Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Garrow's Law & Edwardian Farm: History as compelling drama and reality telly

In an age where ITV is telling Parliament through the mouths of it's own top bosses the network has dumbed down and catered to the "lowest common denominator", preferring to run cheap and easy to make, unpaid talent dross like X factor, I'm a celebrity feed me worms and anything on ITV3 or the highly successful soaps Coronation street and Emmerdale, the BBC is ploughing ahead with high quality historical drama that is not only popular but a money maker for the network. I'm sure most of you reading this are not in the least bit surprised to find out that ITV has abandoned it's better programmes having even cancelled it's long running culture content and not being in any hurry to make any new dramas in the kinds of numbers they used to make. If Sherlock Holmes was being pitched today to ITV, it would never have been made. I myself have seen a marked turn down in the last two years in the amount of ITV I watch. At it's height, I used to watch one ITV show for every two BBC or C4 shows, now it's football and Ladies of letters. In fact since Kingdom and Doc Martin stopped, it's been a dessert. Meanwhile over at the BBC and C4,  history is part of a mix of great programming.

Why is history so important? It puts everything into a context and insures you know where you came from. History need not be boring or dry, it need not be sucked clean of any joy or entertainment value nor need it be so dumbed down that only a 3 year old would find it the least bit informative. Over the last few months we've had Norman week, Battle of Britain, The Great War and The Blitz. Victorian Farm and now Edwardian Farm as well as the popular Turn Back Time High Street and  reviewed here) have demonstrated clearly that reality based historical experience programmes have both a place on telly and a purpose. Just as the BBC has moved to insure cookery is taken up to the next level with programmes like Masterchef and The Great British Bake off, or the Hairy Bikers specials, the historical content runs the gamut of eras and content styles from beginner to expert. It's assumed there is an interest out there and that people are not stupid or incurious. That children as young as 12 are looking forward to the next instalment of High Street ( tonight BTW), is a testament to not only the quality of the programme but the crying need to expose people to more than anorexic off key girls from Essex or strange men with no talent ( Wagner, no, not the composer).

BBC History is doing for our collective intellect, what Jamie Oliver did for food when he started The Naked Chef.  The sad part is that the current government is intent on slimming the BBC to such an extent that it will have fewer resources and less ability to present quality researched and well made historical content. Prime Minister David Cameron and his mates who are eagerly eyeing the news division are also telling us they want more history, but only so long as it doesn't cost much and could one day be taken over by the private sector. Thank G-d it's just a coalition minority Parliament, else we'd be starring down the barrel of 4 years of this mob.

Garrow's Law, which started it's 2nd series this Monday, is back with the next bit in the fascinating mostly true strory of William Garrow, pioneering barrister and social reformer.  The BBC version takes up the main threads in his life, having Lady Sarah Hill, portrayed by the delicious Lyndsey Marshal late of Rome, being threatened with ruin by her jealous husband. Could her baby be Garrow's? History tells us no, but that didn't stop Thomas Hague from trying to ruin his name with such allegations. This personal vendetta by Sir Arthur Hill, played so well by Rupert Graves, will carry through the 4 eps of the current series. The vindictiveness and pure evil of the man is played straight and tends more to represent the values and personal paranoia of the upper classes of the day. Even the reforming elements of the story clearly show that a straight attack on an offending bit of current practice was less successful than the indirect approach that chiselled away bit by bit, which has almost always in the end produced results.

Last night's ep featured Garrow's greatest crusade outside the reform of the evidence system, slavery. Liverpool Assurance Inc are trying to prove fraud against a slaver who allegedly dumped cargo to collect on the insurance. The cargo of course was human and that meant murder had it been anybody else. So to move the court and the land, Garrow has to prove the slaver captain did heartlessly throw overboard women and children for profit. The question is not, did William Garrow succeed, of course he did, it's more how did he do it. Using compelling evidence from freed slave Gustavas Vassa and the ship's first mate, Garrow proves fraud and removes yet another underpinning element that allows the slave trade to flourish at the time. As drama goes, the court room antics are compelling story telling right up there with shows like Rumpole of the Bailey and Law and Order while the palaver over Lady Sarah's baby is Dickensian in it's fever pitch of doom and gloom. Will the evil husband get in a some brilliant lines and looks? count on it. What I really enjoy about this series and last year's series one, is the attention to detail and the use of story twists to tell us just enough historical detail to makes us go to bed less stupid and makes us look up the rest ourselves the next day. . For more series details

And for a different kind of history, the anoraks over at Edwardian Farm kicked off on Sunday when historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn arrived in Morwellham quay in Devon on the river Taymar. Over the span of the series, we'll see fishing, mining, market gardens, cash crops and various inventions that come up to help make the work a bit easier. What's really good about the concept of Edwardian farm  is that unlike High Street, which has it's merits, Edwardian Farm uses the talents of people seriously committed to the lifestyle, social set ups and foods of the day. There is no sneering or cautious modern person turning up their nose at old ways or old foods. The enthusiasm with which they get stuck in, is precisely the sort of thing needed to properly show how life worked in that or any other era being recreated. No cheating with a trip to Asda's for butter or making gross errors for the enjoyment of the car crash fans. It's properly researched and carried out re creation here.

What differentiates this from Victorian farm is the fact that unlike the first series that portrayed life in a typical rural setting, this is a  farm that provides food for the workers at a nearby factory that can only be reached by barge. To add to the challenge of the place, the land itself is in need extra working as they are required to add 10 tons of quicklime to stabilise the acidity of the ground. Despite a lot of industrialised processes in the day, quicklime production was still done locally and was in fact a dangerous activity that had as a by product, dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. After much  searching and measuring, they settle on a kiln last used in 1950, that can produce the required 10 tons. Other tasks undertaken are the building of a hayrick to store and feed the specialised sheep without allowing the hay to rot.

Ruth needs to clean and fix  the farm house with it's range that was last used in the 1930's. Chimney sweeping is done through means of a holly bush, Peter and Alex are too kind to use the alternate method of dropping a chicken down the chimney, which we're told worked just as well.  The restocking of the kitchen reveals that by 1900, most of the brands we take for granted today and can still buy, had already arrived. While not as large or as well stocked as the Victorian Farm kitchen , it does end up  being homey and up to the tasks, this despite water having  to be drawn from the well.  Ruth as usual ropes in her own daughter to help her with several tasks and the men, after a hard day of spreading quicklime in the fields,  return to a meal of lamb head stew. Next week we start in with the real hard work of raising sheep, planting the market gardens and putting in the oats and potatoes.

My own father who grew up on a large rural estate in 1930's Poland, was animated throughout, telling us about how they used to do things mostly the same way and how Ruth and company, pretty much got it right. In fact, many of the methods demonstrated in Victorian Farm were still in use as late as the 30's in most of Europe, so it afforded us the opportunity to have a running commentary  that often anticipated the action  but always was impressed by the degree of accuracy achieved by the program. My one criticism of this series and the last one was that it seems to be almost entirely from the perspective of the working farmer and never delves too deeply into the involvement of the land holder's responsibilities and duties beyond the actual farm itself. I'm reliably told from direct family experience, that the Lord of the house with the help of the older sons and his wife, had as busy a day as any of the farmers and would have made for an equally compelling story, including dealing with suppliers, labour relations, selling on of crops, and relations with a variety of merchants for household and commercials reasons. But I suspect the prospect of showing the rural upper classes as anything but aloof and disconnected  swims in the face of  modern social history that prefers to focus on the working man almost to the exclusion of all else. Which is not to say that the programme doesn't get this part right, it just misses the connection to the next equally important part of the commercial food chain the Land Lord and his family represent.

I strongly urge those of you with children of any age to sit them down after yech factor to show them a life before video games and microwaves. Much of the skills on display are as relevant today as they were back then, and if we continue to ignore the incredibly loud warnings of the failure of our plug in throw away society too long, they are the ones who will be no better than cave men when faced with the prospect of having to do it all from scratch again. There is nothing romantic or doe eyed about Edwardian Farm, but it does show a time when knowledge, skills, and hard graft were the only thing between us and hardship. Whether you were urban factory worker, socialite, shop girl or merchant class, if the farms in the country failed, your lifestyle suffered. Programmes like this instil the kind  respect for farmers, land owners and the rural commercial classes no longer seem to have. It's fine and good to go down to the shops regardless of how well off you are, but without the rural world, we would all be dependent on foreign food to such an extent, that some of us might not be able to afford to eat. You don't have to look far, China today is a net importer of rice where only a few years ago it still sold to the rest of the world, and in Japan, rampant urbanisation has created a society where if the manufacturing sector ever collapses like in the US, the whole country would be on it's knees. For more series details

History serves to remind and to reinforce, ignoring history helps us blunder on irresponsibly with our eyes closed to the consequences of our actions. So while ITV dithers, the BBC informs and entertains.

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