The Guardian July 31, 2002


TV Programs Worth Watching Sun August 4 ~ Sat August 10

I have expressed previously in these pages my dissatisfaction with the 
analysis presented by Simon Schama in the series A History Of Britain, 
the final four episodes of which have now been finished and are being 
aired this month (SBS 7.30pm Sundays).

Schama is far too fond of crediting historical developments to the personal 
whim or individual psychology of this that or the other "great man" (or 
woman). Apparently utterly ignorant of historical materialism, Schama has 
to weave elaborate hypotheses to explain historical events or movements 
that in reality express the growth and clash of class forces.

This week's episode covers the English contribution to the intellectual and 
revolutionary fervour of the French Revolution, but not very deeply or 
satisfactorily.

The deficiencies of Schama's approach are fully displayed the following 
week, in an episode dealing with the British Empire between 1830-1925. 
Under the astonishing title The Empire of Good Intentions, it 
attempts to contrast the harsh reality of British rule in countries such as 
Ireland and India ("blood, grief and broken promises") with "the noble 
ideals of Empire".

Pardon? Noble ideals? Empire is entirely about making the wealthy ruling 
class even wealthier. What is noble about that?

Once again, Schama is guilty of mistaking imperialism's propaganda for its 
reality, the shadow for the substance. Not a good fault in a historian.

In the final episode in the series, Schama asks the daft question (for an 
historian), should history be celebrated or disowned? He answers it, "by 
focusing on the lives of two contrasting figures who have had a huge 
personal impact on Simon Schama  Winston Churchill and George Orwell".

'Nuff said, really.

As to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so it is sedition in subjects 
to dispute what a king may do in height of his power", James I told his 
first Parliament after he succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne. "I 
will not be content that my power be disputed on."

In the 16th century, the rising bourgeoisie  the merchant and trading 
class that was also the backbone of Parliament  had worked in successful 
partnership with the Tudor monarchy to destroy the power of the Church and 
the nobility and created the preconditions for the development of a 
capitalist economy.

At the beginning of the 17th century, under the Stuarts, the bourgeoisie 
began to find its further progress blocked by the monarchy, an essentially 
feudal institution. Even in the Church of England, efforts to allow more 
freedom for nonconformist views  Puritanism and Catholicism  were 
rejected by the new King, James I.

It was a time of plots, conspiracies and changing political allegiances. At 
the beginning of the century the Catholics were repressed as enemies of the 
Crown. Within a decade or so, they became the monarchy's staunchest 
supporters, just as the bourgeoisie on the other hand came to realise that 
they could not go forward as the ally of the monarchy but only as its 
enemy.

Not that they saw it in such straightforward terms. It was a period of 
"countless apparently unrelated dilemmas" which drove the people of the 
time to "decisions that in their totality constituted the forward movement 
of a whole class" (Morton: People's History of England).

One incident of note, as a symptom of these dilemmas, was the Gunpowder 
Plot of 1605, which immortalised the name of Guy Fawkes, although he was 
not the chief plotter, as is shown in Gunpowder Treason And Plot 
(ABC 9:25pm Sunday).

A dramatised documentary interspersed with comments by various historians 
and biographers, this strives to explain this Catholic terrorist conspiracy 
with no reference at all to the developing class forces in England.

This prevents the program from being good history but does not prevent it 
from being good drama. And some of the conflicting forces are discernible 
in the program's consideration of alternative or overlapping conspiracies.

Had the conspirators been successful they would have blown up the King, his 
family, his Ministers, the leaders of the Church, the senior aristocracy, 
and many others. It would have been the terrorist coup of all time. It was 
unlikely to have changed anything significantly.

The movie A Pure Formality (Una Pura Formalit`/Une pure 
formaliti) (ABC 11:00pm Monday) is an Italian/French co-production from 
the director of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore.

Made in 1994, this one is far removed from Paradiso's warm 
nostalgia. This is a dark, claustrophobic crime thriller set mainly in a 
desolate police interrogation room.

There's been a murder in the woods, and a country inspector (played by 
Polish film director Roman Polanski) interrogates a protesting suspect 
(Gerard Depardieu). The prisoner identifies himself as a famous writer  
of whom the inspector is a fan  bringing about the first shift in their 
tense relationship as the long rainy night wears on.

The music in the film is by the doyen of Italian film composers, Ennio 
Morricone.

Great Military Blunders: Tin Soldiers (ABC 1:00pm Saturday) deals 
with that persistent propaganda line of the 20th Century, which some of the 
military seem to have actually believed, that new military technology would 
bring about "cleaner" wars and reduce casualties.

This episode demonstrates that from the Battle of the Somme to the Gulf 
War, technology failed to deliver.

Born And Bred (ABC 7:30pm Saturday) is so obvious an attempt to make 
another "Heartbeat" that the comparison is odious. Whatever happened to 
originality?

TV series do tend to improve as they settle down, and Born And Bred 
better had, because the first episode was so predictable it was painful. It 
tended to bore as well, which does not bode well.

The Apartheid regime in South Africa used state terrorism to retain 
political power. It was a fascist dictatorship.

The Guguletu Seven (SBS 8.30pm Saturdays) is a two-part behind-the-
scenes documentary that reveals the methods used by the South African Truth 
and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the infamous early 
morning police ambush of seven young Guguletu men in March 1986.

It's a harrowing account of police cover-ups, but its essential soft-centre 
is revealed by its director, who simply does not know what apartheid was 
really all about. "It is a story about how power corrupts", she says of the 
film.

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