Why poop is the medium for historical comedy

Plebs on the Roman toilet

I don’t want to beat around the bush here (you never know what might be in there) so I’ll just say it; shit is funny. It’s an awkward subject, and rife with tension. Nothing makes for a good punchline like a bit of tension.

But it’s not just that there’s tension, there’s also a lot of weirdness in our toilet habits. Yes, generally, but also historically. The Romans, for all their lauded sanitation, mainly preferred communal toilets, and wiped with a sponge on a stick. Some scholars reckon you could pay extra to get the first use.

Henry VIII had his ‘Groom of the Stool’, a desirable rank, where a member of the gentry could enjoy unparalleled access to the monarch… but also had to clean up afterwards. It is also hinted at that this may be where all those ‘privy councils’ spring from.
Plebs Toilet Rome

Author and Horrible Histories researcher Greg Jenner had this to say: ‘Freud said faeces was funny because it is a childhood obsession, we go through a phase of being hung up on shitting as toddlers. But shit is also a useful metaphor for the distinction between modernity and history – our age is shitless, theirs was shit everywhere. So it’s not just funny in of itself (which it is), but also it serves to heighten the historicity of the setting.’

Finally, and most importantly, crap is a common denominator. Everybody poops. And it’s hard to take someone too seriously when you know they are slaves to the toilet, just like everyone else.

Poldark and Fable III: for the Love of Redcoats

This week I have mainly been playing Fable III. I am very into RPGs, and this one has the added bonus of being pretty funny. It is set in the mythical realm of Albion, which is currently undergoing its industrial revolution. In many ways, it is a complete fantasy. The bad guys include werewolves, goblins and the undead (though all go by different names). But in other ways, it is a good reflection of the impact that the industrial revolution had.

And there are redcoats!

Redcoat

It was only really this week that I realised I had a thing for the uniform. I probably should’ve seen this coming sooner, considering my outspoken love for Sharpe and Hornblower.

For a bit of context on the choice of colour, read this joke. Armies have been wearing red since the days of ancient Sparta, largely because it stops people worrying about bloodstains. What the British army did differently was to turn it into an item of formal wear. I mean, look at all those buttons! And the collar! And the shako! Should I worry about being obsessed with an item of clothing?

And then Ross Poldark rocked up, looking all dark and brooding.

Poldark Redcoat

I swear I’m only man-crushing a little here. Having never read the books, nor watched the original series, I can’t comment on the authenticity of the series. However, unlike other recent historical dramas, it’s pretty fast-paced, pretty fun, and there is enough bare-knuckle fist fighting to balance out the long gazes. The only downside? The red coat goes to the back of the family wardrobe far too quickly.

Both Fable and Poldark are about an individual building themselves up from practically nothing. But whereas Fable employs a high ratio of fart jokes and chicken costumes, Poldark is taking itself incredibly seriously. For the time being, I’m spending more time on the former. Though it probably has something to do with the fact your character can *wear* the red coat.

5 Actors Who Can’t Keep Away From History

While everyone else is banging on about gerbils this week, I thought it would be nice to blog about the Oscars. I’ve been particularly thinking about the way that certain actors crop up in historical (and fantasy) films and TV shows over and over. It’s like they can’t get enough of the swish outfits. Here is my pick of the bunch:

Keira Knightley

At some point, fairly early on in her career, Knightley threw on a massive frock, thought ‘My god, I look fabulous’, and never looked back. Her roles to date include Pirates of the Caribbean, King Arthur, Atonement, The Duchess, Silk, Pride and Prejudice, and The Imitation Game.

The-Duchess

James Purefoy

You’ll probably remember him as the Black Prince in A Knight’s Tale, or as Marc Antony in HBO’s ‘Rome’, but he also just loves to appear in dodgy straight-to-DVD movies, including Ironclad, and George and The Dragon. Other appearances include Sharpe, Vanity Fair, Solomon Kane, and basically anything where he can wear a huge collar.

James Purefoy Vanity Fair

Russell Crowe

A man who is at his most comfortable when he’s wearing at least one layer of leather, Crowe’s resume includes starring roles in Gladiator, Master and Commander, 3:10 to Yuma, Robin Hood, Les Miserables, and last (and probably, let’s be honest, least) Noah. This is a man who’s not happy if he’s not rewriting history.

Russell Crowe Robin HoodCate Blanchett

If there’s one thing that needs to be stated for the record, Blanchett *owns* Queen Elizabeth. When she’s not busy portraying the body of a weak and feeble woman and the heart of a king, she spends most of her time chilling with Gandalf and the rest of the White Council. Her projects include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the aforementioned Robin Hood, and the new Jungle Book movie.

Elizabeth Cate Blanchett

Johnathan Pryce

Possibly thanks to the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the incumbent Pope, Pryce spent the summer of 2014 playing religious leaders in major TV series. In Wolf Hall he was Cardinal Wolsey, while in the upcoming fifth season of Game of Thrones, he will portray the High Sparrow. He has also appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean, Cranford, The Brothers Grimm, and the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Jonathan-Pryce-as-the-High-Sparrow

A @Channel4 special: Time Team vs Restoration Man

Time Team Vs Restoration Man

My partner recently introduced me to Channel 4’s Restoration Man, and in return, I introduced her to Channel 4’s Time Team. It was an interesting trade. Restoration Man plugs neatly into my love of Grand Designs-style building shows, with a neat historic element. The GF was a little more suspicious of Time Team, arguing that it was slow, and uninspiring.

Frankly, this was unacceptable. I have lived in houses where Time Team was the regular evening viewing. I’ve dug on one of their sites. I have friends who were tutored by show veterans. When it was finally cancelled, after 20 seasons, we were in mourning. Hell, some of my favourite Twitter conversations have been with an anthropomorphized trademark item of sweat-encrusted headgear (with over 5,000 followers).

So yeah, you could say I’m an advocate – probably even a fan – and I’m certainly not alone.

How do they compare?

The surprising thing about both shows is that they can both end pretty unsatisfactorily. Because restorations can take several years to complete, Restoration Man rarely sees the end of a project in a single season. Shows end without really explaining the final outcome for homeowners.

Likewise, Time Team can spend three days on a dig and come away with little more than a few animal bones and a few hasty CGI animations of what they *might* have found if they’d had more time. Despite all this, the stories really do draw you in. Hell, it might even be the un-polished nature of the shows that makes them that much more believable.

That’s not to say they don’t deviate from this for the sake of narrative. The Restoration Man has a ridiculous over-acted scene every episode where he retreats to some library to research the building in question. Doubts about the project are over-egged for the audience’s sake. Likewise, the three-day time frame for Time Team’s digs adds a weird sense of urgency. Will they uncover the whole story by the end of the episode?

Which is better?

I never promised to be objective here, but Time Team still holds that special place in my heart. It trumps Restoration Man by the fact that it has so many more experts involved. The fact that it only takes them three days to film an episode (instead of three years) makes a big difference too.

A reality TV show set #10000BC

This week I watched Channel 5’s new reality TV show, 10,000 BC. I normally dislike reality TV, so I wasn’t expecting a whole lot. But that’s pretty much what this blog is all about, so I put myself on the line for you guys. And, for what it’s worth, the show isn’t completely awful. Yet.

I know it’s fashionable among historians to rinse the poor rubes who ‘represented a cross-section of 21st-century Britain’ for sounding like clueless idiots. But then most of the historians I know would be more comfortable surrounded by books and bottles of gin than the era they actually study. I did an online quiz once that said I would do really well in Ancient Rome, but it never asked whether I could actually speak Latin. So who are we to cast aspersions?

As Digventures rightly points out, the show is more about how ‘normal’ modern people get on than about the actual time period itself. After all, you chuck a bunch of strangers together, in a survival situation, with none of the native skills, it’s going to be more of a social experiment than a reflection of a historic reality.

If you want to know what the latter would’ve looked like, check this 13-month experiment out:

Unlike other shows in a similar bracket, the ‘tribe’ mint a leader pretty quickly and don’t really argue too much. Two people leave in the first episode, but not a whole load of fuss is made about it. Other channels would’ve hammed things up a bit in order to make it more emotional. So yeah, I can’t complain about it too much. But if the trailer for the next show is anything to go by, it will shed viewers who are interested in the historical side pretty quickly. Maybe it’s for the best.

Why horned helmets are the best thing to have happened to Vikings

The first thing anyone learns about Vikings is that they had horns on their helmets. The second thing is that they didn’t. From there, surprisingly, things get easier.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

And yet, it seems like most of pop culture skipped that second lesson. They skipped it so hard that this has become the easiest way to identify Vikings. Hell, at an uneducated glance, Vikings are only identifiable by a characteristic they didn’t have.

FYI, that second lesson goes a bit like this: horned helmets, if they did ever exist, were purely ornamental. In battle they add extra weight, for reduced utility. The second someone lands a blow on the horns, it will either jerk your head to one side, or chop the horn off. But they look *so majestic*!

Loki's helmet: practical and classy
Loki’s helmet: classy, if not practical

Hell, the first thing modern culture does, if it wants to portray any kind of historical (or particularly fantasy) northerner, is whack a pair of horns on them.

Skyrim's Dragnborn, recognisable because of his horned helmet.
Skyrim’s Dragnborn, recognisable because of his horned helmet.

My point is this; compared to almost any other foreign culture (remember these guys were pagans, from Scandinavia), they have endured incredibly well. They have made a significant impact on popular culture. And maybe that is, in part, because they are so recognisable.

I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments section. You might also be interested in this blog, where I trash the ‘Vikings’ series.

The Biggest Problem With Wolf Hall? All the Time Jumping

Wolf Hall

It has been a busy week; Martin Luther King day, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and everything in between. However, as you’ve already figured from the title of this blog, I was only focussed on one thing.

My views on the Tudors are pretty common knowledge, so I’ll skip straight to the point. Wolf Hall had its first episode last night. It is one of the highest budget costume drama series the BBC has aired, and has received so much promotion that it is being called ‘event television’. But is it worth the hype? Well, not yet…

As with many series, Wolf Hall suffers from a slow start. But unlike those others, it doesn’t have a dozen episodes to build up and potential future series to get into. Hilary Mantell’s books will be fodder for just 6 episodes. In this respect they might’ve done better to take cues from BBC One’s excellent Sherlock.

Wolf Hall
That classic blank face we saw so much of.

But the real problem is all the skips in time. It seems like the story jumps 20 years back, 18 years forward, two months back, three weeks forward. The Telegraph’s John Walton called it ‘an artful if slightly confusing set of flashbacks’. He’s being generous; it’s artless. Beyond the annoying titles, there’s no real way to distinguish between the different eras.

I think the problem here is Mantell’s own slavish adherence to history – not normally a criticism I’d lay at anyone’s door. The author has researched the period so heavily that I feel like she’s lost sight of the linear nature of time. The other side to this criticism is that Mantell was so keen to stick to the script that she demanded the producers stick to her script. This may not have been the best treatment for the small screen.

I don’t necessarily think the casting was bad, but the acting was. In the first episode Johnathan Pryce’s Cardinal Wolsey is a key character, alongside Mark Rylance’s Cromwell. The trouble is, both characters seem to be the personification of ‘mild-mannered’. Even at the height of their emotional turmoil, both were little more than a glaze of wrinkles.

In contrast, Damian Lewis’ Henry VIII was highly anticipated, and delivers with a sizzle. The Duke of Norfolk was also pretty sassy. Bernard Hill hasn’t rocked so hard since he led a Rohirrim cavalry charge into the ranks of an Uruk Hai army in LOTR: Two Towers.

My mind is not completely made up on this thing. It could go either way. But so far, I’m not impressed. More action, faster cutting, and more emotional involvement are called for, and fast!

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.

If you haven’t noticed, counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

Dracula Untold

While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.

Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.

DraculaUntold

This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.

One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.

It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.

‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.

But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.

But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.

Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?