wed 23/04/2014

The Normans, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews

The Normans, BBC Two

Britain's last conquerors are given their due

In the absence of newsreel footage, Professor Robert Bartlett leans heavily on the Bayeux Tapestry
In the absence of newsreel footage, Professor Robert Bartlett leans heavily on the Bayeux Tapestry

My surname came to Britain with the Normans, and I must say that my forebears have had a bad press in their adopted homeland. From Hereward the Wake to Robin Hood, Anglo-Saxon legends have depicted us as despotic and cruel, whereas we were great builders of castles and cathedrals, brilliant horsemen and tip-top administrators, as well as being despotic and cruel. Anyway, it was good to have the refreshingly un-youthful and un-strident Professor Robert Bartlett (more Norman names) giving us his authoritative account of the antecedents and legacy of 1066 and all that. It’s about time we Viking-Frenchmen had a spokesperson.

The invaders’ Scandinavian roots may have been a revelation to some viewers of The Normans, although not to those with some acquaintance of the Normandy countryside and its flaxen-haired, blue-eyed and decidedly un-Gallic looking locals. A giant Norwegian leader known as Rollo the Walker (he was too big for a horse) first fully annexed the area between the River Epte – a tributary of the Seine - and the English Channel (as it obviously wasn’t known as at the time) from the French, pointedly refusing to wash King Charles’s feet as an act of obeisance. In fact he had an underling make as if to wash Charles’s feet – before that man tipped the monarch on to his back. Legend or not, it was a wonderfully Mafia moment – an utterly scornful show of strength.

Like any good Mafiosi, the Normans decided to turn legit – adopting Christ instead of pagan gods, building instead of pillaging, abandoning their Nordic language and beginning to drink wine. For the first time in their history the Vikings blended in with the peoples they had just conquered, something they were to do with some success in England, Scotland and Ireland, less so in Wales. But that’s for next week’s episode, because this opener concerned itself more with William the Bastard, as William the Conqueror was known before he started conquering. The illegitimate son of an embalmer’s daughter, William inherited the Duchy at the age of eight, saw every single one of his guardians assassinated, and had to make several moonlight flits from would-be usurpers. It wouldn’t take a Penelope Leach to tell you that William was going to grow up with certain issues - that he was going to be a tough ‘un.

Seen from William’s point of view, it was Harold Godwinson who was the usurper of the English throne (and there was something unseemly about Harold crowning himself before Edward the Confessor was cold in his coffin), the whole story told in minute detail by the Bayeux Tapestry, that great apologia for William’s invasion. In the absence of newsreel footage, Bartlett found himself leaning quite heavily on this extraordinary length of 11th-century embroidery. At least there were mercifully few of those reconstructed battle scenes that are the history programme’s stock in trade – although the leisurely sequences in which Bartlett breathed in the grandeur of various Norman edifices, from Caen Cathedral to Mont Saint-Michel, began to feel a bit like pictorial stuffing.

The Bayeux Tapestry contained enlivening details, such as the English wearing their hair long and growing moustaches, while the Norman’s preferred the clean-shaven look with a brutalist haircut. It also contains the scene where Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow – the Battle of Hastings having been yet another of history’s close-run things after a rumour spread that William had been slain. At this point Bartlett was again reduced, not for the first time, to pacing around a large field, there being no easy way of illustrating the story. At least we were spared the dreaded dramatised reconstructions.

And, anyway, the story was riveting enough for you not to care. The Norman Conquest is such a familiar part of our island story that it’s easy to forget how unfashionable this period has become – how oddly neglectful we have become of this tumultuous year. Perhaps it was Sellar and Yeatman’s fault for turning the date into a schoolboy joke. Last year’s Channel 4 documentary 1066: the Battle for Middle Earth, which told the story of these momentous events through the eyes of ordinary Saxons, Vikings and Normans, was a start, and this BBC Four season really puts the era back where it belongs – as one of the most action-packed moments in our history. There is surely a terrific movie, or one of those Tudors-style TV epics, to be made about the months leading from Edward the Confessor’s death to William 1’s Christmas Day coronation at Westminster Abbey. Russell Crowe as Harold? Daniel Day Lewis as the hard, unforgiving Conqueror? I must write that pitch.

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