British History Challenge | The Story of Britain

So… I finally managed to get through all of British history on film… We’ve had ups, downs, highs and lows… And now it’s time to see what we’ve learned. Starting with what kind of image it presents of British History.

There are many theories as to what history is and isn’t. There are people who devote their entire lives to ‘historiography,’ AKA: criticising and interpreting the historical works of others without ever actually setting foot near a fact. In a way, the British history challenge has been an exercise in historiography, but nowhere near as extreme as what some people do. I’ve tried to steer clear of it so far but now we’ve got to face it head on i’m afraid.

One of the things I was interested in when I started was what kind of story the challenge would tell. Would it be epic? Would it be a tale of heroes and villains? Triumph and disaster? In a way it was all of those things. There were heroes and villains and epic battles and the scope of what was seen was truly astonishing. It was a huge chunk of British history, but as I will later demonstrate there is still far more out there.

In the early days of the challenge, dealing with the Romans and the Medieval period (Films 1-11,) it was mostly a story of war and battle and bloodshed. It was all about soldiers and warriors fighting together against a common foe. We saw this in the likes of Ironclad, Braveheart, Henry V, Centurion, The Vikings and to some extent The Pillars of the Earth. In a minimal way it was also about politics and power, as seen in the two Henry II films and again Pillars of the Earth. However, this politics is more or less isolated within each film. The events of one have little impact on another. The effects of the anarchy are not felt in Becket, to use an example. Of this I will return in a moment as all of these films were portrayed in a very particular way.

Marxist history states that history is the upward struggle of the proletariat to achieve dominance and a classless society and yet what we saw in the early films was not a story of ordinary people. In fact, they hardly featured at all. Only Black Death, Braveheart and Pillars of the Earth contained any real prominence for what we might consider ‘ordinary people.’ Henry V also contained some (not many, however,) whilst Centurion was about soldiers who could be considered ‘ordinary people.’ The films were largely about kings and dukes and lords, people with power, and those people with power were also heavily present in both Braveheart and Pillars of the Earth alongside the ordinary folk.  It demonstrates an incredibly top down view, a focus on the elite few at the very top of society. It is hardly about what could be labelled as the upward struggle of the proletariat. The only film that even comes close to depicting that is Braveheart and that was more about booting the English from Scotland and not really about achieving a classless society.

Moving onto the early modern period (Films 12-22,) the type of story shifts from being mainly about war to being almost solely about politics and power. This was witnessed in: Henry VIII, A Man For All Seasons, Lady Jane, Both Elizabeth Films, Gunpowder Treason and Plot, Cromwell and Charles II… Out of those, only Cromwell featured a prominent war theme, something that was also partially evident in Witchfinder General. Unlike the medieval period however, there is a change in the politics. It became connected and coherant. Henry VIII’s break with Rome reverberates through history like a gunshot and creates a situation whereby there is near continuous conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It rears it’s head again and again, in film after film… Elizabeth, Gunpowder Treason, Cromwell, Charles II, Lady Jane… In fact this  ‘early modern period’ seems to be all about the consequences of that break. Even looking at the history beyond the films, it echoes right up to Culloden in 1746. Considering that The Act of Supremacy was in 1534 that impact is staggering… Two hundred and twelve years! Almost nothing in British history compares (except for maybe the fall of Rome and the Norman Conquest.)

Much of the politics of the period can all be boiled back to the fact that Henry VIII really, really wanted a son. (I hope the following two hundred and twelve years was worth it Henry!) As a result of this, those years should quite rightly be regarded as an era unto itself. Forget about Tudors and Stuarts and Georgians. The change between the two is only marked by kings. This feud between Catholics and Protestants is much more distinctive. This period should quite rightly be called something like ‘The Anglican Era.’

As for the ordinary people? They appear less now than they did in the medieval period- Unless you count Cromwell as ordinary. But he was an MP so I don’t. The only other ordinary people we see are in Witchfinder General and Rob Roy… Again, Prince and the Pauper contains a few but it’s mostly about royalty and Witchfinder General doesn’t really deal with the peasant classes much, which is surprising considering we have more details about their lives during this period than we did in the medieval era.

But all of this changes in the next set of films which is a really short period owing to the fall of history- Only a matter of 80 or so years  Here (in films 23-30) we  get a mix of politics/power & war (Amazing Grace, Master and Commander, Waterloo) and something new… CRIME… and not crime by rich bastards… CRIME BY EVERYDAY FOLK. We’ve seen a bit of crime before, in Black Death, Braveheart and Rob Roy, but that was more to do with outlaws and the actual crime wasn’t a big part of it. Here for the first time we start to see the crime taking the forefront and not only the result of it as in Braveheart and Rob Roy. In Plunkett and Macleane we see Highwaymen, Jamaica Inn has smugglers and Burke and Hare features body snatchers. I find it interesting that crime should come to the forefront now. It’s not like they only invented the English Legal System after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It took hundreds of years to evolve into what we know. Judges and the court system have been around since god knows when. In fact, the legal history of England is so complicated and so intricate I can’t find even a single resource that deals with it all. Even Wikipedia can’t be bothered with it, that’s how hugely insane and complex it is.

Perhaps this has to do with the formation of the bow street runners in 1749 and the first murmurings of a modern police force? Or maybe the fact that we have more records for this time? Granted, there are some fictional stories that deal with earlier crime, mainly whodunnits like Cadfael, The Name of the Rose and I think I’ve heard of one set in Ancient Rome as well… But there is nowhere near the presence of crime that we see here. It suddenly explodes everywhere, like everyone got drunk and unanimously shouted ‘FUCK THE LAW!’ Of course, that can’t be true because there almost certainly was a lot of crime before 1749.

And this continues into the Victorian era (films 31-40) Here crime is once against present, appearing in three films (The Tichborne Claimant, Jack the Ripper, Kind Hearts and Coronets.) But that doesn’t really take precedence, and nor for once does politics. The Victorian era seems to be more about Empire and War. A lot of these films take place oversees in far off lands with soldiers fighting for queen and country (Charge of the Light Brigade, Zulu, Zulu Dawn, The Four Feathers, Young Winston.) It’s a prominent theme and rightly so, as this is the time when the British Empire was at its peak. But at the same time it gives a distorted view of the era, bypassing the inventions and the social progress and most of the other things that we associate with the Victorians.

We don’t see much social mobility in this era. We’re still seeing everything from the top down. The era starts off with Queen Victoria marrying a German prince, Light Brigade features mainly the upper classes, as does The Tichborne Claimant, The Four Feathers, Young Winston and Kind Hearts and Coronets. In fact the only ‘everyday folk’ we see during this era are in Jack the Ripper (with maybe one or two in Tichborne and a few servants in Mrs Brown.) The rest are all soldiers or politicians or the nobility. Once again it’s a very traditional, top down perspective and kind of goes against the idea that history is all about the struggle of the masses to gain supremacy.

In fact, it’s only when we reach the next era- the early 20th century (Films 41-51) that we start to see ordinary people taking a more prominent role. Initially it’s minor but as the era goes on it becomes more prominent (A prince living a normal life in The Lost Prince, A family coping with the horrors of war in My Boy Jack and a speech therapist who becomes a friend of the king in The Kings Speech…) It’s hardly what you’d call every day life, but we’re starting to see ordinary people taking over. Ok… We’ve seen them before in some ways, but this is the first time we really see them as being ordinary and not soldiers or criminals. My Boy Jack marks an extraordinary landmark in the challenge. This is the first time we see a happy family environment, normal people coping with the world around them. It’s not done from a top down perspective,  it’s done from a bottom up perspective. Even the soldiers. Before when we’ve seen soldiers it’s always been from the top brass but here were seeing the ranks as they are for the first time. And then when Hope and Glory comes along ordinary people burst forth with a vengeance. There are no toffs here, just ordinary people coping with an extraordinary situation. However, none of these people are engaged in an upward class struggle. They’re just trying to live a normal life in what is essentially a very dark period in all our histories.

That darkness is the story of this whole period. The First and Second world wars dominate this era, with Gosford Park being the only one that mentions neither (but it’s top down and about crime…) They hang like  looming shadow, a terrifying spectre that threatens the future… And from where we currently stand in time it almost provides a dramatic and spectacular climax to the  challenge. It’s still very much a part of our national consciousness and it’ll be a long time before it is ever just another part of our history.

But history always goes on, it never ends. It’s only been seventy years since then, nothing in terms of the massive scope of history, but an awful lot has happened in that time. Those seventy years that were dominated by ordinary people. In fact, in our final era (film 52-61) there is only one film from a top down perspective, The Queen. That’s it. The rest is what I would term as staggeringly ordinary. It’s a complete reversal from the Victorian era of only one hundred years before. In contrast to every other era, this one isn’t really about politics or war. This is a very different era and we see almost none of that. Politics only shows up in Scandal, The Boat that Rocked, Billy Elliot and The Queen. In two of those it is an incredibly minor part of the story. Barring the criminality presented in The Krays, one thing is dominant above all, and unlike crime this is something entirely new. I didn’t even notice until I got this far but a huge proportion of the final era of the challenge focuses on music. Nowhere Boy, The Boat that Rocked, Sid and Nancy, Control, Billy Elliot… Half the films of this era. Of the outstanding films one is about a writer, one crime, one politics and one modern teenage culture. Looking at the actual history, it’s reflected. Since the birth of Rock N Roll music has become an integral part of society in a way that it never was before. It’s everywhere and these films show it to be true. Try and think of a decade in the second half of the twentieth century which isn’t defined by its music. You can’t can you? Ok, Billy Elliot isn’t rock and  roll, more classical, but it’s still really about music and dancing. Hence, like with the Anglican era i think I’ve come up with a better term, and if we mark say the 21st century as it’s end point I think that gives it a nice edge. How about The Rock Age- 1945-1997, an era when music was king. We didn’t really have the Cold War over here (not much anyway) so it makes a bit more sense really… That was more America-Russia. Whether it will continue is yet to be seen but the thing is you can’t name an era when your in it. You can only look back at history once its passed and say ‘that was the Roman era.’

There are no clear boundaries to the eras, apart from the massive upheavals such as the fall of Rome and the Norman conquest that is. Maybe the world wars as well. Things just blend. Look at the Georgian era into the Victorian. It’s much the same thing. Even Medieval into Tudor… There isn’t much change. Heck… I’ll bet after the fall of Rome life only changed gradually. People don’t like change, you see… They prefer things to go on as they ‘always have done.’ Mostly, history isn’t about sudden changes, it’s about gradual change and things evolve slowly, almost unnoticeably, apart from at the massive events. Even if we go back to the late Victorian Era there are many similarities with today, and yet we are so different. Things change… But life goes on.

I mentioned 1997 above as a change for one particular reason: the coming of super advanced technology. Who’d have thought in 1997 that fifteen years later everyone would have a mobile phone with the power of a small computer? Back then almost no one had a mobile phone. 1997 is a whole other world. Going back and living then would be like going into a dark age. As LP Hartley said, the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. Things have never stayed the same though. Fashions come and go on a regular basis and things move on. Even in medieval times things changed from century to century. History never stays still and yet moving from film to film this change was barely noticeable. It was always in very small doses… The Queen was set in a world very similar to Billy Elliot and yet they had mobile phones. The final film, The Inbetweeners was similar again, and yet there were more advanced mobile phones and laptops. History certainly moves on, but the change it brings is so gradual that most of the time we barely even notice it happening. Ten years from now will be very different to today but it will seem like very little has changed. It’s only when you look back that you will notice.

There is one thing throughout it all that has been constant though, and its something that I didn’t mention for that reason. It’s important. It’s what keeps history moving along. Without it there would be no humanity- I’m talking about love and romance. It’s been there since almost the beginning of the challenge. The first film to really deal  with it was Tristan and Isolde and it hasn’t gone away since. Every era has had it’s passionate love story. Tristan and Isolde, Pillars of the Earth, Lady Jane, Charles II, The Duchess, Young Victoria, Mrs Brown (seriously… Queen Victoria had an attachment problem!) Sid and Nancy… That’s just a short sample of the romances in the challenge… And I’m sure if you look there are more than just the ones we’ve represented therein. It’s astonishing and I think it gives us hope for the future. No matter what happens, men and women will always be attracted to one another and there will always be sex. You’ll never stop it happening. EVER. Nothing can destroy it. It’s the one constant that wherever you go in history you’ll find it.

If there was one problem with the challenge it was this: The Roman period and earlier had very few films, The medieval era a few more, the Anglican a little more, The late Georgian/Victorian more still and the twentieth century had the most. In short, over time the films representing each era could look kind of like a wedge, thin at one end and very thick at the other end. There were huge chunks of history missing, especially in the early days. The Anglo Saxons were virtually non-existent for. When I initially composed the challenge I tried to cram in as many films as I could, opting for what wouldn’t cross over so that it would all form as much of a coherant story as possible, based on what I could get hold of. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible, including everything I could. Only Robin Hood and Arthur were purposely missed because there are so many films about them and they are legendary. The list altered slightly as I went along, but not to any large detail. The problem was exactly as above. The closer I got to the modern era the more films there were to choose from. There are even more now (The Iron Lady for instance…) In the end, thanks to the ‘crossover’ rule, it ended up as the wedge.

If you look at all the history films there have ever been you will note that some eras are more popular than others. Early Anglican (Tudors), Victorians and 20th century is very popular, medieval, Later Anglican and Georgian less so and pre-Norman virtually non existent. In between there are vast chunks that are absent, even in the more popular bits. There are almost no available biopics of Victorian politicians like Peel or Disraeli for instance, and they CAN be interesting. Hell… William Gladstone was picking up prostitutes on a regular basis, and not to sleep with them. Not all the kings have films. Anne doesn’t have one and there isn’t one about Henry III. Alfred the Great has one but its so rare nobody has seen it for fifty years so it might as well not exist. As a result, there was generally no continuation between some of the films. Each part became self contained. There was some, such as in the Tudor era and the nineteen fifties and sixties, but only where it did appear to be continuous was where there were more films on that era and across the events that had a bigger impact. Then again, real historical study is like that. There are hundreds of books on World War Two and the Tudors and Queen Victoria but far less on areas such as Welsh History or Henry III. In a way, therefore, history on film reflects that.

Watching it through on film, you get the picture that British history has no plot. It’s not one story. It’s a collection of random events watched in chronological order. Mostly because they weren’t made to be watched that way, hardly anything fitted together. There was even a contradiction right at the beginning between Centurion and The Last Legion. Somehow the 9th legion managed to resurrect themselves from the dead.

But despite a lack of plot the entire challenge did have some sort of meaning. It was less about events and what happened when and more about who did what. It was about people. People were at the heart of everything that happened- Henry VIII, William Wallace, Sid Vicious- Three very different people, yet they each contributed in their own way. Every person who came along added something to the melting pot of history. They did something, either extraordinary, bad or downright stupid… They did it and they became a part of history. Without people there would be no history, just like without love. So on film, British history is a story of people and what they did, not necessarily what happened.

I would like to return finally, if I may, to historiography. Did the challenge present a coherent historical viewpoint? If so what was it? During the sixty films we’ve seen examples of revisionist history, Whiggish (traditional) history, feminist history, military history, religious history and pretty much all types of history you can get… Apart from one. I kept mentioning it above for a reason: It’s absence. Marxist history, the supposed struggle of the proletariat to gain dominance. Ok… It’s not a watertight theory for all of history but the struggle of the proletariat is there and it is considered a valid type of history… It is valid in certain areas, where history really is about social change. What about Chartism? The Peasants Revolt? Suffragettes? These are all events that are noticeable by their absence on film. They are non existent. In fact… There is only one film on the challenge that can be considered as social history and I can only think of one other to do with British History (and by the second one I decided I had enough and limited the challenge to sixty films. We ended up with sixty in the end.) There are bits of social history in other films, yes, but there is no one film that can genuinely be considered as being ‘Marxist history’ (Well… there are probably some that were made in Soviet Russia… But none about western history.)

Now this is curious. Directors are always coming along and saying ‘I want to make a film from a ‘insert type of history perspective here.’ So where are the Marxist ones? Perhaps its because of the movie studios… Maybe they’re scared of what a Marxist-centric film would do. Yet, Marxist history books are still printed and the Communist Manifesto is easily available… So its kind of weird. Of course, Marxist history isn’t fashionable anymore but it was in the fifties, the sixties and so on. You’d think that something would have been made then… But no. The struggle of the ordinary man happened… They did fight their corner… But it doesn’t make its mark on film. Ordinary man is not seen in any great degree until the Victorian era and doesn’t take precedence until the struggle for dominance was mostly over. For most of history what I would term as ‘ordinary man’ is notable by his absence.  I’ll admit, I don’t really agree with the proponents of Marxist history as they tend to overlook everything else except the struggle, but why isn’t it on film when every other type of history is? It’s a curiosity and I will leave it there…

So in all, what we got from the challenge was a massive sweep of British history, of almost all types and schools. It was a story of people, not of events. It was a story of gradual change and evolution, the story of a nation. It was exciting, it was epic and it revealed a few intriguing nuggets of information along the way (namely two new ‘eras’ and a psychological diagnosis for Queen Victoria.) Yes… There were huge gaps due to the popularity of some eras over others (seriously… Anglo Saxons are cool… Get some films done.) and the lack of social/Marxist history was alarming to say the least. But it was good fun, although I wouldn’t do it again.

The historian Francis Fukuyama reckoned that history, which he called the continual advancement of human society, came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties. But looking at this I would say he was talking out of his arse. History never ends. You could put a pin anywhere in history and say that’s the end. You can do that with any film of the challenge. Each one would have marked a fitting end… Henry V would have been a good place… or what about A Bridge Too Far? We could have stopped anywhere and said ‘that’s the end of history.’ But it would never be true. In five hundred years time maybe they’ll make a biopic of Nick Clegg… And there will be new people and new events to write about. Things will pass into history, as they always do. Maybe someday someone will try to do another history challenge and maybe that story will be different to the one my challenge told. It might show something different… It would be interesting to see the results.


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