torture some confessed to the witchcraft and assassination attempt and were burnt at the stake. James went on to write a book about hunting witches – what they could do, where they got their powers, what to look out for, what evidence was valid in court of law and so on. This became the primary text used throughout both countries – the programme detailed a few specific cases where women ran afoul of witchfinders and were burnt to death. It also showed some recent archaeological evidence that practices that James VI & I would’ve defined at witchcraft were continuing until at least the 1970s. These were some pits excavated in Cornwall that contain animal or bird skins and eggs, and appear to’ve been ritually laid in the earth at various points in time – one included some plastic, hence the “into the modern day” part.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage has translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the original Middle English into modern English, and this programme was partly telling us the story of the poem and partly about translating the poem. Armitage walked through the sorts of landscapes mentioned in the poem, mostly in the pouring rain, to conjure up the world of the story. Gawain is one of King Arthur’s knights, and one New Year’s Eve a green knight comes to Camelot and challenges the knights – is one of them brave enough to cut off his head, knowing that a year later the knight must go to him and he will cut off the knight’s head in return. Gawain steps up to the challenge, and most of the poem details his journey a year later going to his destiny.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

The third and final episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire was mostly about the aftermath of its collapse, and the repercussions of that that are still being felt today. The Empire was torn apart partly by rising nationalist feeling, and partly by the Allies after the end of WWI – the Ottomans had been on Germany’s side. The first half of the programme was a catalogue of states & empires behaving poorly, and the horrific consequences. This included genocide of Armenian Christians by the splintering Ottoman Empire, brutalities brought about by the Greek invasion of Turkey (sponsored by the British, and leading to a “population exchange” where families with roots centuries deep in one country or another were deported “home” as defined by their religion), and the various problems caused by the British Empire promising the same land to multiple groups during WWI. In the second half of the programme Omaar concentrated on Turkey, as both the former heartland of the Ottoman Empire and as one of the success stories of the region. This was less unrelentingly bleak – although when discussing Attaturk Omaar did say that he “wasn’t as bad as Stalin or Chairman Mao” which strikes me as damning with faint praise! Attaturk and his successors strongly believed that the road to success was to Westernise, and that this meant secularise. The tone of the programme was disapproving of this, but some of the interviewees were much more positive (including a woman who’d been a child during Attaturk’s initial reforms and who felt her life was much better as a result of the rights given to women). Modern Turkey has managed to combine both democracy and being an Islamic state, and is also beginning to rehabilitate the reputation of the Ottoman Empire.

This was an odd series in some ways – there were several times when I thought Omaar was glossing over things in an attempt to make the Ottomans sound more tolerant than they actually were. And that continued with a blasé handwave past the more recent protests in Turkey as not really important. However it was still interesting (and reminded me how little I know about the Ottomans in general).

David Starkey’s Music & Monarchy

In this series David Starkey is going to tell us all about the impact the English monarchy has had on English music. It boasts newly recorded performances of the various examples, all of which seem to have Starkey standing or sitting and listening in a pseudo-regal style … The first episode took us from Henry V through to Elizabeth I. Along the way he told us (and showed us) how English church music evolved into a complex (and highly respected) art form. Henry V was a composer himself, as well as a pious man who felt that the best way to get God on his side was to make sure His praises were sung in the best possible way. The story also covered how the foundations of both Eton & King’s College, Cambridge were due to Henry VI’s piety and desire for choirs to praise the glory of God. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was almost disastrous for English church music – although Henry himself kept music as part of church services his much more radically Protestant son wanted to abolish all of that. The day is only saved by Elizabeth’s return to a third way between Protestantism & Roman Catholicism – and her Chapel Royal performed a lot of music as part of services (and leading composers such as Thomas Talis & William Byrd flourished during her reign).

Plastic: How It Works

This is the second episode of Mark Miodownik’s materials series – all about plastics, which he’s defining broadly to encompass any and all artificially created materials. It was a mix of history and chemistry, and started with the discovery of the vulcanisation process for rubber. The first century and more of plastic creation was all about chemical reactions that were poorly understood – Miodownik told us about the atomic structure & properties of these materials but the people creating them often didn’t understand it. In the second half of the 20th Century materials begin to be designed, and this is when plastics made from oil start to be created – the key realisation was that what you wanted to do was polymerise carbon based monomers, and that oil is rich in these building blocks. And the last third of the programme was about the future – we’re turning back to look at biological substances and then trying to engineer new materials with those properties. For instance a sticky tape that uses the same structure as hairs on beetle’s feet to grip glass without glue – demonstrated by sticking a handle to a suspended glass panel & Miodownik dangled from it. He also talked about upcoming medical technology – scaffolding material that encourages cartilage regeneration, for instance.

A Hundred Years of Us

There’s still just enough interesting content in these that we’re continuing to watch – the fourth episode included some fascinating stuff about GI babies. They’d interviewed a woman who was the daughter of an English woman & a black American soldier – she was given up to an orphanage at birth, and subsequently adopted by a family in a Welsh mining village. She did eventually track her parents down – her mother didn’t want anything to do with her because her husband knew nothing about the child & would divorce her if he knew. And her father had died before she could find him, which was also sad. Another interesting segment was about the women sewing machinists who went out on strike for equal pay back in the 60s. The main guest on the programme was Gloria Hunniford who had various anecdotes about the different segments as they related to her – the one that sticks in my mind was when discussing rationing she talked about her mother getting caught smuggling a pair of shoes back into Northern Ireland (from Dublin) in her knickers. Which … how does that even work??

This Week’s TV including Games, Antigua, Vikings, Ottomans, and Iron Age & 20th Century Britons

Games Britannia

This is a three part series about the history of games in Britain, presented by Benjamin Woolley – we only recorded the first one which was the earlier history. Just as well, I think as he got closer to the modern day I’d’ve got more irritated with him (a throwaway remark in his intro to the theme of the series about how “these days teenage boys play video games” put my hackles up …). Other infelicities included showing a picture from an Egyptian relief of a game of senet and talking about it as if it was an ancestor of chess (unlikely, I think it’s believed to be more like a race game than a war game). And an assumption that an Iron Age game board must’ve been for divination purposes and meant this burial was of a druid … which, er, why does everything “primitive people” do have to have deep religious significance? Can’t a game be a game?

Otherwise it was an interesting survey of games from Iron Age Britain to late Victorian times. The earlier periods are represented by a small handful of games we don’t really know the rules for any more, except Nine Men’s Morris – which you find boards for scratched into the stonework in cathedral cloisters & so on, and it’s a game that is found in some variant form or another right across the world. The games we’d recognise today start to come in after contact with the east – some brought back by crusaders etc and later from India. I didn’t know that Snakes & Ladders derived from a Hindu game that was more of a teaching tool about the Hindu religion that a game per se. Odd to note that this game was altered to remove the message behind it during the same time period that teaching games were being churned out by Victorian moralists – lots of games where the point was to race to the end and there’d be various moral snares along the way (“You landed in a tavern, miss two goes”).

Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-hole: An Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered

A hurricane in 2010 uncovered 18th Century bones on a beach in Antigua – a place that Horatio Nelson once referred to as a “vile place” and a “dreadful hole”. In this programme Sam Willis followed the (fairly short) archaeological excavation that followed the discovery & told us a bit about the history of Antigua and why it was such an appalling place in the 18th Century. Antigua was important to the British Empire – both strategically and because it, in common with the other Caribbean islands, was where sugar was produced. The beach where the bones were found is in a place now called English Harbour – a natural harbour surrounded by hills where ships could shelter from the hurricanes. An obvious place to make your main base for the area – a couple of forts near the entrance & you can make the whole thing a safe place for your fleet. But the lack of wind & currents causes other problems – anything flung in the water just stays there. Parts of the seabed in the harbour today are feet thick in rubbish, industrial waste from the dockyards went in, any waste from the ships moored there including sewage. So instead of the pretty & clean beach of today the harbour would’ve been a stinking miasma of polluted water & air. Then you add in all the tropical diseases the sailors were exposed to, and the high mortality rate starts to seem reasonable. But then Willis talked to several archaeologists who have an additional theory about what was killing the sailors – lead poisoning from rum. Part of the sugar cane harvest was made into rum, and this was a staple drink for the sailors – they’d have a pint a day as part of their rations. But the rum was made in lead piping and lead distillation tanks, and the people Willis spoke to said the rum would’ve been contaminated. Perhaps not a problem if you had a bit now & again, but for the sailors it would’ve built up quickly.

The archaeological side of the programme was well covered, but was made at an early stage of the investigation – they had a few days of excavation but obviously hadn’t done any further analysis by the time the programme was made. But in that 5 days or so they got half a dozen skeletons from one small trench in the beach – the thought is that if a sailor died on board a ship in the harbour then he’d be hurriedly buried on the beach.

The Viking Sagas

This programme about the Viking Sagas wasn’t one of Janina Ramirez’s better programmes – somewhat padded out with lots of gushing about how wonderful the sagas were (rather than more discussion of the things themselves) at the start and some odd choices for imagery. It did get better as the programme went on, however, as we moved from generic “ooh this is wonderful” to a discussion of one saga in particular. The saga she chose was the Laxdæla saga, a story of lust, love & revenge. The point Ramirez was drawing out was that the Viking sagas were much more realistic than contemporary European literature which was heavy on tales of courtly love, and virtue being rewarded. The sagas are based on real events (in real places) with only a thin veneer of Christian moralising added at a later stage (like Guðrún, one of the protagonists, withdrawing to a nunnery at the end of her life in repentance). Ramirez also made a point of how British people were among those who settled Iceland (mostly women brought as concubines, i.e. sex slaves). And the sagas also influenced more modern British writers – Blake and Tolkein were the examples used.

Worth watching for the scenery & to hear bits of the saga read aloud (in Icelandic, with subtitles) in said scenery. But the In Our Time we listened to earlier in the year on the same subject was more informative (post).

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

In the second episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire, Rageh Omaar covers the second half of the empire from Suleiman the Magnificent (or Suleiman the Lawgiver) in the 16th Century through to Abdul Hamid II and the “Sick Old Man of Europe” (nickname for the empire) in the 19th Century. Omaar continues to be more of an apologist for the Ottoman Empire than I’d like (lots of “it was a tolerant place” while glossing over second class citizenship for non-Muslims & children of non-Muslims being taken to be slaves). It was during Suleiman’s time that the Mamluk Empire was conquered – bringing the heartlands of Islam under Ottoman control. Prior to this the Ottomans were only really nominally Muslim, and ruled over a predominantly Christian territory, afterwards they moved more towards embracing their Islamic faith as a mark of their legitimacy as rulers. The Sultan was now also the Caliph, and they imposed a hierarchy on the Islamic clergy where there was previously no such thing. Under Suleiman and his immediate successors the Ottoman Empire pushed its expansion westward – ending up at the gates of Vienna, where they were only defeated by all of Christendom coming together (in effect) to drive them back. The Turks were feared across Europe & from the perspective of Europeans it was very much a Holy War (but not so from the Ottoman perspective, that was about territory). Omaar pointed out that this historical legacy influences the way the more eastern countries of Europe see the prospect of Turkey joining the European Union to this day.

Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire was at its peak, after him & his immediate successors their technological advantage started to be outstripped by a Europe undergoing the Industrial Revolution and entering the Enlightenment era. When Napoleon took his army to Egypt the initial Ottoman reaction was an assumption they were clearly the superior civilisation so their rout by the French & the loss of Egypt was a complete shock. It’s all downhill from there – the Ottomans end up referred to as the Sick Old Man of Europe, and rising nationalist feelings start to tear apart the cohesion of the Empire. The Ottoman dynasty is also seen by parts of the Empire as not Muslim enough – a fundamentalist Muslim group rising in what’s now Saudi Arabia took control of Mecca & Medina for a while, and whilst their rebellion was put down by the Ottomans it was a sign of what was to come.

Which is presumably the subject of the next episode.

Metal: How it Works

Metal: How it Works is the first of a three part series (all called X: How it Works) presented by Mark Miodownik which look at the materials our civilisation is based on. It was a combination of history, engineering & metallurgy, and while it could’ve been quite dry it was saved by the fact that Miodownik is engagingly enthusiastic about the subject. Miodownik took us through the history of metal-working from the early discovery of copper, and then bronze, through iron-working to steel and more modern metals. Along the way he talked about what it is about the atomic structure of metals that makes them behave the way they do (atoms in a crystal lattice, but one where the atoms can slide along and bunch up). As well as the enthusiastic bits about what metal working has let us do there were also a couple of segments about times when our ambition outreached our knowledge & skills. The first of these was about the railway bridge across the Tay, which collapsed under a train during a storm killing everyone on board. Which was the impetus for figuring out steel production – because it was the first indication for Victorian engineers that iron alone wasn’t necessarily the answer to all the world’s engineering problems. And the second was the first passenger planes, where tragically the stresses that repeated pressurisation & depressurisation put on the metal fuselages of planes was only worked out after several catastrophic mid-air failures.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The third episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was a very padded hour about two Iron Age burials. Very very padded. Bourton-on-the-Water is a village in the Cotswolds that I’ve been to several times as a child, and apparently underneath its primary school there is a fairly large Iron Age site. As the school has expanded they’ve had archaeologists come in and excavate before they put new buildings up, so much has been unearthed. The original burial (a girl in a rubbish pit) was thought to be singular and perhaps a sign of human sacrifice – so the updated info was first debunking that theory and then discussing the other burials they found in the area. All were of women or girls who were in some way diseased or disabled – they speculate that this may’ve been what set these women apart so that they were buried rather than excarnated (left to decompose before burying the bones). One of the bodies was of an older woman who had clearly been paralysed below the waist for several years (her leg bones were withered) but was otherwise in good health (as far as they could detect) which is an indication that these women were well looked after.

The other burial was a chariot burial found in Yorkshire in a village called Wetwang. Subsequent to the original excavation they’ve found evidence that the chariot was in use before death – ie it wasn’t just for burying the woman with, it was her vehicle in life. The woman in the grave was also disfigured, her skull was lopsided – probably pushed that way by a fairly large hemangioma on one of her cheeks. (Wikipedia says haemangiomas disappear over time mostly going by age 10, so perhaps I misremember what they said on the programme as they seemed to be saying it would still be visible in her later years.) She was buried with a mirror, which they’ve now discovered may’ve been kept in an otter fur bag – which may have symbolic status.

We’ll have a gap before we can watch the fourth episode, for some reason it didn’t record last time it aired so I need to wait till it airs again (soon, I think). In it, I suspect he’ll tell us several hundred times how it’s been “over N years since” the original excavations 😉

A Hundred Years of Us

The third episode of A Hundred Years of Us was more of the same mixture as the other two. Phil Tufnell was irritating as a butler this time (but the butler teaching him was too polite to outright laugh). More interesting was the segment on motorways – brand shiny new in the 1950s and requiring informational films about how you shouldn’t do a U-turn if you missed your exit nor have a picnic on the hard shoulder. And they were empty! There was also an interview with a man who’d moved from Jamaica to England in the early 60s (not on the Windrush, his parents moved over on the Windrush). He talked about both the culture shock and the racism he faced – like how he’d corresponded with an agricultural college when he was still in Jamaica to organise becoming a student once he moved to England. But once he turned up (and turned out black) there was magically no space in any of the classes. He ended up having to get a job as a bus conductor in Birmingham. He was keen to stress how much England has changed for the better since he arrived (although this segment also covered how much it got worse before it got better).

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.