TV UK, 17 February
Blood on Our Hands: a Civil War morality tale about the perils of propaganda.
It would be nice just for once to see a history of the English Civil War on TV that took sides, and specifically the right side, that of Parliament and the Roundheads. Three-and-a-half centuries on, respecting the perspective of those who masked their privileges behind professed belief in the divine right of kings is just political correctness gone mad.
Sadly, Blood on Our Hands (Channel 4, last Thursday) was even worse than that. The title captured the tenor of this programme. In fact, following the recent documentaries coinciding with the Holocaust commemorations, it was difficult not to read this as an attempt to claim the English Civil War as another example of human depravity, and moreover one for which we can claim responsibility. All history, in this view, is a succession of mindless atrocities and an indictment of mankind. Poor taste aside, this approach does a disservice to history, disavowing the responsibility to make sense of events in favour of moralising.
The programme was made up of contemporary accounts by people caught up in the war, with the obligatory dramatic reconstructions used as wallpaper rather than to illustrate particular events, and occasional interventions from historians. It was good to see the material clearly sourced for a change (ITV’s recent World War Two in Colour is also to be commended for that), but the ‘people’s history’ approach unfortunately served as a bogus source of authority for the moralising narrative that held the programme together. It would have been good to see that acknowledged, let alone sourced.
One of the central ‘characters’ was a Puritan carpenter from London, who had kept a diary in which he recorded his reaction to events. The carpenter was an avid reader of the lurid newssheets that had newly emerged at the time, and was incited to righteous fury by accounts of massacres of Protestants in the religious wars in Germany. Tut, tut. You can see what’s happening, right? The narrator explained that having only ever read the Scriptures, the simple carpenter would have accepted anything written in print as Gospel truth (a bit like we’re expected to swallow everything the narrator says without noticing that it’s a contentious argument). And to remind us that the perils of religious fanaticism are always with us, one Puritan firebrand was described as a seventeenth-century Ayatollah.
With the mood of the nation suitably inflamed by stories of atrocities against Protestants in Germany and Ireland, and unkind rumours circulating about how Charles I’s Catholic queen (described by an admirably partisan historian as ‘a sweetie’) was wearing the regal tights, the scene was set for bloody and merciless conflict. There is something to be said for an account of the Civil War that doesn’t begin and end with Oliver Cromwell, but far from offering a comprehensive history of the war’s roots in contemporary society (and showing that the violence was far from mindless), Blood on Our Hands was a morality tale about the perils of propaganda, complete with a redemptive ending: our carpenter eventually lost his appetite for conflict after reading one newssheet too many.
Channel 4’s Civil War season continues tonight with some more purposeful dramatic reconstruction, of the trial of the regicides, the 59 men who signed Charles I’s death warrant. Many of these men, who surged ahead of history only to be dragged back by the ebbing tide, were largely unwitting, and certainly no ideological republicans, but there are some interesting characters among them, and it is good to see such extensive treatment of what is often little more than a footnote.
Perhaps Tony Blair will be moved to issue posthumous apologies to these men who felt the hand of history on their shoulders and bravely stepped forward into oblivion. Perhaps not.
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