TV UK, 4 December

Charles II captures contemporary misgivings about democracy.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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King Charles II. Soft-hearted philanderer, proto-multiculturalist, political analyst-cum-soothsayer, the last British monarch to try to rule without parliament.

BBC1’s hugely entertaining drama comes to a conclusion on Sunday at 9pm, having expressed many of the tensions in contemporary politics through an exploration of Restoration politics, and also having thrown in all the sex you can disapprove of.

It’s been hard not to be irritated by Charles’ persistent pleas for religious toleration, and the portrayal of parliament as a hotbed of bigotry. The programme skirted over the genuine political implications of Roman Catholicism at the time. When Lord Shaftesbury asks Buckingham if he is not afraid of Catholic tyranny (Charles’ secret sponsor the absolute monarch Louis XIV was at the time persecuting Huguenots in France), Buckingham replies that he is more afraid of the mob.

Certainly democracy can be ugly, but it is unnerving to be invited to see autocracy as even part of the solution. Charles II portrays constitutional monarchy as a happy compromise, reining in the equally hazardous excesses of monarchy and democracy. The ‘delightful’ Nel Gwyn captures contemporary misgivings about democracy by describing politics as a load of silly men plotting to destroy each other over disagreements that will be forgotten in a few years. Ah, bless her.

To be fair, I got the impression that some subtlety was lost in the final edit. Shaftesbury is played by the likeable guy from The Office, and does seem to have some genuine principles. But he is bizarrely left out of the ‘what happened next’ section at the very end. For the record, he died of a liver disease in exile in Amsterdam, having forced through the Habeas Corpus Act and established the Whig party. (The only reference to habeas corpus in the drama is when Charles tries to exercise absolute power to rescue his friends from prison, as opposed to locking up his enemies.)

The drama’s lionising of Charles II also works to the expense of King Billy, who is portrayed as a funny little man with a silly accent, and not a white charger in sight. Ironically, this will annoy the last people in Britain with a passionate belief in monarchy, ‘the Orange community’ of Ulster.

Bodysnatchers (BBC1, Wednesdays at 9pm) demonstrates a similarly ambivalent attitude to parasites. It combines gruesome footage of beasties crawling out of sores, and people disfigured by microscopic creatures, with fascinating explanations of how the whole process works.

This week’s episode featured a scientist who was also the proud host to 30 worms, and showed how worms can be useful in suppressing allergies and other problems caused by overactive immune systems. Man and beastie in perfect harmony – the biological equivalent of constitutional monarchy?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Culture


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