This series covers the events of 1641-2, which set in motion the process which would culminate in the execution of King Charles I. The story involves an arrogant leader endowed with no discernible political skill, who comes up against opponents who use weaponised parliamentary procedure to unseat him. It’s a good narrative and there are contemporary resonances. In fact, it is possible that you might find yourself informed and even entertained by this programme. To ensure unclouded enjoyment, however, I would advise watching it with your back to the screen.
The problem is that, during the course of production, the series seems to have suffered a terminal upset of the balance between words and pictures. In a programme like this the film should enhance words and words should intensify the pictures. The resultant force of that synergy is actually what most often persuades people to make films in the first place.
But in Charles I: Downfall of a King the filmic element seems to have had no effective champion. Words and picture squabble, or at best ignore each other, and the programmes flounder. Examples of this deficiency can be found throughout. In the opening ‘tease’ lacklustre shots are cut fast to desperately insistent music with a result that teases no one. Illustrative visuals soon lose any relevance as we find ourselves being told that that ‘London was in a state of high tension’ while looking at a damp pavement.
The dramatisations (or reconstructions, if you prefer) comprise a large part of these programmes but never manage to do their job of enrichment. We are told the King is stubborn and arrogant but all we see is someone in a wig. We are told Charles I is returning to London in triumph but what we see is a lone rider who is evidently not an experienced horseman. We are told that Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, is a fanatical Catholic but we see a woman playing with a necklace.
Just occasionally the drama shows a glimmering of life. John Pym, the King’s bitter adversary, actually does look cunning. You can see him thinking. But in this case the effect is mostly lost because the incessant commentary distracts us and inept cutting kills the drama. Oddly, none of the drama scenes have sound with them. So when we meet, for example, the puritan opposition discussing their cunning tactics we see their mouths move like goldfishes in earnest discourse but hear no sound as the commentary trundles on regardless. I wonder whose idea that was.
It is almost a relief when dramatisation is briefly abandoned and presenter, Lisa Hilton, appears alone in the echoing space of the King’s Banqueting House inviting us to imagine the hall ‘packed with a thronging crowd’. Nothing wrong with that sequence, at least.
Lisa Hilton herself is hampered by inattentive directing. For just one moment, when we meet her in an open horse-drawn carriage, she displays a perceptive and human personality. All other times she takes refuge in the technique of fixing the camera with a cold stare and speaking in a portentous monotone. It is a technique that might work once of twice but the flat monotone is a close relative of the icy calm threat and there are indeed moments when she seems almost to take on the persona of a nasty interrogator deciding where to put the electrodes before proceeding with the interview. It would not have been difficult for director Tom Cholmondeley to take some time to help her vary her performance. It might have worked miracles.
It is the expert interviewees, a number of HWA members among them, of course, who support the programme. They provide information and insight at times when it is desperately needed. Their contributions were shot without discussion of the programme overall so they are innocent bystanders. But it is a good thing they were there.
The above faults are fundamental ones pertaining to the craft of television that no production company nor any broadcaster should tolerate. They outweigh any other niggles one might have about the programme: infelicities and errors in the script (It’s the Whore of Babylon, not the Whore of Babel, as any fule kno!) or the questionable use of anachronistic buildings like the current Palace of Westminster or even the clumsy bias in favour of the Monarch which is followed, at the end of the series, by an even more clumsy attempt redress the balance with a bizarre speech to the effect that without the execution of Charles I there would have been no French Revolution. An impossible idea to justify and Lisa Hilton, rightly, seems rather nervous about it.
Watching this series in one go is like watching a documentary about the last days of British factual programming. We have to do better than this. The tragedy is that it was a good idea – it should have been made. The project was well conceived but, like Charles I himself, disastrously executed.
Charles I: Downfall of a King is transmitted on BBC Four at 9pm over three evenings, starting on 9 July, 2019.
You may also enjoy:
Killing a king: the execution of Charles I
Historia’s interview with Charles I’s biographer, Leanda de Lisle
Good Boye or devil dog? Prince Rupert’s poodle
Are the Stuarts the New Tudors?