Oh! Take me back to dear old Blighty

By Mark Jardine

What was your favourite Richard III moment of the last fortnight? Was it Cumberbatch in the Cathedral? Toynbee’s ‘Britain mourns a monster because he was a King’? Olivier’s ‘now is the winter of our discontent’? Or Baldrick’s ‘Oh dear Richard III’? For me, it was a friend’s Facebook post of Peter Sellers doing ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. Priceless.

 

It is a beautiful moment that fuses Richard III with The Beatles, Olivier and Sellers, an iconic triumvirate of British culture. Right in the heart of a decade that defined modern Britain, Merry Old England finds its place.
 
The media has loved the return of Richard III and so, it appears, have the British people. Why? Because the last Plantagenet is a central figure in England’s pageant of history, the dominant story of Britain. The tangible excitement over his discovery and reburial reflects our widespread familiarity with Shakespeare’s ‘rudely stamp’d’ Tudor villain.
 
What does the media frenzy over Richard III tell us about Englishness? Probably nothing new. At the core of modern English identity, at least in the television version for decades, lies Shakespeare’s sceptred isle of the Tudors, a lost country where England really was England and not Britain.
 
Historians debate when England became a nation. Some precociously argue that Tudor England was the first nation, others that English nationalism was created in the modern, industrial age. Wherever you stand on that argument, it is clear that “Tudor times”, the last hurrah of Merry Old England before James VI’s Britain descended on it, are crucial to the collective English imagination of today.
 
We frequently see it on our screens in Wolf Hall, Elizabeth, Elizabeth R, The Tudors, Horrible Histories and Blackadder etc, etc. Almost every other day, the fascination with Henry VIII and Good Queen Bess is fed, refreshed and retold. And why not? It is great drama. It is their history.
 
The media fixation on the Tudors is, of course, a selective version of England’s history. It is one that avoids the complexities of Britishness and the Empire. Subjugated Wales and Ireland barely get a look in. It ticks the box marked White British. And the Poor? They are almost invisible as the great lords and ladies flirt, plot and scheme their way either into power, or into bed.
 
The Tudor cult can be engrossing and entertaining television. But what about the Celtic nations? What about Scotland? Are the touchstone historical stories of our identity given similar treatment? Yes, on the odd occasion, like the excellent docudrama ‘After Bannockburn’ shown on BBC Scotland. However, as every Scot knows, we have to endlessly imbibe the pageant of English history in the UK broadcast media. It is an inevitable price of being British.
 
‘The Wallace’ the miniseries, ‘The Clearances’ the movie, or ‘The Secret Life and Loves of Bonnie Prince Charlie’? You can pretty much forget them unless the rules of the media landscape change, even though the histories of Scotland and Ireland are global brands. At the centre of UK broadcasting it is generally assumed that those tales are of little, or at best of occasional, interest to the core audience down south.
 
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Of the nearly three million viewers of every episode of ‘A history of Scotland’ (2008–2009), most watched it from the comfort of an English sofa. That is quiet an achievement, as just over three million watched Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ in the very different media landscape of 2000. ‘A history of Scotland’ was very successful in worldwide sales.
 
If a Scottish series can make it onto the UK network it can do well both in England and around the globe, but there is a catch. What goes on UK network television is not just a matter of choice. There is an economic dimension to it. To make great television history or drama costs an unbelievable amount of money. Big budgets are generally linked to being on the UK network. The main place to get the additional money required to make “landmark” television is, of course, London, where the ‘of occasional interest’ commissioning problem is at its most acute.
 
One way the Celtic “regions” can get round that problem to some extent is to collaborate – ‘After Bannockburn’, which is about the Bruce’s invasion of Ireland, was funded by RTE, BBC Scotland and BBC Northern Ireland – but the price of that strategy is that your story must directly involve the histories of the other regions or nations to be funded. There are many good things to be said about that model, but it does limit which touchstone stories you can tell.
 
The other apparent option of putting all you eggs in one basket and forking out for your touchstone series does not make sense within the strictures of the UK network, as a ‘region’ has no access to worldwide sales and other cultural output would be restricted with knock on effects on employment and budgets.
 
At a push, it is possible to envision a truly open British broadcasting network that is well-informed of, and fed from, all the nations of these Isles. One in which the Celtic nations get to tell their histories for all Britons alongside the English version. However, that kind of Britishness is not what is on offer in the UK at present and there is little sign of it changing. What we get on screen is the English interpretation of Britishness, where English history is more or less synonymous with British history. If we want that interrelationship between English-British identity, History and UK broadcasting to change, we have to demand the devolution of broadcasting or drive on to independence. Otherwise, Richard III and his ilk will return again and again to obscure Scotland’s story. The King is dead, boys, and it’s so lonely on limb.



Categories: Commentary

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33 replies

  1. Outlander, global success but not shown in Britain. As an Englishman I would punt that if it has been shown Scotland would be independent now. Btw if the Tories win could you save me a place up there ?

  2. Also funny how mainstream history still recalls the Tiwdors as a quintessentially “English” dynasty, Ho hum.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penmynydd
      Penmynydd, Anglesey, was the home of the Tudors of Penmynydd and claims the birthplace of the founding of the Tudor Dynasty. In the 14th century, a resident of Penmynydd, Tudur ap Goronwy, had five sons, one of whom was called Maredudd (the father of Owen Tudor – an Anglicisation of his Welsh name Owain ap Maredudd ap Tudur) who joined Henry V’s army and subsequently established himself at court. After Henry V died, his widow married Owen Tudor in secret around 1429 and had three sons. Their grandson, Henry Tudor, subsequently claimed the crown of England through this rather tenuous relationship.

  3. I agree with a lot of this. I always thought Britain cannot really cope with the idea that conflicts define Scotland’s medieval relationship with England and so it is inevitably rationalised with an idea that these were the product of internal rivalries within Scotland. These are often simplified to an absurd degree where even the wars of independence are claimed to be wars between a different Lords in Scotland and that the conflict was just a sideshow in the more important ‘British’ history. The declaration of Arbroath had such important implications for the formation of a Scottish identity that this whitewash of history is just stupifying. In fact, historically, there is probably a better case to argue Ireland was a more integral part of Britain than Scotland ever was and it was religious differences that surfaced during the reformation that caused the biggest divergence. In fact, even the magna carta was issued to Ireland.

    While working-class history may share many common themes, there is clearly massive differences there too. I think there is a combination of a desire to claim that Britain has always been a united country since Alfred the Great and that Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and even petty kingdoms within England have always been nominally part of a greater British kingdom which rejects the notion that an individual nation could have existed outwith it.

  4. Just saw a photo of a new camping shop in Leicester called Richard III. It’s slogan in the window is “Now is the winter of our discount tents”.

  5. Excellent analysis. But if broadcasting is devolved as a result of a post May settlement I would suggest that devolution should extend further to subsidiarity, providing a significantly greater local emphasis and contribution to the composition of Scotland’s ‘national’ identity. Broadband and broadcast engineering can be reimagined for Scotland to provide a comprehensive Scottish service that is not dominated by Glasgow or Edinburgh as London now dominates the UK.

  6. Yes, Scotland’s legacy is not well served by the media, it is definitey penned in like a bull between arches

  7. Anything showing Scotland as an independent nation or suffering at the hands of another country will never be broadcast on (Great) British TV cf. “Outlander”.

    There is a deliberate ongoing policy of cultural genocide being enforced by the UK establishment to erode and therefore eventually eradicate Scotland.

    Remember, if it walks like a duck etc.

  8. At school in the early 1960s I passed Higher History with NO component of Scottish History. It was not deemed suitable for schools. You could, however, study it at university. Such treatment of a nation’s heritage would rightly be condemned by the likes of the BBC as Cultural Hegemony, unless the heritage happened to be Scottish.

    This is the Imperial mindset applied to a colony, in this case Scotland, or North Britain as the “former politician” Gordon Brown calls us.

    Enough is enough. Vote for a party that really cares about Scotland, not about maintaining an empire based in Westminster..

    • Here here! Me too! I am of the same era as yourself and never once were we taught anything about Scotland in any history lesson, I have discovered quite a few interesting things about how the Scots were treated by the “English” crown since moving up here 6 yrs ago!

    • Lack of understanding of our “own” history is endemic in Scotland. I was at a Land Reform meeting on Friday and it was very apparent that many of those attending had no or little understanding of the Land League movement which only a little over one hundred years ago was a huge radical threat to the British Establishment. Education is key and everybody here should have a basic grasp of the history of the country and the opportunity to learn more if they desire, this is in addition to being taught about other societies and cultures. I seem to recall the Labour Party rallying against such policy as apparently having an understanding of your own culture is ‘SNP brainwashing’.

  9. The Irish and the Welsh need a voice too – they have fascinating histories

  10. Scotland raises £330 million a year in TV licence revenue. That’s enough to provide a comprehensive Scottish public broadcasting service – including drama as either TV series or film – and import other TV programmes as desired.

  11. The problem for Richard III’s historic reputation (excluding the Tudor requirement to undermine that reputation, not least because Henry VII had virtually no contemporary, credible claim to the throne that would stand in late-medieval Europe) is the disappearance and death of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ (Edward IV’s sons, Richard III’s nephews). Richard III takes the rap; since he was on the throne when he sent them to the Tower; they were never seen again alive; two skeletons of boys were found under a stair of Bloody Tower in the 1930s; thus it is difficult for him to avoid any responsibility. But why murder them?

    To open Richard III’s way to the throne (as presented by Shakespeare, who was merely a Tudor propagandist re-drafting Polydor Vergil’s official Tudor, historical polemic)? Ruthless realpolitik? Perhaps, but even in a bloody age, this really would be an act that moved into exceptionally ruthless territory.

    Rather more plausible is the proposition that both children had to go because they were not actually Plantagenets. The story, widely believed in contemporary courts throughout Europe (the Plantagenets were a laughing-stock); was that Edward IV’s father (Richard, Duke of York) was not the father of Edward IV; the Duchess, Cecily had a fling with an English archer, named Blaybourne [?]. At the time the Duke would be required to be in Rouen with his wife, if he was the father, one recent historical researcher has claimed (from studying the Rouen records), that the Duke was at least 100 miles away, attending a siege. We should not be surprised by this as either rumour or fact; throughout the centuries the royal courts were filled with fears of changelings, and quite elaborate procedures were commonplace to prevent being ‘cheated’.

    Notably, the general claim that the children of Edward IV were illegitimate, and Edward IV was not a Plantagenet was made directly by Richard III when he claimed the throne. The claim may be true or false (and difficult to decide, save perhaps by testing the DNA of the remains of the ‘alleged’ remains of the children – if they are the children), but it is quite possible (whether true or not) that Richard III believed it was true. Whoever was confused by this, perhaps the most gullible were not those involved, but rather generations of unimaginative, moribund English late-medieval historians through the centuries, who have simply dismissed the rumours out of hand; without researching the facts or examining the plausibility. Their argument seemed to rest on the fact that the principals were British royalty, and therefore above such activities; or by assuming that the Plantagenets were social snobs, ‘above that sort of thing’: not perhaps their finest hour – nor Richard III’s.

    None of this is very edifying for anyone.

    • Scottish medieval history was likewise bloody but I can’t find much to support that it was worse than medieval England’s, yet English historians like to think their history is somehow more edifying.

  12. I read somewhere that DNA analysis has revealed that only about 4% of the DNA of people living in England can be identified as Anglo-Saxon. Which makes you wonder who they are, really, especially as the amount of DNA that can be recognised as ‘Celtic’ in Scotland is not much higher than it is in England. (It’s a lot higher in Ireland).

    DNA findings are fascinating, and would suggest that the history of all the ancient peoples of Britain are equally important to us all.

  13. Ah the Two Doors but were they a coupe or a soft top?

  14. wHAT is missing in the comments and indeed in the article is an analysis on the out-pouring of jingoist public support/interest across England around Richard111.
    Currently there is a growing cultural nationalism across England; the R 111 issue gives this nationalism a focus. UKIP and the current Tory leadership has encouraged this cultural national sentiment directing into political activism.
    It is an unhealthy nationalism, partly racist, partly xenophobic and fuelled by the generic rightwing rhetoric from T Party and Austrian right-wing politics.
    The Tory Party media are using Scotland as a source of anti-foreign populism that is growing as a political force in England. Cameron is tapping into this anti-Jockism picking up votes.
    The Conservative Party has always had a anti-johnie-foreigner wing but now it is the centre of their party. Promoting Englishness as a political force is part of the Rich 111 promotion:look for more before May 7th.

  15. Braveheart. Rob Roy. Kidnapped. Mrs Brown. Virtually Scott’s entire opus. Ane Satyr of the Thrie Estates.
    The Douglas. To name but a few.The Scots are clearly historically indifferent.

  16. Perhaps part of the English fascination with the Tudors is that they were the last English monarchs on England’s throne.

    All of the kings and queen’s of Great Britain since James VI & I have been descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots. George I, German George, was a great grandson of James VI & I.

    It is quite interesting to note how programme makers gloss over that in any discussion or programme about that period.

  17. An interesting article which reflects my concerns regarding TV broadcasting. However, Britain is in fact England. The land that the Romans called Brittania lay from the south coast to middle (ish) England, up to the border was known to the Romans as Brittania Inferior and what is now Scotland was Caledonia. Broadcasters have no clue about the difference between what they call Britain – but mean the United Kingdom or Great Britain.

  18. The best efforts of the politicians and the ministry of disinformation (BBC) to erase Scotland’s history are counterproductive because they can’t actually erase it. By trying to they simply make it apparent how disingenuous they actually are. The Richard iii tripe is just another statement to a more enlightened Scottish people that they are an irrelevance in the context of the UK. More of the same from the MSM please.

  19. A timely and interesting addition to the conversation. Well spotted – and delivered.

    Cheers. {stands and applauds}

  20. Can you imagine the English media paying the same attention to the discovery of the bones of a Scottish King, and the subsequent reburial of the same? Not on your nelly. The relevance of Richard 3 to the great Scottish nation is about the same as some English person blowing their nose in London. Mary, Queen of Scots, died at the bloody hands of English Royalty. Scots should never forget that when they are fawning over Richard 3 and all his ilk

    • Mary, Queen of Scots, may have had her head cut off on the orders of QE I but Mary had the last laugh because all of the Kings and Queens of Great Britain from James VI & I have been descendants of Mary, Queen of Scots.

  21. Schama’s History of Britian was no such thing. I looked forward to it until all it was was a procession of this king came after that king. Boringly antequated story telling. And of course it was entirely English until James 6.

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