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TV UK, 2 September

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash: racy memoirs as historical sources.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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Rum, Sodomy and the Lash (Channel 4 last Sunday) was a fine example of history as entertainment, in all its glorious, sometimes entertaining daftness.

The title comes from a description of the Royal Navy attributed to Winston Churchill, but we were assured that while rum and the lash were in plentiful supply in the eighteenth-century navy, sodomy was strictly prohibited, and after lengthy courts martial whose forensic precision was hampered by stultifying coyness, transgressors were hanged. Nonetheless, the baroque spirit of that description seems to have been apt for the other-worldly institution Horatio Nelson joined at the age of 12.

This being history as entertainment, more was made of the hordes of prostitutes that joined ships at harbour, and less of the politics of the navy, than might otherwise have been. The programme painted a plausible picture of how navy life might have seemed to the impressionable young Nelson, even if it told us less about how things actually were, and the social context that made them that way. This was largely because the programme’s main historical sources were racy memoirs that could probably be seen as the precursors of today’s TV history as entertainment.

Was lesbianism really as common in the eighteenth-century Royal Navy as the programme made out? Apparently young women often disguised themselves as men in order to join up. We were told that the contemporary literature portrayed these women either as zealous patriots determined to fight for Blighty, or love-struck maidens pursuing their sweethearts across the seas. Ha, what nonsense! Who’d be so naïve as to credit the morally-loaded discourse of the time? No, they were lesbians, seeking out hot action and desperate to find a woman in every port. How do we know this? Because they wrote racy memoirs to tell us about it. Hmm.

This raises the ominous prospect of twenty-fourth-century histories of our own time based uncritically on Big Brother and internet porn. Beware contemporary sources indeed. What will future historians make of Casualty at Holby City – Interactive (BBC1 last Saturday night)? Rent-a-white-coat Robert Winston popped up in the middle of this special episode to ask viewers which of two desperately ill patients should receive a transplant from a man who died after an accident. This was part of Do-Nation, a perfectly worthy campaign to encourage organ donation, but the patronising ‘you decide’ posturing says more about the state of the BBC than it does about the ethics or science of transplantation.

When Casualty first emerged in the 1980s, it was an often gritty and sometimes political drama about the health service in Thatcher’s Britain. It subsequently degenerated into ‘medicated soap’, especially in the spin-off Holby City, with the focus on relationships between characters and sentimental storylines with trite lessons in contemporary morality. That the BBC should use the programme as a vehicle for its latest public service project in this way indicates how little respect the corporation has for its viewers.

The current consensus in broadcasting seems to be that engaging with the public means asking them to vote by text message. Public service broadcasting? I’d rather watch the lesbian sailors.

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Topics Culture

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