Viewer stand-ins in historical series

I recently purchased the first season box-set of the ‘Vikings’ series. There’s been a bit of chatter about it recently, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. FWIW, yeah, it was OK. The concept was decent, and the art department really knocked it out of the park, but I felt that it was let down a bit by the actors accents occasionally slipping, and the fact that some of the writing was pretty poor. For example, check out the first twenty-four or so seconds of this clip.

I’m going to write it out so you can savor the full awfulness of the exchange.

RAGNAR: We have someone special to visit. His name is ‘Floki’.
BJÖRN: ‘Floki’… Like ‘Loki’? The god?
RAGNAR: Yes. Only different.
BJÖRN: How is he different?
RAGNAR: He’s not a god.

Is it just me, or does that really suck? I mean, if you’re going to name one of your characters ‘Floki’ to remind the audience of that well-known mythical character ‘Loki’, FFS, don’t then have two of your characters spell it out in pre-school terms! In the UK ‘Vikings’ is an 18. Please, credit your audience with some intelligence! On top of this, Loki isn’t even a god. He’s a frost giant who is held hostage by the gods, something a viking would have known.

The real shame is that this series was written by renowned historical screenwriter Michael Hurst – the guy behind ‘Elizabeth’, ‘Elizabeth the Golden Age’, ‘The Tudors’ and ‘The Borgias’ to name but a few. Jeez Mike, where did it all go wrong?

But anyway, I’m not here to grief Michael Hurst any more than I already have done. What I really wanted to talk about is the role of Björn and the Anglo-Saxon monk, Athelstan. They both play the role of viewer stand-ins. Throughout the series, both repeatedly have things explained to them. For Björn, this is because he comes of age right at the start of the series, and doesn’t understand how things are done. Athelstan is a foreigner, and is constantly questioning the way that the society works.

As a storytelling device, this is pretty fucking weak. Most adults prefer to learn from observance than from being told. No-one wants to admit they don’t know something if their peers think they do. This is doubly true if they think they are going to be mocked for not understanding – as both characters are.

David Benioff, one half of the writing team behind Game of Thrones, first came to prominence with his debut novel ’25th Hour’. It was subsequently turned into a film by Spike Lee, with Ed Norton in the lead. He explained one of the secrets behind the gritty dialogue came from listening to real conversations. IRL there is no pretty question-and-answer pattern. What one person wants to get out of a conversation will be very different from what their buddy wants to say.

In historical drama, there is a real need to convey the strangeness of the situation. But viewer stand-ins are not the solution. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the mantra of the storyteller, and I think series like ‘Vikings’ will always fall short of the mark if they don’t go balls-out at the writing stage.

What do you think? Have I got beef for all the wrong reasons, or is this something you have noticed in other series?

Chaucer Remixed: a review of @PatienceAgbabi’s ‘Telling Tales’ poetry slam

To the backdrop of hip-hop beats experience Chaucer remixed to the cultures and lives of Deptford, taking us from modern day inner London life to the 14th Century and around the world to Nigeria and elsewhere.

Entering the large domed performance space, the drumbeats permeated around the dimly lit room, creating a relaxed ambience as the audience settled at their tables, the sound of chatter softly filling the space. With the DJ Mantis offering a suitable musical contribution to each development of the evening, the night of poetry slam with a twist got into swing.

The Albany in Deptford was hosting the event Telling Tales, a retelling of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer for the 21st Century. A new poetry book by Patience Agbabi, it is an inspired remix of the Middle-English classic, taking us from The Miller’s Tale to the Wife of Bath.

Organised by Apples and Snakes, an organisation for performance poetry in England, the show is taking a tour around the UK over the next 6 months, from Gravesend to its finale on October 29 at the Canterbury Festival.

The poetry slam consists of a traditional format with the poets battling it out between one another – but with a twist. Normally consisting of poets performing their own work, in this case they were taking on a poem and character from the book by Agbabi, and competing for the best interpretation and performance; which they were free to create as they saw fit.

The poems themselves were an eclectic mix that took us from Nigeria to 14th Century ‘olde’ English and modern day inner city London, with a touch of hip-hop smoothed over the top.

The six performances were completely original and took us through the themes of love, relationships, marriage, infidelity, each embedded in different cultures and accents. The haunting, magnetic yet darkly humorous performance of ‘The Crow’, exploring the broken heart of a man over his wife’s affair leading him to tragic conclusions, was in stark contrast to the cheeky city café chef with his Italian stallion partner in crime.

The performance of ‘The Debutante’, the sardonic wealth obsessed lady who would do anything for diamonds was delivered marvellously by Claudia Shipman, while The Parson with his dramatic, gospel-like performance left the evening with the warning of ‘marrying pride with lust’ leading to disaster, guiding us instead that ‘tempting power of prayer… helps us fight back.’

A wholly interactive show, the judging was based on the scorecards of the four ‘expert’ judges who were able to navigate the demands of their interpretations and those of the audience. Each holding a scorecard at the end of a performance, the audience showed their approval or disapproval of the given scores. The high energy audience feedback was maintained by the enthusiastic and rousing performance of host and poet Harry Bells Bailey. It was, he assured us, a democratically decided judging. The criteria were quality of the poem, the audience response, and the performance itself.

Some performances were undoubtedly more colourful and better prepared, however the all round participation of the audience and the interesting, eclectic and cheeky poetry itself more than compensated throughout.

As the final scores were tallied up we were treated to an impromptu performance of an ode to Deptford by a local poet, examining its past and transformation through gentrification in a rather amusing way. The audience showed their approval for the judges’ high scores all-round and the winners. They will remain a secret as you should see and decide for yourself!

You can find out more about the ‘Telling Tales’ tour here.

review by Stephanie Marina Harvey

Guest Blog: The League of Extraordinary Treasure Hunters

Something I wrote for The Archaeology of Tomb Raider. An awesome blog that’s well worth checking out.

Tomb Raider Horizons

Guest Blogger: Ross Wittenham.

How awesome would it be if Lara Croft found herself in an adventure with The Da Vinci Code’s Robert Langdon and National Treasure’s Ben Gates? It’d be like the Avengers of the treasure-hunting scene. Think about it; they have complimentary skill sets. Robert Langdon is all over the symbology business, while Gates is good at bluffing his way into top security events. Lara, of course, has all the cross-country and combat experience.

The League of Extraordinary Treasure Hunters as envisioned by Ross Wittenham The League of Extraordinary Treasure Hunters as envisioned by Ross Wittenham

Don’t forget their supporting characters either! There are two pet geeks in National Treasure’s Riley Poole and Tomb Raider’s Bryce. Imagine the bromance we could brew up there! Then you’ve got Lara’s butler Hillary and Gates’ wife Abigail, who both rock as disapproving third parties. Langdon doesn’t really have any long-term companions, but he seems to pick up English-speaking buddies in major…

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Anne Boleyn is my spirit animal

Off with her head! - courtesy of James Pegrum

I have to give credit to Historical Honey for inspiring this blog. Until I read their blog I didn’t quite realise just how popular Anne Boleyn was (because she is completely massive online). People love her. She has fans! Once you grasp this concept, it becomes obvious. For example:

Her Wikipedia biography is over 10,000 words long. In contrast, Henry’s is only 12,000 words and he lived for at least 20 years longer, was a bloke, the King of England, and did quite a lot of crazy shit. Catherine of Aragon has 6,500, Jane Seymour gets just over 2,500, Anne of Cleves gets 6,000-odd, Catherine Howard gets barely 3,500 and Catherine Parr gets around 5,500.

Off with her head! - courtesy of James Pegrum
Off with her head! – courtesy of James Pegrum

This video has inspired me to try and figure out whether there is more going on here than meets the eye. Is Anne Boleyn more than just some broad from the past? Is she my spirit animal? Let’s have a look at the reasons why she is so damn popular.

Reason #1

She died at the peak of her popularity; like Jesus, or Princess Diana. People who die young, or just ‘before their time’ tend to get remembered better than those who live on. Their myth can be gradually sculpted, so that it forms a cohesive character, rather than the shambling, irrelevant, contradictory figure they might have become if they had lived on. Better Lennon than McCartney.

This is a great clip, but the relevant part is at about 3:13

Reason #2

Tragic and undeserved deaths are much more poignant than natural ones or, for example, death in battle. Anne had at least two miscarriages, which might have been sons, at least one of which might have been caused by the fact that Henry had put Anne B in such a compromised position.

Shit, Wikipedia thinks that she might have miscarried when she was traumatised because Henry had been in a coma for two days, or the fact that he was already fooling about with Jane Seymour. No-one should have to deal with that. Of course, had her sons lived, Henry would have had the successor that he wanted, and the situation might have had a happier resolution. But sadly, history doesn’t always take the happy route, and what-ifs and maybes don’t change unhappy facts.

Reason #3

She snagged the King of England – while he was married! As desirable titles go, this one has to be near the top of most ladies’ lists. What’s more, their relationship caused an international political crisis, which is impressive by anyone’s standards. This was kind-of like what happened to Wallis Simpson. Henry divorcing Catherine of Aragon lead to a feud with Spain and the creation of the Church of England. In order to marry Mrs Simpson, Edward VIII had to abdicate the throne. So yeah, that’s pretty damn romantic. Of course, subsequently having the same woman killed kinda ruins that a bit. Damn it all to heck, Henry!

Reason #4

You may be wondering why she’s so popular, when none of the five other wives were. I like to imagine that this is down to the law of diminishing returns. Once you’ve beheaded one queen, any further beheading or mere divorce loses its novelty value. She was the one for whom Henry told the Pope to go screw himself, and that earns you serious clout.

Anne Boleyn
Natalie Portman’s Anne Boleyn

Reason #5

She was the mother of Elizabeth I. With Elizabeth succeeding as monarch, Anne beat the five other wives to produce an heir, even if it wasn’t quite the one Henry would have liked. But there is another relevant point here. The online world is pretty heavily influenced by women. The web is way more democratic than the academic world, and so it is of little surprise that female heroes should come to the fore. We love strong women, and here we have one who is the mother of another. It’s thematic, and there’s nothing a historian loves more than a theme.

Reason #6

She was executed with a sodding sword! She’s practically Eddard Stark. It was a horrific way to go, but it was way more punk-rock than Henry, who died of obesity aged 55.

Anne B is massively popular online because she was an ambitious woman who died before her time, in tragic circumstances, but not before she managed to massively alter the course of history. As a historian in the digital age, she is my spirit animal.

A Quiet Word With: Wonderful London Filmmaker @mrsimonsmith

Last month the Londonist posted a video by filmmaker Simon Smith. What made this video so special was that it combined footage shot 90 years apart. Simon used archive footage from 1924, and then went and found the same angles to get exactly the same shots; layering them together so that viewers can see just how much, or how little, London has changed.

History Mine: Where did you get the idea from?

Simon Smith: In May last year, some archive of London went viral online, and along with millions of others I found it quite beautiful and inspiring. As a weekend project, I decided to try and replicate it. Six months later, and my first film, which was a split screen comparison, was being watched all over the globe.

Technically though, I knew I could do something better, more impressive and stylised, so I started experimenting with super-impositions. Then I found the brilliant archive film Wonderful London, and very quickly my latest film was created.

HM: There is a trend of placing old paintings into modern street scenes, is this connected?

SS: Definitely, I always loved those other techniques, utilising stills and situating them in the same places. I was surprised that no-one had done it with film before.

HM: Do you think the introduction of Google Street View was influential?

SS: Not really actually. I love Street View, and the digital exploration it encourages, but I didn’t use it at all for this project. I already knew all the locations as I live in London.

HM: Where do you find the old footage?

SS: The old footage is available on DVD from The British Film Institute (BFI), though some of it is online, and sooner or later it will all be available online. Pathe have recently put their archive on YouTube which is really stunning and interesting as well as being quite important I think.

As with all information, the internet really democratises it, breaks it free for everyone to see, and use, and learn from. We’re playing catch-up, as we started filming things a century before YouTube made it possible to share it with the world – that’s a hundred years of footage we need to upload, but we’ll get there I’m sure.

HM: How hard is it to find the right angle to match up new and old scenes?

SS: I know a little bit about lenses, and the practicalities of using a camera, and what I realised was that back then they probably only had a single fixed focal length lens. As soon as I worked out what this was (about 28mm, with a much smaller crop factor than my full frame Canon camera) it was incredibly easy. If I’d used a range of archive from different sources it would have been much harder, but I knew this was just one camera I had to copy throughout.

HM: Which locations have changed the most? Which have changed the least?

SS: Most of London has stayed the same I feel, but what was interesting was the amount of locations I went to where there was scaffolding, or boarding, road works or building going on (it’s everywhere) and I wonder if we’re in a transitional phase where very soon this kind of film might not be possible.

Thanks very much Simon! You can check out more of his work at If you know any other people we should be interviewing, please get in touch!