Tuesday 18 March 2014


Last night I watched the first part of a new BBC2 history series, The Plantagenets, presented by my favourite TV historian, Prof. Robert Bartlett (who also brought us The Normans). Bartlett firmly turns his back on all the tropes that make so much TV history irksome, if not unwatchable. He is not on a 'journey of discovery' - he already knows this stuff; he's a historian, dammit - and he makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with the viewer: dressed at all times in a dark overcoat and scarf, he stands in an appropriate location, glowers balefully at us, and tells the story - no frills, no gimmicks, no nonsense, no set-up encounters with experts, no trying his hand at medieval crafts, no dashing about (he moves slowly, if at all), no dressing up, no straining after 'relevance', no laboured reconstructions (just the odd impressionistic micro-budget scene). And he tells the story - a long, complicated and extremely bloody one - lucidly and well, with an eye for the telling detail and the human element in the great dynastic saga. This is narrative TV history at its best. If you missed it, it's available on the BBC iPlayer...
Meanwhile, here is Geoffrey Hill's stunning sonnet summing up the blood-boltered dynasty in 14 dense, sinewy lines:

Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,   
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.

Relieved of soul, the dropping-back of dust,   
Their usage, pride, admitted within doors;
At home, under caved chantries, set in trust,   
With well-dressed alabaster and proved spurs   
They lie; they lie; secure in the decay
Of blood, blood-marks, crowns hacked and coveted,   
Before the scouring fires of trial-day
Alight on men; before sleeked groin, gored head,   
Budge through the clay and gravel, and the sea   
Across daubed rock evacuates its dead.


  1. All that and he is restrained in the spurious use of the present tense to describe stuff that happened in the past in a bogus attempt to make the story relevant.

  2. Agree with you wholeheartedly that this man is the best presenter of history on TV.No other comes near. If he has self-consciousness it is subsumed into the story he has to tell.The problem we have today in this horrible era of "celebrity" is that the makers cannot contemplate giving us documentary without the fronting person getting in the way. Now Bartlett is a substantial history-man of course but is able to give us his subject wonderfully without show-biz daftness intruding. Full-marks to him and the makers.Let others watch and learn.