thu 30/05/2024

The First Georgians, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The First Georgians, BBC Four

The First Georgians, BBC Four

Lucy Worsley conducts a brisk and brilliant survey of the reign of George I

Lucy Worsley and George I

Reason, tolerance, liberalism…these are the qualities that defined the Georgian Age, and for which it deserves to be better known, and more widely admired. Lucy Worsley stated her argument with admirable clarity in the opening moments of the programme, and her intellectual confidence and rigour made this one of the most informative and enjoyable of the many recent BBC history series.

Worsley breezed through the historical landscape of the age, uncovering crucial aspects of politics, religion, art, satire, and finance. She span a fascinating web of connections and created a vivid portrait of the age, all at an invigorating pace.

The Georgian Age has been unfortunate in its literary chroniclers. Assuming few really read Pope and Defoe, and Swift is only known for the cartoonish bits of Gulliver’s Travels, the only popular perception we have of the (later end of the) era comes from Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III, and even less reverentially, Blackadder Goes Third, (which conflates the Regency, 1811-20, with much earlier events like the composition of Dr Johnson’s dictionary).

Even Jeremy Kyle might have struggled with George I's personal life, though Philip Larkin had a good phrase for it

That makes the series all the more valuable, of course. It’s a shame, then, that it’s hidden away on BBC Four, when several lesser series have strutted their stuff on BBC Two. It certainly can’t be for the lack of entertaining subject matter. The conduct of George’s court, and the way he was treated by his more jingoistic subjects, could have been taken almost word-for-word from the last two decades’ tabloid news.  

George was ridiculed as an ignorant German rustic by countrymen hostile to the Hanoverian takeover, and the icon which summed this up was the turnip. It’s amazing that this harmless vegetable possessed much the same derogatory power when The Sun chose to lampoon Graham Taylor, the hapless England football manager, in 1992, nearly 300 years later. But this wasn’t all: George’s foreign servants were abused by the bigots (the Turkish valet who “administered to the king’s haemorrhoids” was, critics hinted, kept for “abhominable purposes”); and his plump mistress was suspected of creating a binge-eating culture amongst would-be candidates for the amorous royal eye.

Lucy WorsleyLess amusing, though just as tabloid, was the story of the king’s personal life. His own unhappily arranged marriage resulted in his wife’s indiscreet (and therefore humiliating) affair, her lover’s “mysterious” assassination, and the estranged wife’s lifelong exile in a distant German castle. This caused a life-long rift with George’s son and heir, who was 11 when his mother was removed, for ever, from his life. Later, when the future George II had children of his own, George I banished the parents but kept his grandchildren as a kind of ransom against treason. Even Jeremy Kyle might have struggled with that one, though Philip Larkin had a good phrase for it.  

Worsley deals with all of this with just the right balance of wry amusement. Then she moves briskly on to cover every significant feature of George’s reign with a few minutes’ judicious assessment. She covers the birth of satire (hilariously, the result of government incompetence in failing to renew the censorship legislation, and not a principled battle for liberty); the new Palladian architecture; the birth of His Majesty’s Opposition, and cabinet government; the rise of commerce; the South Sea Bubble; the birth of the slave trade; and the Jacobite rebellion. All are sketched with concise brilliance, and more impressive still, the connections between each are pursued. The official opposition, for example, was partly a means to keep a lid on George II’s opposition to his father.

Worsley’s manner does require a little mental adjustment. There’s quite a lot of finger-wagging, which can be off-putting, especially when Worsley is wearing her favourite pair of purple leather gloves. Some might say she’s school-mistressy; but it’s only in the best sense, of having clarity and purpose. For independence of mind, a grasp of the whole scope of a period, and the ability to connect its disparate features, she’s unrivalled. A necessary, riveting, and brilliant piece of historical documentary.

A necessary, riveting, and brilliant piece of historical documentary


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Only popular perception through Alan Bennett and Blackadder? God, you must think we're thick! Ever heard of Hogarth? And yes, that is popular.

It certainly wasn't meant to be a judgement of anyone's intelligence. I was commending the BBC for their coverage of C18, which compared to both C19 (Austen/Dickens/Hardy/Eliot/Conan Doyle etc) and C17 (Shakespeare and a few colourful characters like Cromwell) has, even allowing for Hogarth's influence, been relatively little depicted on TV. 

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