“Constructing a Humanist Politics”


Issue No 13 Friday 28 November 2008



This week


·         British Television At Last Broadcasts A Series Focusing On British Republican History



What is happening now of interest to Civic Republicanism




·         British Television At Last Broadcasts A Series Focusing On British Republican History


“It’s been a bit of a mystery why the civil war doesn’t loom larger in the national consciousness” writes A A Gill in his Sunday Times review of the new Channel Four civil war drama, The Devil’s Whore. Even serial writer, Peter Flannery, ruminates “Why have we neglected the Civil War so much, both in terms of drama and in education? That I don't know. I can't for the life of me understand why we're not more proud of it. It's the crucible for the European revolutions.”


It is perhaps more surprising that anyone should be surprised that this époque making period in British history should have been so ignored. The reason is quite clear. The establishment does not want us to know about our republican history. It is not that there is not plenty of history on our TV channels. But it concentrates almost exclusively on the history of the monarchs as if that were sufficient to tell us all we need to know about our past. The Devil’s Whore makes a refreshing change.


The central story that The Devil’s Whore tells is fictional, but the actions of the invented characters are woven around actual historical events and historical characters. And so characters familiar from republican history like the popular revolutionary, “Freeborn” John Lilburne, soldier and democratic radical, Thomas Rainsborough, the great  statesman, Oliver Cromwell, and the cruel and detestable, King Charles I, are all brought to life.


There may be disadvantages to seeing these portrayals within the context of fictional as well as real events but there is at least one big advantage – production values. On many “straight” TV histories, we are used to seeing dramatic “reconstructions”. These are always done on the cheap with much arm waving and crying out. In The Devil’s Whore a great deal of artistic effort has gone into recreating the costumes and some interiors of the period.


However, on the negative side, it has to be admitted that some of the buildings are not of the same standard. The exterior shooting was done in South Africa near Cape Town and whilst the landscape may pass for England just about, some of the buildings are pretty disappointing. The “stately home” that the leading lady was brought up in looks like a cardboard cutout. It is far too small to be considered stately and was placed on top of a hill – such a siting is unknown in England. Also the Parliament (which will presumably feature quite a lot) is too small. (We have a good idea of how the Parliament was for it is depicted on the obverse of the Commonwealth Great Seal for one thing.


But returning to the costumes. There are always high and low points in a nation’s fashions. Revolutionary times, for some reason, seem to coincide with high points and this was no exception. Again as A A Gill remarked: “why on television do we get so many Tudors, with all their … arch posing and simply absurd clothes? How did men’s fashion ever arrive at doublet and hose worn with velvet Crocs and a floppy Ascot hat …? The Commonwealth and the civil war …characters … had cracking kit.” And not forgetting the hairstyles. Hair for men is long – but always well-groomed (unlike those Celtic leaning dramas where bad hair days are seemingly de rigore.)


(Incidentally if you are persuaded of the virtues of the appearance of the period, you might want to check out the activities of your nearest branch of the Sealed Knot . The Sealed Knot is a voluntary organization that puts on re-enactments of events of the Civil War period in full attire and arms (the latter look barely legal in our streets). Don’t be put off by the prejudice that they might be a bunch of sad nutters, for they are guaranteed to put on a good show. But remember to put your fingers in your ears before they let off their muskets.)


In spite of problems with some buildings A A Gill’s overall comment on the production is right: “ the whole production looks fantastic, with a gutsy, dark atmosphere. You can feel the natural order of things spinning head over heels.”


Of course the production would be wasted if the events it depicts were not so interesting and important. The Channel Four website tells us that Executive Producer George Faber at Company Pictures was immediately hooked. "It is one of the great untold stories of British history. This was the original revolution that inspired both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. Yet it had been significantly ignored, omitted and marginalised in dramatic terms."


Writer Peter Flannery writes “The Commonwealth radicalised a lot of people, not just in England but around Europe, and left a legacy of ideas which we're still battling out. We should, as a nation, be informed about that, and take a proud interest in it.”


The series will cover a period of twenty years and so presumably will include the whole of the period of the first republic of Britain. It is to be hoped that people’s appetite for more about this period will be far from satisfied.


(The series is broadcast on Channel Four on Wednesday evenings, repeated on Saturday evenings, during November/December 2008)


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…….Until next week