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.

Sharpe.jpg
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.

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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-witcher-3_geralt-fights-a-werewolf

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.

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.

#WarAndPeace – does it suck?

BBC One’s new six-part serialisation of War and Peace has been on our screens for two weeks now, and it’s time for us to sit back and take stock.

It might seem inevitable that I would love this series. It’s set in that Napoleonic era that I love, where everyone wears an awesome costume, there’s action, connivance, romance… Hell, War and Peace has been described as ALL OF THE ‘7 Basic Plots’ rolled into one. But, while I am enjoying it, it’s not perfect for me.

Part of my problem might be the casting of Paul Dano as central character Count Bezukhov. I have never found him to be a sympathetic character in any of his films, and I’m starting to think that might be his fault, not the casting directors. It’s obvious that the BBC has thrown a fair bit of money at this production; hiring big names like Brian Cox and Jim Broadbent. I can’t shake the feeling that maybe a few more Russian names might have helped ground the production in reality.

War and Peace cavalry charge

We’ve seen plenty of historical TV in the last few years, so it’s not as if this gives us something we’ve been missing. It’s always good to see stories from a different perspective, and that Russian view is something the west could appreciate right now. However, War and Peace feels as though it is holding out on us. As of yet, we’ll hold judgement til the series has run its course, but I still think it has a lot to prove.

@ComedyCentral’s Drunk History: Late to the Party

Some basic housekeeping to get out of the way first: this my 100th post on this blog! Woo! History Mine has been a thing for nearly two years, and while I have occasionally neglected to put in a weekly update, I haven’t gotten bored and jacked it in either. So that’s nice…

Secondly, I was introduced to Drunk History last night.

History, comedy and alcohol seem to be such close bedfellows that this can’t just be coincidence. Take, for example, History Showoff, which takes a bunch of historians and turns them into entertainment. While I haven’t yet attended one, I suspect drinks are in high demand. Probably gin.

Drunk History is another twist on the same idea. This time they got comedians rat-arsed and made them recite history. And it was a goldmine!

Half-remembered history is brilliant. Especially with the sub-title corrections. Can we get more in the way of passive-aggressive subtitles please? I think they’d really enrich our media-consuming experience.

That said, I did actually learn some things from these. Maybe not stuff I’d be willing to repeat as fact, but certainly some details that round out my own understanding of history.

Drunk History hanging

Maybe it’s the fact that history is one of the most inherently human of all fields of study. Ridiculous, stupid, things have happened throughout history. Mainly because our leaders behaved as though they were drunk; ego-maniacally shambling from one crisis to the next, all the while having to deal with the embarrassing limitations of being themselves.

So yes, I would recommend you check it out! This has, however, been going on for a while: Here’s one from 2007. So, I’ve really missed the boat on this one. You probably already knew about it. And for that, I salute you.

The redcoat drama featuring a former member of Being Human that *isn’t* Poldark

This time last month I was blogging about Poldark and redcoats. I got turned off Poldark pretty quickly when it became clear that there were going to be far more longing looks than actual action. But when another series turned up on my radar, fronted by another former Being Human cast member, I couldn’t really ignore it. ‘Specially as it has redcoats.

Banished is set in a penal colony in Australia, and just as  a concept, that’s pretty interesting. It also has a pretty damn good cast; in the lead is Russell Tovey, who I’m still convinced was once one of Crabbe and Goyle (apparently it’s not true, but it should be). Then you’ve got Rory McCann, who you’ll recognise as Game of Throne’s ‘Hound’. The reverend is Ewen Bremner, who was ‘Spud’ in Trainspotting, then there’s Orla Brady, who you lot will remember from Wurthering Heights. Finally, there’s good old David Wenham, who has been in everything from 300 to Lord of the Rings.

Banished cast

So yeah, it’s a well cast series. It is also set in a really interesting time and place. At one point the governor of the new penal colony muses on how his friends asked him when he was leaving. He later realises that what they were really asking was when the scum of England would be taken away. Transportation seems like a massive effort to take, given that many of the prisoners were only serving set-length sentences. There’s at least one Australian joke that points out the British must be mad if they discovered such a paradise and sent their prisoners there.

One thing the series isn’t, is gentle. A thousand convicts and a hundred soldiers, a long way from home, and it was never going to be pretty. Unlike other series, it doesn’t shy away from showing blood onscreen, or examining just how hard things were for women. Family viewing, it ain’t.

But overall, the series is running along fairly well, and while my tastes might be the same as everyone’s, I expect to continue watching this one longer than I did with Poldark.

Why @BBCOne’s #TheArk was actually surprisingly good

This week I have been watching the BBC’s new film, ‘The Ark’. This, in itself, is a bit surprising, given my dislike of bible films in general, and Noah films in particular. But something in the trailer gave me hope. I think it was the mud-brick huts…

And yeah, it’s really good. It’s written by Tony Jordan, who has previously covered the Nativity story. It’s suitably light-touch when it comes to biblical stuff, with most of the weight going on the drama that exists within the family. The lead role is taken by David Threlfall, who is best known for his role as another patriarch in Shameless.

One thing you won’t get from the trailer is just how funny it is. There’s a lot of coarse, jokey humour and plenty of family banter. At one point two sons tease a third about how he isn’t getting any in the sack. That may be exactly why the whole thing works. When the family gathers round the table and squabbles over food (which they do at least four times in the 90-minute film) you can really feel the love. When that turns to anger and squabbling, there is a real tragic pathos to it.

The Ark WivesWhere it falls down is on the core elements that you’d expect from an Ark story. The whole two-by-two sequence is taken care of in one silhouetted CGI shot at dusk. The flood itself is represented by a weird CGI sequence with tectonic plates shifting about under the ocean. I would’ve been happier with big murky tidal waves.

It’s also likely to do something that Russell Crowe’s ‘Noah’ spectacularly failed on, which is to satisfy both the believers and the unconvinced. All-in-all, it’s definitely worth watching.

The Musketeers and their place in history television

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

So, the BBC’s ‘The Musketeers’ series is just getting stuck into its second series. Frankly, it’s about time we featured them here.

The series occupies a basic Dr Who off-season niche that was previously filled by Robin Hood and Merlin. Except this time, the story is based in historical fact (no arguing Hood fanboys!). It, along with the godawful Atlantis, represents the reality that the BBC is running out of stories to tell. Look at it this way; they started out by recounting two of the core English myths, moved on to a drunkard’s recollection of Ancient Greece, and have now steered on to French classics.

On the plus side, it’s actually fairly fun in a world-gets-in-jeopardy-and-the-heroes-have-to-save-it-in-a-single-episode, don’t-hate-me-I’m-a-terrible-judge-of-quality kinda way.

Like all of the BBC’s series in the same niche, the writing is seriously lacking. Liberties have been taken with both the historical and fictional source material, in proportions that are, frankly, French.

On the other hand, the casting and the costumes alone could pretty much carry the thing by themselves. Seriously, this series alone has made me rethink whether I’m wearing enough leather in my life. And the answer is no. I really am not.

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

As with pretty much every screen adaptation of Dumas’ books, I’m pretty bummed out that Porthos is not the MOST MASSIVE MAN EVER. But he’s played by Howard Charles, who is pretty cool in a geezer kind-of way. And yeah, I totally get the casting of an African-American actor in the historical context.

Athos and Aramis are basically the same character except that one is grumpy and the other one had an affair with the Queen. D’Artagnan is played Luke Pasqualino, who you might remember from Skins. Except that this time you’re much less likely to want to punch him in the face for being such a whiny tormented teen.

But crucially, and this is the main reason I enjoy these shows in the first place, it is romp television. It’s relatively good-natured. There are plots, but they are foiled, again and again. Compared to shows like Game of Thrones, they are a lot easier to deal with. I don’t have to worry about shifting allegiances. You can tell the bad guys apart because they’re always wearing black and scowling.

So yes, it’s not at all like history, in that respect. But sometimes I watch TV to let my mind relax, rather than have to figure things out. This combination is just right.

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