Saturday, 16 April 2011

I laughed, I cried, I vomited: New sexy history

History was never tougher than this. I can hear India Fisher reaching for the " Hey that's my line" special number, but the first thing went through my mind when I watched Dan Snow present the Medieval London part of BBC's Fithy Cities, was who did he cross to get this grotty, shitty, manky, mingning gig? My overwhelming feeling during most of the episode was nausea and a strange compulsion to make gagging noises  and squirm in my chair. Having watched other dirty cities programmes, I had something to compare this to,  as it happens the others played the filth as archaeology card and tried not to go for the gag reflex, Proff Snow on the other hand wants you to watch this with a sick bag inches from your face.  What is he telling us that we didn't already know? Well plenty, we knew our ancestors were vile disgusting things with little or no idea of hygiene, but  we knew that  long ago intellectually, in Filthy Cities Snow illustrates with copious clips of urine, runny poo and  puss infested wounds, just how unpleasant life in medieval London was. In case you were thinking  good thing you couldn't smell it Mietek, he's got on offer scratch and sniff cards for your enjoyment, honest, I couldn't make this up.

This commando history that seeks to gross you out, does have an agenda and it is still despite the smelly nature of the material, worth the watch. I suspect it's all part of a cunning plan by the boffins at the BBC to get boys watching more historical programming as well as being part of the social history movement that wants to literally stick your nose in it so you can understand the "real" history, of in this case, London. Seems we wallowed in streets so filled with waste (human and animal) that we needed special sandals fitted with lifts to rise above the mess. Several expressions that we take for granted come from this era, "Not taking shit from you" and variations on it, was literally a cry from neighbours who did not wish to have somebody else's poo diverted into their homes by less than kind spirits who seemed happy to find ever more creative ways to move the stuff along and away from their homes.  The rolls are filled with interesting and stomach churning stories of people building pipes, extending homes out as far as possible over the street and clogging water drains with  shit.

When it became obvious that people were not going to be moved by fines, the city Fathers found new ways to deal with the rising piles of excrement and the odours that went with it by inventing jobs that exist to this day. You may not recognize  Muck raker, Surveyor of the pavements and the Gong farmers (who cleaned cess pools and privies) but today they are the street sweepers, bin men and hardy souls who clean the  sewers. Proff Snow doesn't miss the opportunity to dunk a poor actor into chocolate syrup and mud, when he recreates the death of an early Gong farmer who passed away when he drowned in his own waste having fallen in during a bowel movement. Next stop Revolutionary Paris, If the London ep is anything to go by, Paris the smelliest city in Europe will be a laugh riot of humiliation for Dan Snow and for the more delicate of us, yet another hour during which we will ask ourselves, can the sight of poo, pee, rotting fish other food waste, maggots and animal entrails ever become "nothing special". Not for the feint of heart, but if you are not afraid of a lot of disgusting things each more repellent than the last, then Fithy Cities is for you.  As for Dan Snow, I hope he's a good boy from now on, that way Antie Beeb won't have to punish him for a good long while.

Moving onto a different kind of manky history, the BBC4 was kind enough to repeat the 2008 production of Fanny Hill starring the delectable Rebecca Night. Along with a collection of other talent well used to donning period costumes, this version made Diary of a Call Girl seem like a pale copy of the original. Full of lush period sets, clothes and sense of fantasy that populated the novels of Georgian England, this Fanny worked on a number of levels, not least of which the sexual level. The timing of this project coincides with looser rules when it comes to the portrayal of sexuality and the limits beyond which Mary Whitehouse would simply have never dreamed of. Secret Diary of a call girl starring Billie Piper goes out of it's way to shock, surprise and titillate while Fanny did the same without hardly trying... even if you were a 14 year old boy up past your bed time. But for an adult, even a most shy one who's "slept with a lady", Fanny was straightforward without being crude or insensitive, and yet the amount of exposed flesh and eroticism on display was enough to stir even the most somnabulant libido. The sanitized sometimes fantasy story of a simple country girl who moves to that London to make her way in the world, becomes an 18th century appeal to those who would otherwise condemn women to the poorhouse or the far worse fate of back alley street walker. It is as much attempt to sell a bit of salcious filth to  Georgians   as it is a crusading tome that wants to break down rigid morality that pretends there was nothing wrong with the set up of the day. Besides, Fanny Hill as a book was far more representative of the genuine feeling of people of the time, at least when the pastor wasn't looking, than any of the saccharine upper middle class books by girls about Mr Darcies.

If you prefer your history safe and without nudity or vomiting, Neil Oliver's History of Celtic Britain is the thing for you. So far We've visited the Bronze and Iron ages complete with spectacular artefacts and interesting speculation that I frankly wouldn't be too surprised to find out was true eventually. His assertion that Celtic people don't have a common linguistic heritage is utterly wrong as any anthropologist who's studied the cultures, architectures, traditions and words of the Slavic and early Irish and Scots peoples would tell you.  A paper published in Poland in the 1970's demonstrated a clear link between the Gaelic and old Slavic tongues in groups of root words they would have shared when the Celts dominated from Moscow to Dublin. As well, I question his loyalty to the whole Roman invasion of Britain that has been successfully challenged by both recent archaeology and a revisiting of certain texts. I bring this up as the next ep is precisely about that period of time. It's clear that like almost everywhere else in the Empire, the Romans were invited in by a client state and got involved in local affairs on the side of the people who go them to come in the first place. So much is known about those events now that to persist with the invasion story is ignoring the historical and archaeological record. It would of course be madness on my part to question the assertion that the effects of romanization on ancient Celtic Britain was anything less than rapid, lasting and dramatic, in as much as romanization had been taking place for at least 50 years before that. It remains to be seen just how Oliver handles the material and I refuse to criticise him any further before I see the programme. I have no doubt the rest of the series will as interesting as the first two eps and the style so far of mixing on site visits to locations normally closed to the public mixed with clips designed to show just how hard our Neil has worked, will continue to entertain and inform. In the Bronze age film we saw him enter a series of tunnels each narower than the last in a mine that was almost assuredly dug out by small children in places. Much of the material on display will be familiar to you if you've watched other such programmes, but it's the way the material presented and explained that shed new light on the very objects for you. Already a few accepted ideas present in the naming of the objects or the people excavated as far back as a century ago are being overturned through fresh eyes and the conclusions are painting a picture of a far less isolated or ignorant ancient Britain. Keep an open mind about some of the assertions, but do please watch this excellent series, it is helping lay the ground work for a deeper understanding of an age that till now was quite literally  held hostage by a few "trusted sources" that had not been challenged in a very long time.

If you've somehow missed Tony Robinson's crew since their return, Time Team  and the Time Team Specials are back with even more digs and special secrets. Remaining regular Time teams from the current series cover moats, mills and cannons, while the Specials are no less interesting with a visit to  find a key War of the Roses battlefield,  a super sized flame thrower from WW1 and a lost Roman Circus in Colchester. This year in addition to the usual suspects, we have a new member, Asian Raksha Dave who brings the same kind of enthusiasm and faith that sends Tony off wondering why he's the only one who seems to think the mud filled hole is just a mud filled hole and not an Iron age mill. 18 years and Time Team still has the same power to draw us in as ever.

We cannot forget our mates at Masterchef. Jaunty Roads and Gregg Wallace  have despite getting a new set, not compromised too much on the premise that has made the show a hit for so many years. This year's crop of hopefuls that are by now reduced to four,  but include a vegetarian that seems to cut herself every few minutes, is as interesting as it could be, considering they aren't being as exacting with ingredients and tests as they used to be. Having said that, famous caterers and chefs including both Michel Roux Jr and his father have made memorable appearances. If I was to pick a winner with only a few left standing , it would be the Italian Sara, but if I'm honest, I haven't been jazzed about regular Masterchef since Dhruv won the last time. That particular series was by far the best and was only eclipsed by Masterchef Pro. This crop is far from deserving of any of the accolades and prizes offered to others in past years, even the less than hapless celebs from last year seemed better equipped to deal with the situations at hand. So to summarize, we have an accident prone nervous vegetarian who rarely if ever is challenged on her lack of meat in most of her dishes, an American who experiments and thinks that peanut butter and jelly are a gourmet dish, a competent but dull Englishman who fires hot and cold and an Italian nurse who has the passion and the knowledge but not the skill to be let loose in a professional kitchen on a regular basis let alone write a cookbook. Hardly the stuff of legend, but it gets me through  the week.

Another culinary treat is the second series of Raymond Blanc's Kitchen secrets.  Like the last time, each recipe is a new set of skills and a series of recipes you cannot fail at if you follow the directions. What is particularly wonderful this time around is the array of treats I remember from my childhood. Much of what he does is traditional French but hardly exclusively French. Many of the pastries and puddings are familiar to Polish tastes and with the death of my Grandmother, lost to me till now. Do yourself a favour, if you are to watch but one cookery programme right now, make it this one. Your stomach will thank you and your guests will never again turn down an invitation. 

Lastly there was the fabulous and must watch Great British food revival. Sadly it's no longer on the iPlayer, but the brilliant recipes for breads, puddings, gnoci, pork, beef, mutton, apples and other things can be found here. The BBC chefs share their recipes in the hopes you too will pick up these sometimes long forgotten or neglected foods.

In case you been living under a rock, Doctor Who is coming back, make sure you are ready for Saturday 23rd of April at 6 pm!!!! on BBC One. For all the craic, not just Amy pond's, log onto the Doctor Who page for trailers and other clips to keep busy till the big day.

Happy telly and see you soon

1 comment:

fatoldtart said...

Loved the poo stuff. I'm sure there's a word for that as well.