tue 17/09/2019

Empire of the Seas, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Empire of the Seas, BBC Two

Empire of the Seas, BBC Two

Dan Snow's history of the Royal Navy runs out of room to manoeuvre

Dan Snow in Portsmouth harbour, with White Ensign and HMS Daring

Dan Snow’s four-part history of the Royal Navy has been in many ways a marvellous thing, and a timely reminder of one of the central planks of our island story. At a moment when various brass hats are openly discussing the possibility of one of the UK’s armed services being dispensed with (and it won’t be the Army), Snow’s efforts may yet take on a greater significance than he imagined.

All that being said, the final instalment was something of a puzzlement. More specifically, it looked as if some bean counter had axed part five at short notice, forcing Snow to end with a lecture to camera into which he tried to compress the salient points he’d been forced to omit. He also recapped the major themes he’d been developing throughout, about the way the Navy had boosted Britain’s economic growth and given it global reach, and driven developments in science and politics.

Seafaring (he averred) became part of Britain’s national identity, and Dan seized every opportunity to swan around on frigates, yachts, launches, pinnaces, aircraft carriers and facsimiles of Elizabethan men o’war. He concluded with the heady declaration that “the modern world is built on foundations laid by the Royal Navy!” Has anyone told the Americans?

For whatever reasons, Snow’s maritime saga didn’t achieve the majestic climax it deserved. It didn’t even reach the end. His story, which had begun around the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by a bunch of boldly-skippered ships which weren’t yet known as the Royal Navy, ended abruptly after the battle of Jutland in 1916, in which the “dreadnoughts” of the Admiralty clashed with those of the Kaiser in the North Sea (Jutland veteran HMS Caroline, pictured below)

While experts agree that this was the largest sea battle in naval history, and the last ever engagement of iron fleets led by battleships, that hardly seemed a good enough reason for Snow to call time on the whole enterprise and saw off the last 94 years of naval history. Might not the Dunkirk evacuation have been worth a mention, or the battle against the U-boats in the Atlantic? The sinking of the Bismarck or D-Day, perhaps? The Korean war? The Falklands? You call this a history of the Royal Navy, Snow? hms_caroline_small

Still, the history he did cover was fascinating, continuing the series’ fluid interweaving of military, political, social and industrial concerns as it roved from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean and the Far East. Snow took a cruise round Hong Kong harbour, once a pivotal naval base for the British Empire, as he traced the Royal Navy’s role in re-opening trade to China after the Chinese expelled British merchants who’d been buying tea with opium.

While we think of the 21st century as being an age of blistering technological change, it was sobering to be reminded that only 30-odd years after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, the era of wood and canvas ships was being swept away forever by iron vessels such as HMS Nemesis, a steam-powered phenomenon made possible by the Industrial Revolution and which dispatched Chinese junks by the dozen.

Previous instalments looked at how the Navy’s interests and increasingly indispensable role in the projection of British power helped influence the overthrow of Charles I and James II.  Empire of the Seas has often thrown up resonant parallels with the present day too, not least in its depiction of the clashes between the Navy and the government over funding and resources. In 1884, a series of whistle-blowing articles about the shoddy condition of the Senior Service appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, panicking the government into a remedial spending splurge. By 1910, a quarter of all public expenditure went to the Admiralty.

That process has been reversed as we stare into an abyss of national debt, amid proposals for an Anglo-French merger of military resources. It was, of course, Horatio Nelson who said “you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.”

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