The Durrells: Much less fun that I told everyone it would be

So here’s the thing. It’s 60 years since Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’ was first published. If you’ve ever read Durrell, you’ll know he is proper LOL funny. So when I heard that it was being made into a TV series, I had high hopes.

This is actually the third time that this family story has been captured on camera. It was first unleashed on the public in 1987, when Spiro was played by Brian Blessed.


More recently it was shown by the BBC in 2005 as a TV movie, where Spiro was played by Omid DJalili.c1f32dacbbf0a0c681b744430e4b9e92f6689e4a

Now it’s being made again, by ITV, and this time I’ve never heard of the guy playing Spiro.


Is it any good? You might have to wait for a verdict there. But it certainly isn’t as fun as the original book. This is a story that has been told so any times in recent memory that without a fresh angle, there would be no need.

So the fresh angle ITV hit on was to take the viewpoint away from playful young Gerry, and transfer it largely to his worry-struck mother. Suddenly what had seemed charmingly chaotic turned sadistic and terrifying. This might have been over-egging the drama; ratcheting up the tension in order to improve the payoff. But the problem there is that, when this is a TV series about a family’s everyday lives, constant tension is just too much.

The books I read were funny. And even some incidents which could be played for laughs (one brother locks another in a bat-infested toilet) are just dark here. Parallels could be drawn to Batman V Superman. Both just miss the intended audience by removing all the fun.

Why spoof history > real (fake) history

I think we can all agree with one self-evident truth: history would be better if there were more jokes in it. I’m not saying it’s not funny. Just that the bits that we tend to remember are the scandals, diseases, wars, civil wars, religious wars and general persecution of the powerless by the powerful. Hardly a recipe for frivolity.

So if you can’t laugh with history, why not laugh at history? Films like Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are cult classics.While their telling of history may not be a 100% realistic version of events, films never are. What’s more, they have stood the test of time well when compared to spoofs of other genres, like horror.

Moreover, the fact that they are not trying to tell a ‘history’ story gives them extra reason to ground themselves in the reality. To tell a good joke, you have to have a convincing stooge. The realism has to be there before you can add comedy to the mix.

Most serious historical films are, well, dark. Seriously dark. For some reason I keep thinking of Kingdom of Heaven, so let’s take that as an example. Balian’s wife has committed suicide before the start of the film after miscarrying their child. Her body is buried without ceremony, but after the priest (in the extended cut he is Balian’s brother) has stolen jewellery from her and ordered her head to be cut off. Balian then murders the guy in a fit of rage. Then finds out that he was a bastard of not-quite-rape. Then his newfound father is killed. So far we’re only about half an hour in…


I realise that Life of Brian ends on the cross, and Men in Tights starts in a Middle Eastern dungeon, but in both situations there is a lot of levity. The past wasn’t a bad time. Sure it didn’t have our fantastic modern amenities, but neither did it have our modern worries. Good times were there to be had. So let’s focus on them for once…

Life of Brian

Bernard Cornwell: Powerhouse

So, yeah, it’s been a while. Reasons, excuses, back to the main event. In the intervening time, I have been reading. First it was Sharpe’s Triumph, then it was Sharpe’s Tiger (which is definitely the wrong order). My local bookshop stocks nowhere near enough Sharpe books, so I have moved on from Sharpe.

Poor, sad, Sharpe

In any case, I am now reading the first of the Starbuck Chronicles, ‘Rebel’, which is also by Bernard Cornwell. I decided to skip ‘the Saxon Stories’ because I don’t want to spoil The Last Kingdom TV series for myself. It’s a weird world where I avoid the original novel, to preserve my enjoyment of the adaptation, but there you go.

In any case, Starbuck is actually pretty good fun, once you get past the 15-year-old pregnant statutory rape victim love interest. Yeah, that bit freaked me out…

Having now read of few of his novels, I’m enjoying Cornwell’s work. The guy can write a good war story. It’s 9/10ths preparation, baggage and worry, and 1/10th rollicking adventure. His baddies are appealing because you know they are baddies. Real bastards. The goodies are usually the dashing rogue types. Willing to steal from their own side if they have to, but equally willing to muck in.

For all their boy’s-own-adventure qualities, they have regular seams of ugly reality. Cornwell’s plots play out like an RPG. For every step along the journey that the heroes take, there are three or four side-missions for them to go through.

All in all, Cornwell’s novels are fun. And really, that’s all I want. If I want unbridled misery and death I’ll watch Game of Thrones. Occasionally, I just want a good time.

Colour palettes in historical movies

In 2000, the Coen brothers released ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, a film set in depression-era Mississippi. The film was a landmark, in that it took advantage of colour correction techniques. Previously this had been used for, well, colour correction. However, in the George Clooney flick, it was used to wash colour from the entire film, giving it a largely sepia-toned appearance.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou

This was seen as a positive step by film studios, to the point where pretty much every film studio used this technique to reduce their films to just two colours: teal and orange. There are many reasons for this, but largely it’s because these two contrasting colours look good together. And, I suspect, if you live in an arid state like California, these are colours that you are used to seeing.

Back to the sepia tone, though. This is actually a very popular palette for historical media. In the UK, for example, all signs for historical places are brown (technically all tourist signs are brown, but that might undermine my argument somewhat, so please ignore it).


My theory is that this is inspired by archaeology. Bones, mud, and terracotta are all part of the sepia spectrum. Add in elements like wood, leather and parchment, and our lazy assumption is that the past must have been a browner time. Forget seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles, our view of the past is plain muddy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about war.For example, while ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released a couple of years before ‘O Brother…’, it overwhelmingly uses a palette of greys and browns.


You might expect war films like this to make more use of reds, with blood, fire, and explosions. In fact, these are kept to a minimum, with the colour only used for shock value. The ‘desaturation’ of colour is regularly used in war films, and those set in communist-era Eastern Europe to suggest a grim reality, devoid of the colour of normal life.

In contrast, period dramas tend to use a combination of rich dark shades, and pastel highlights. This tends to suggest an opulent setting, with delicate features.

danish girl

Of course, the biggest issue with colour manipulation in this way, is that it doesn’t always reflect historical reality. True, palettes have changed throughout history. As new dyes became available, so new colours became fashionable. However, there simply wasn’t the narrow band of colour that is presented today.

Lessons from ‘The Witcher’ about Medieval Europe

The ‘Witcher’ series of books and games has become very popular recently, and so I thought I should check them out (purely for your information, of course). What I discovered was a fully formed universe, which, while very much a ‘high’ fantasy, still reflects a lot of truth about our world, both in the modern day, and in the historical era.

witcher thieves

The original books were written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The stories weave in European folklore as part of their narrative colour. The Brothers Grimm are heavily sampled. In fact, The Witcher is regarded as such a major cornerstone of modern Polish culture that a copy of one of the games was once given to Barrack Obama as a diplomatic gift.

The basic premise is pretty straightforward, the main character is called Geralt. He is one of a number of ‘witchers’. It’s their job to kill monsters. Bish; bash; bosh.


The slightly more complex premise is that this world is in an unnatural state. It got to this state when something called the ‘Conjunction of the Spheres’ happened. This is actually a riff on the old ‘many universes’ theory, which Phillip Pullman put to use in the ‘His Dark Materials’ series (currently being made into a TV series). This event wound up with Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and a wide array of colourful monsters all inhabiting the same place.

But here’s where it gets interesting. By the time of the latest additions to the series, the monsters are less of a threat. Sure, they are still present in the games, but not in numbers large enough to maintain a stable breeding population. This actually reflects a historical truth that is often overlooked. Europe, which is the basis for the world of The Witcher, did have megafauna of its own, even into the historical era. The last lion died in Greece in 100 BCE; the last aurochs died in Poland in 1627 CE.

Geralt Griffon

In the more recent additions to the series, monsters aren’t the problem, humans are. In fact, they are causing problems in more ways than one. Pogroms against the ‘non-humans’ (elves, dwarves, etc) are pretty common, reflecting the way that medieval Europe dealt with external cultures, such as the Jews.

War, disease and death are common themes. In fact, many of the most common ‘mob’ enemies, are a reflection of this; bandits, or undead ‘drowners’ and ghouls are all intent on killing pretty much anyone who comes across them. Even the religions can be pretty heavy-handed. Playing the games it becomes apparent that most of the general population distrusts your Geralt with his unusual appearance. However, while the Witch Hunters actively pursue magic-users and non-humans, you always get the feeling that witchers are next on their list.

stake doppler

The Witcher series does come from a historical background. The story is warped through the hands of many folk stories, and completely high-fantasy, but it reflects a degree of historical reality. And that is the excuse I’m sticking to.

Would you *actually* survive in ancient Rome?

I very briefly mentioned this topic a while back, in my blog about the 10,000BC reality TV show. However, since I keep seeing this kind of thing everywhere, I felt it was time to be explicit about how these quizzes should be set out.

In their current form, these BuzzFeed-style games are a way to generate some quick and easy content which satisfies the basic curiosity of their audience, without providing much in the way of hard-hitting home truths. It’s something to post on Facebook and say ‘Look, I could survive as an ancient Greek! Could you?’ Great, but could you? As much as I love seeing portrayals of ancient Greek culture, I suspect that if I were time-transported into ancient Athens, I’d probably end up a slave within my first week.


I’d like to see a new, and far more brutal approach to these quizzes. Don’t undersell how hard it is to live in any given era. Sure, some of the challenges may be easy to overcome with your modern knowledge, but fewer than you think, and there will be far more difficulties to replace them.

Here’s my rundown of the kind of questions that should be featured in this type of quiz:

  • Are you male or female? This undoubtedly has an impact on whether you survive. Human selection tends to favour men, natural selection tends to favour women. The exact mix differs slightly from culture to culture.
  • How old are you? Massively important. Children and the elderly tend to lower life expectancies. This is increasingly true if you’re just going to get transported back in time with no family to support you.
  • How fluent are you in the lingo? If you can’t speak the language you’re going to really struggle to make yourself understood.
  • Good at making friends? You’re going to need them.
  • The entrepreneurial type? On top of the need to make friends, you’ll need a quick income. That ‘Atlantis’ stuff just isn’t going to happen.
  • How good are you in a brawl? I’m not saying you’ll end up in one, I’m just saying that as someone who is already on the fringes of society, you’ll need to defend yourself.
  • What about if we give the other guys a weapon? Oh yeah, if the people in charge are using any kind of armed thugs to maintain control, you’ll need to be able to handle that.
  • Can you lie through your teeth? Even if you can speak the language, you’ll need a plausible explanation for how you know things. For every yokel who believes you are sent from heaven, there will be a cynic who thinks you’re there to take advantage.
  • How much have you actually studied this era of history? I get that you will want to take advantage of your knowledge of history to put yourself in a position of power (all paradoxes aside) but do you actually remember any events where your knowledge would be helpful?
  • How much of a fussy eater are you? Your gluten-free diet is going out the window. And, frankly, you’ll be lucky to get the choice to be vegetarian.
  • If you plan on taking advantage of a technology, do you know how it works? Anyone who saw my reality TV blog will know where I’m going with this. For just one example, we live in a digital age, and most of us have no idea how computers work, so we’re already at a disadvantage.

Vikings Longboat

I have deliberately weighted this quiz against the reader. Surviving in any age is a challenge, so being transported to a different one would be a massive struggle. ‘Would you survive…’ quizzes should be more rigorous, so that the achievement feels more worthwhile. Only then can you honestly educate your audience about the reality of living in that time period. And then it will *really* be something to post to Facebook.

Costumes in historical media: how much do they matter?

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

Does costume matter in historical media? Quite possibly, but you can get too hung up on the details. Last week the Telegraph made this very point when it queried the wardrobe of the BBC’s War and Peace six-parter.

War and Peace cast

Outfits are perhaps one of the most important parts of any historical drama. Certainly more important than the scenery, they ground the story by convincing you that the characters themselves accept the truth of the situation they are in.

Witcher Soldiers

No-one in their right minds would dress like this today. The fact that a character in the film/game/show/whatever is, and is acting like it’s totally normal, reinforces the historical setting.

We don’t even need to push it that far. Most people are a bit rusty when it comes to the history of clothing. They won’t know which exact dyes, fabrics and fashions were popular at each particular setting. And it’s likely that media studios count on this in order to cut corners.

On the other hand, could also push this idea to it’s logical conclusion, and argue that costume can convince us to accept a counter-factual story, when we know that the reality would be different.

300 Soldiers Outfits

I have previously blogged about how the Spartans of ‘300’ would, in reality, have worn much more armour. In Frank Miller’s original comic book, the boys in red were full-frontal naked – in reflection of the way Greeks depicted their heroes. The tiny brown thongs were likely introduced to get the film past modern movie censors.

One of the more pertinent points made by the Telegraph was that historical media often reflects the era it was produced, as much as the time it is set. This might be through production values, design, or fashion. I swear mullets have ruined several films for me…


The experts are always going to be frustrated by costumes in historical media. This is because they will notice tiny details that are all wrong. And there will always be tiny details.

That said, if anyone else tries to dress Victorian ladies in purple KKK robes, I am going to be very upset.

Sherlock: history and fan service

It’s been more than a few weeks since the Sherlock Christmas special came out, but we would be remiss if we failed to mention it at all. As such, consider this your [SPOILERS] warning for ‘The Abominable Bride’.

I, like many of you, am a fan of the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock series. It successfully reinvents a very Victorian concept for the modern era; updating the stories, without losing the essence of what makes them unique.

However, the series has also done more than any other to respond to fan feedback. Fans have been wondering for ages what would happen if you sent Sherlock back in time. The show runners were only too happy to oblige.

Sherlock Carriage

However, they also had to square the concept with the cast, and ground it in some sort of reality. As a result, the entire episode takes place inside modern Sherlock’s ‘Mind Palace’. This led to a particularly convoluted plot. At one point, modern Sherlock is thinking about Victorian Sherlock, who is thinking about modern Sherlock…

In fact, the entire episode tries to tap into modern feminist debate. At one point, Gatiss’s character, Mycroft (with the appropriate girth), makes an oblique reference to a great adversary who should win, because they are right. And this turns out to be the women’s rights movement. Alright, but do they need to dress up in purple KKK robes and murder people? It was about here that I stopped following the plot. Probably because it was getting out-of-hand ridiculous.

Sherlock KKK

‘The Abominable Bride’ failed because it tried too hard to please everyone. However, more and more films, games and TV shows are being made which seem more at home in the pages of Tumblr than in serious history books. The upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a good example, and others, such as Abraham Lincoln; Vampire Hunter, or Cowboys and Aliens, I have already touched on. They go beyond mere counter-factual history, to sheer joyous silliness. And for that, we can forgive them.