We British look backwards. We always have done. In this ambitious and original new series, Ian explores perhaps the most distinctive, peculiar and deep-seated trait of the British – our obsession with the past – the olden days.
Over three films, he reveals how and why, throughout our history, we have continually plundered the past to make sense of and shape the present.
Drawing upon the work of Britain’s minstrels and story-tellers, poets and painters, historians and architects, propagandists and pamphleteers over the last thousand years, Ian demonstrates just how influential the olden days have always been – despite the fact that so much harking back turns out to be inaccurate, silly, absurd, and very, very funny…
Thoroughly forensic, always curious and witty, this is an exploration of high and low culture over 1,000 years – and, as ever with Ian Hislop’s cultural histories, focusing on the ‘story’ bit of history holds up the most revealing mirror to ourselves.
Episode one, Heroes For All Times, reveals how from 1066 to today we have harked back to the Dark Ages. It explores our foundation myths, emerging values and changing needs by plotting the cultural history of two of our most inspiring kings – King Arthur and King Alfred – one quite possibly entirely fictional, the other entirely historical, and yet each the stuff of legend.
On the trail of legendary King Arthur, Ian visits Tintagel Castle, the fantastic Round Table at Winchester and even the sacred ‘burial place’ of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury Abbey. He finds out just how this storybook king has changed throughout the centuries, from wild Celtic warlord to chivalrous romantic hero; from piously questing king to national totem of Victorian Wales. Ian also discovers why the King of Camelot was just as inspirational to Henry VIII as he is to today’s New Age Pagans and druids.
So what about King Alfred? Not only did he repel the Vikings, he reorganised the army and was an educational pioneer, translating key texts from Latin into Anglo Saxon for the people of his kingdom… not as exciting as pulling a sword from a stone, Ian notes wryly, but rather more useful. And yet, peeling away at the evidence, Ian learns that there’s a lot more fiction involved in this ‘historic’ king than meets the eye – manipulated to suit the diverse purposes of tricksy mediaeval lawyers, Tudor archbishops and even a Georgian Prince of Wales, he gradually becomes blessed with almost every virtue known to man. By Victorian times, Alfred the Great, the only British monarch with such a moniker, has evolved into ‘the most perfect man in history’, the one-man embodiment of everything that is great about Great Britain.
So Alfred, it turns out, is just as much a tool for national self-definition as Arthur. Surely, at least, the cake-burning story must be true?! Well, probably not – we owe Alfred’s kitchen catastrophe to a spin-doctoring Elizabethan archbishop, keen to spice up Alfred’s biography for a new Protestant age…!
This first episode abounds with juicy, colourful evidence from every quarter. Today we can find Arthur reigning supreme in movies, TV series and even the world of online gaming, just as he once enthralled Britain through boys-own storybooks and Pre-Raphaelite canvases. Meanwhile, Alfred has held his own in histories, poetry, imposing statues and even BBC’s own history documentaries – digging up today what might just be Alfred’s bones with just as much earnest enthusiasm (or should that be canny opportunism?) as the Glastonbury monks who lighted upon King Arthur’s remains in the grounds of their own abbey nearly 1,000 years earlier.
The multiple historical makeovers of these Dark Age kings provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of our sense of national identity, of who we are and where and when we come from.
Interviewees include historians Barbara Yorke, Oliver Cox and Miri Rubin. Ian also meets Arthur Uther Pendgragon (born John Timothy Rothwell, 1954) , self-declared reincarnation of King Arthur himself.
With thanks to BBC Media. Episode One is broadcast on BBC 2 tonight from 9pm.