The Lost Prince

  • Garrow's Law
  • The Young Victoria
  • The King's Speech
  • The Lost Prince

Friday, 10 December 2010

At Home with the Georgians

Amanda Vickery presents an extraordinarily interesting new history series on BBC2 in which she explores the Georgian home and its importance on eighteenth century relationships. The first line of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice reads, "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man of good fortune must be in want of a wife". This sets up the premise of Vickery's first episode, in which she suggests that finding a house and settling down was equally important to a man as it was to a woman, and that many men took more of an interest in the running of their household than had previously been acknowledged. She shows how houses could make or break a relationship, and brought with them wealth, status and often happiness, for the men just as much for the women.

What makes this a great history series is the way it mixes presenter-lead documentary with contemporary scenery and period acting. Vickery's lively presenting is set amidst the splendour of Georgian homes, so that the present and the past become entwined, and Vickery is more strongly attached to the homes she is trying to present. We see her sitting in a ale house, sipping Georgian beer, walking through the iconic pasonage where Pride and Prejudice's Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins set up home in the 1995 BBC series, and we see her at Chorston House sitting at what was Jane Austen's writing desk. This engagement with the past allows the viewer to engage in the past as well, and to more easily imagine what a Georgian home would have looked like and felt like. 

Vickery not only engages with the backdrop of the past, the houses she is trying to present in the series, but she also engages in the evidence. The episode is focuses around the letters and diaries of middle class Georgian singletons and couples, and to show how homes influenced relationships. We see Vickery really interacting with the sources, putting herself in her rightful place as historian and not merely presenter, as she is filmed in the archives, showing us some of the sources, and the handwriting of the subjects, makes the whole topic much more interesting and engaging. She even shows off the new iPad by using it to show some sources in the back drop of the home, sometimes even with a lit fire for an added touch of warmth, and pictures to show contemporary attitudes towards the home and domicity.

In order for the audience to really engage with the people behind the sources, the men and women who Vickery uses as examples of this important domicity in Georgian society, actors and actresses in period dress speaking out the words of their letters really make the past come alive for an audience. Instead of being forced to imagine what they would have looked like and how they would have lived, it is recreated for us, in an attempt to make the history more interactive.We also feel more sympathy with the people she is talking with, we feel more like we could know them.

The classical music creates an atmosphere of culture and sociability. It really brings home the fact that women had power in the home, that they had control of how the household was run, and would often feel comfortable in this positon, but men were not excluded from the home, many men has a comfortable relationship in the home, where they could maintain their masculinity. It also suggests that having a house was important for male status, and brought with it coveted voting rights which were important for male power.

The episode then goes on to explore women's position in the home, talks about women and men who did not have the benefit of a home, or of singletons who were lonely with property they were unable to share. Of course, the way that people are most connected to Georgian relationships is through Jane Austen, who is her 7 novels, explores the challenges of Georgian relationships and with that the pursuit of the home. She shows how Charlotte Lucas' motives in marrying was to have a comfortable home, and how it was possible to be happy and married with a husband, without loving your desired partner. It also shows the importance of wealth in deciding to marry, and how this could be a problem for men and women. People were guided by wealth and status in an insecure environment, and would not marry below them, but many were happy to have a comfortably home without splendour and pomp, so long as they were happy with their chosen partner. 

This is important for the many homes the Georgians have left us, and shows that the perfect wife was the one who could deal with the household and please their husband in the bed room. It shows that men desired wives for status, domicity and general companionship as much as women did, and that the Georgian home was ultimately built upon a steady Georgian marriage.

A very interesting series.

By Emma Burbidge

Monday, 22 November 2010

Garrow's Law

To anyone who did not see the illustrious first series of Garrow's Law, it is a period drama based on the life and legal career of William Garrow, who pioneered fairer changes to the law in the eighteenth century. It has a cast of well-known British TV actors, including Lyndsey Marshal, Aidan McCardle, Michael Culkin, Alun Armstrong and Rupert Graves.

Just like the first series used the recorded trials of the Old Bailey to present the past in a way that was dramatic and engaging to the viewer, the second series has followed this precedent with greater energy, and humour. Although the first series was too long ago to have stuck in my mind, the second series is by no means more of the same.

The show is clever, because it has taken a relatively unknown character in history, some one who history has forgotten, and made him into an exciting barrister, who we largely symphasise with. Although according to some sources they have made him slightly more likable for the purposes of the show than he actually was, they had to, they need a protagonist, a hero. Although they accurately portray Garrow as being a man who has faults like any other, he is by no means an anti-hero. The show has brought Garrow out of obscurity, before this show started I have to say I had never heard of William Garrow, and now the producers have successfully popularised him, thus lifting him out of the shadow.

In the first episode, Garrow is prosecuting the captain of the Zong for insurance fraud. African slaves on a voyage to Jamaica, are killed in order to get the money, but in the eighteenth century context, slaves were regarded as cargo, and the loss of them was not murder. The producer, Tony Merchant, says that he included this story line because it involved issues that were pertinent for the period and for us to remember in the present day. Indeed, it seems William Garrow, although not an abolitionist, was opposed to the slave trade, as he turned down a job as manager of legal affairs of some West Indian planters, and was involved in the prosecution of a master for the torture of his slave girl. However, as much as we might like to believe that William Garrow was involved in the case, which was instrumental in the abolitionist movement, as it challenged the notion of slaves as property, Garrow was not involved in this case.

Sadly (for the show), it was Granville Sharp who championed the Zong in this very famous case, and while Gustavus Vassa was present at the trial, he never met William Garrow, although he was a well-known abolitionsist, who through re-telling his own story, made a strong contribution to the abolitionist cause. The Zong was an important case, as it was a terrible massacre, that shocked Britain, but can the show really justify bending history to such an extent? The producers could not bring out the issue of slavery without focusing on the trial Garrow was involved in later in his career, which would bring him out of context with the rest of the story line.

So we may question all its historical accuracy, but as Merchant, and many others tell us, history is interpretation. I am not sure that putting Garrow in the place of Sharp is re-interpreting history, probably more saying something that is just wrong. But we can not blame the producers for going to extraordinary efforts to draw on the period as a whole, and broaden it outside of Garrow's life, even if it is not strictly correct.

The personal relationship with Sarah Hill also adds drama. Garrow did have a relationship with her, and she was married to Arthur Hill and had a son by him, but the whole messy divorce scenario in the dramas, in which Garrow is accused of adultery in an attempt by Hill to ruin Sarah and Garrow, seems to have been made up. It does make good drama, and to simply present the simple historical truth, would show Garrow marrying Sarah and them living happily together till her death, and how boring is that? So the drama has had a bit of license with their history, in order to make the story line more exciting.

Yet, I want to watch the next story already. The characterisation is good, the acting excellent, and the lines are well-written and often humorous. The costumes are stunning, and the sets are accurate, it is just a little bit of a let down to learn that it is not entirely truthful. I will keep watching though, superb drama, just not the most accurate of histories.

Emma Burbidge

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Young Victoria

The Young Victoria is proof that history can make great drama! It is the story of possibly our most famous queen, Victoria, and the turbulent early years of her reign and her illustrous romance with the young prince Albert. As soon as I watched it once, I had to watch it again. I have now watched it four times in three weeks, and I now have to tell you why it is one of, possibly the best, history films I have seen, and why you should see it too!

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First of all, it is not the same old same old. History films usually consist of one or both of these two things: war and the Tudors. If it does not contain these two things then it has often not been put into film. How many films are there about World War Two? How many programmes/documentaries and films are going to be made of the Tudors before they finally exhaust  the topic? Of course, World War Two is very important, every one knows some one who was involved in it or lived through it or died in it, and of course it is important not to forget it. Making what happened into a vivid and often moving film can help millions of people come to terms with what happened. But making a film about it is not something new. And there is no doubt about it: The Tudors make good drama. You could make a soap opera out of the lives of the Tudor monarchs. The political intrigues of the English Reformation, Henry VIII's very complicated love life, and the plots and lack of marriages in Elizabeth I's reign - all these can certainly captivate an audience. The interest in old Henry might be partly helped by his admirer, David Starkey.But the Tudors and the War also have one thing in common, they are both on the school curriculum. Queen Victoria, I hasten to add - and I am about to get to the point - is usually not. If she is the focus, it is on the older, children-must-be-seen-and-not-heard perception of her, which seems to characterise the later part of her reign, as shown in the film on that part of her life, Mrs Brown. The Young Victoria is in keeping with the new fashion, and what seems to slowly becoming the norm, of focusing on something that is not war or the Tudors. At school I studied the Tudors and the English Civil War, the next year I was straight on to World War I, it was only at university that I realised there was a two hundred year gap in which quite a lot of exciting and very interesting things happened, and people ought to know about them. Following the trend of Amazing Grace, and the Duchess, both involving late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century issues, the Young Victoria is a fresh, new, historical drama that offers insight into a normally unstudied period in British history. 

What makes this film so great is the fact that it is able to draw on Victoria and Albert's achievements which are visible across London, and among much of the rest of the country, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial. The love they had for each other is clear even now, and so from this point of view, one might ask why this had not been made into a film before. It shows Victoria to be a strong-willed caring liberal, who after a shrouded upbringing, will not be stopped by anyone in taking her destined place in the world.

Since I have not studied Victoria's reign in any details I can not attest to its historical accuracy or inaccuracy. I suspect there is somewhere some poetic license, but I think as long as it does not completely rewrite what happens, this is a good thing if it helps the film to sell. The story is this. At the start of the film Victoria is a young princess, the niece of King William IV, she has been kept away from his court by her mother, and her adviser, Lord Conroy, who have restricted her in many ways, from making her walk down the stairs accompanied at all times, to stopping her from reading novels. She lives a secluded life, where she is effectively imprisoned. There are all these people trying to control her, while at the same time, Albert, a handsome German prince, (who is also her cousin) has been sent to woo her. As well as being about Victoria growing up, finding her heart and adapting to life as a new Queen, it has the typical dramatic recipe of political intrigue and scandal.

Not only does it deal with a relatively unique topic, and offer drama galore, it is also a beautiful film with a beautiful cast and excellent cinematography! The script is superb, making an exellent blend of history, drama and subtle humour. Emily Blunt (from The Devil Wears Prada) who takes on the role of Victoria brilliantly, performing the script in a way that is funny and intriguing. Every line and backward glance seems to have been mastered with supreme accuracy and poignancy! Her scenes with Rupert Friend, who plays Prince Albert, are so cute and captures the depth of their love for each other. Friend also offers an amazing performance. Other notably amazing performances come from Jim Broadbent, who plays the aging William IV, and Paul Bettany, who plays Lord Melbourne, Victoria's advisor and (for some of the film at least) the Liberal Prime Minister.

The film is a ray of light in the collection of history film. It is so colourful and evocative, as it takes you inside the hidden life of the early Victorian Royal Family at every turn. The colours on screen seem to have been chosen perfectly to suit the mood being displayed on the screen. And the music makes the film gripping and emotional in all the right places.  It has a beautiful soundtrack, 'Only You' by Sinead O'Connor, which I had never heard, but now I think is one of the most beautiful songs I have heard. It still makes me cry after hearing it many times.

This is a beautiful film directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Historical drama at its finest. Every one should watch it, and get other people to watch it!