British History’s Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley (Episode 1/3, 26 January, BBC Four) opens with an account of the Wars of the Roses. Lucy Worsley lurches in pursuit of a retreating camera, talking of constant warfare. The corners of her mouth remain upturned in a conspiratorial smirk even when she mentions the slaughter of children. We next see her on a foot bridge (more lurching) as she envisions a battle between Yorkists and Lancastrians by alternately hurling black and Yorkshire puddings at camera. Oh, I get it! This is a pastiche. Slightly laboured, but none the less an effective illustration of the how we all tend to carry simplified versions history round in our heads. Fine. We can imagine director, Eleanor Scoones, getting on with the next sequence, ‘OK, Lucy, remember this is for part two so you can drop the self-parody now and … action!’
Except that the message doesn’t seem entirely to have got through. The result is that the programme teeters on the brink of a Möbius twist into self-reference. There are moments when it seems to be saying, ‘All through time people have trivialised, distorted and misrepresented history and this is how they do it. Watch carefully’.
One of the problems is that anyone who knows or cares about the period of the Wars of the Roses already knows that it is shot through with controversy and debate. This makes it a weak example of a ‘fib’ (that infantilising word in the title is significant). The script attempts to compensate by the time-honoured method of telling the audience how ignorant they are. ‘You thought the Wars of the Roses comprised ten years of constant warfare’, (Well, I didn’t actually). ‘You thought that Richard III was a deformed, evil monster (No, I knew that was disputed) because you thought Shakespeare’s version of him was unassailable historical truth (No, I don’t think anybody has ever thought that). Don’t tell me what I think, BBC Four, and try not to patronise your viewers.
A round up of how Shakespeare’s Richard III has fared in theatre history provided one of the more interesting episodes. But, once you have got that Bill the Quill was a slippery old propagandist, a trip through the Richard’s humps (lovingly preserved by Wardrobe) hardly advances the programme’s thesis. Much time was spent repeating the observation that the Tudor Rose was a PR symbol invented by Henry VIII. This culminated in a lengthy sequence in which Lucy is helped to dress up as a Beefeater (there’s a Tudor rose on the uniform, in case you are wondering) enlivened by interjections from the presenter, ‘I think my codpiece is bigger than yours … Let’s talk about our chests’. The fact that Elizabeth I is similarly portrayed with a rose on her dress likewise provided an opportunity for a cameo role as Good Queen Bess.
Surely there have been few times in the medium’s history when it was more appropriate for television to examine how the story of our past can be misrepresented to distort our collective self-image. This programme had the personnel and the skills to give us insights into that process and entertain us into the bargain. Instead it was diverted into a facile romp round the dressing-up box which overshadowed whatever content there might be. I should emphasise that this is not Lucy Worsley’s fault. The prevailing culture of factual television requires repetition and banality, presumably under the impression that this is all the audience can deal with. Commissioning editors may well believe that in this age of smartphone and Snapchat there is no other way. If that is so, I urge them to look across the corridor to the Drama Department. Television drama fizzes and crackles with intelligence and innovation so why can’t factual do the same?
There is, to be fair, one moment in this film which made me think that things could be different. At one stage the presenter walks though the mist talking seriously of the casualties of war and, as I watched, it occurred to me that somewhere in another dimension there might exist a completely different version of this programme. Lucy, perhaps weary of the struggle to maintain her screen persona, puts down the tools of her trade – the winsome smile and the pushed plosives of forced enthusiasm – and lets her inner historian take over. She could speak calmly of the complexity of analysing the past while the film itself took its cue from her and added original, well thought-out illustrations. A whole series could be based on just such a contrast. I for one would watch it with pleasure and relief, Dr. Worsley.
British History’s Biggest Fibs With Lucy Worsley airs on BBC Four from 26 January 2017 and will be available on BBC iplayer.