Saturday, 30 May 2009

TV Review: One in the Eye For Harold...or not. 1066: the Battle For Middle Earth

It goes without saying – surely? – that Channel 4 in the UK is the TV equivalent of a tide of effluent. Gok this, Jamie that, see this house, buy that house, go on this holiday, Gordon F*****g Ramsay and, the biggest slurry of excrement on a Channel 4 drowning in it – Big Brother. Brrrr... But sometimes C4 retains a tiny vestige of the broadcasting ethos which led to its birth back in the early 1980s. Sometimes, even now, C4 wants to do more than fill its prime time schedule with cheap lifetime shows and swearing chefs. It doesn’t show a lot of drama these days (Brookside, I still miss you) but when it does it does it in an imaginative, if low key and intentionally not-chasing-ratings fashion. Returning dramas are few and far between on C4 – think ‘Shameless’ (and I’d really rather not) and that’s your lot. But in the last year alone C4 has broadcast drama ‘events’ like ‘City of Vice’, ‘The Devil’s Whore’ and ‘Red Riding’ (the latter two of which are on my ‘to watch’ list – and that’s one seriously long list). Now add to that list of C4 dramas something quite extraordinary which I’ve just devoured into two sittings, reminding me of how good British drama can be and how compelling and terrifying drama can be when it’s based on a true story. And C4’s recent ‘1066: The Battle For Middle Earth’, two seventy-five minute episodes screened over two nights on C4 last week, is based on one of the most celebrated and famous true stories of all – a story which we all know from our schooldays as a story of battles and bloodshed and armies rushing up and down the country and Vikings and Normans. It’s a big, heroic story, glamorised and romanticised across hundreds of years to the point that it now seems like some Hollywood film we’ve never seen rather than a terrible, eviscerating time in British history. And in dramatising it, C4 have produced a modern TV masterpiece, a brilliantly-epic and yet ruthlessly-brutal piece of work which will live long in this memory and really should be required viewing in schools all over the UK.

What do you know about the Battle of Hastings? Ah, 1066 and all that... Something about Normans and Stamford Bridge and King Harold getting something in his eye. Something to do with Vikings too, probably, but not sure how they got in was all such a long time ago and I was staring out of the classroom window at the time... ‘1066: Battle For Middle Earth’ strips away the myth and tells it like it was – or as much as we think we know it was courtesy of contemporary written record, Norse mythology, interpretations of the illustrations on the Bayeux Tapestry and much more. The film presents the story much as we know it to be true; untrained British farmers recruited to join the British ‘army’ as weapons-men, press-ganged into defending their own country against the Normans, rumoured to be planning to swarm into Britain from the South coast. Crudely trained up by the warrior Oldnar this ragtag army eventually ‘stand down’ as the ‘warring season’ ends and the Normans never show. Meanwhile, up North, the Vikings have arrived, cutting a swathe across the country. The British warriors make their way – on foot – to the North of England to engage the powerful, strong, wily Vikings in combat. It seems to be a lost cause until at Stamford Bridge – literally a wooden footbridge crossing the river – British ingenuity wins the day and the Vikings are routed. Meanwhile down South the Normans have arrived to find the country undefended, its warriors fighting in the North. Tired and battle-weary, the remains of King Harold’s army trudge back down south for a confrontation with the ruthless, determined Normans – and a bloody confrontation at Hastings.

Despite the fact that this, being British TV, must of necessity be low budget stuff, there’s an epic quality to the production and a verisimilitude which drags the viewer right into the middle of the drama (or the reality of the drama) and immerses you in the grime and blood and savagery of the 11th century. Subtle CGI gives some depth to the Viking fleet sailing out of the Norweigan fjords, the British beach encampments, the Norman hordes facing off against a determined British rabble at Hastings, specifically at Senlac Hill. This is history as-if-you-were-there, real life cleverly made real by the simple device of life by the addition of fictional characters – fictional but most likely pretty typical of the sort of frightened, normal rural people drawn into events they have no control of - who we follow throughout the narrative. So we meet Leofric, a cowardly, waggish farmer and reluctant hero who comes good in the end, baby-faced newlywed Tofi, torn from his bride on their wedding day to fight in a war he’s totally unequipped for in every way imaginable. They’re our guides throughout one of the most momentous periods of British history and while they may never have existed as we see them here, they represent the people who did exist, the people who fought and suffered and died and did remarkable things in the name of their King.

We all know how this story ends. We marvel at the way the ragtag British army rushes to confront the Vikings who have sealed their own fate by dividing their forces allowing the British to route them at Stamford bridge. And what a battle Stamford Bridge is, like something torn from some far-fetched Hollywood movie as one champion Viking lines up on the bridge and hacks away at the British as they advance one-by one. It’s an extraordinary sequence, made all the more amazing by the way the wily British turn the tables and finally chase the Vikings (or Vikingr as they were historically known) back to their long-ships, tails between their legs.

Meanwhile the Normans are stormin’ across the South of England, swaggering across the country pillaging and devastating everything in their path. Leofric and Tofi find their home village Crowhurst is levelled and Tofi’s wife, amongst other women in their village,. Has been abducted by randy Norman soldiers. Here the story veers a bit too far into action movie territory as Leofric and Tofi rescue the women from the clutches of the Normans (but not for long as is turns out) and soon enough the two men rejoin the massed ranks at Hastings, ready to launch themselves at the French invaders. The battle – and it’s long and tiring and bloody – is brutal, hard, vicious, superbly-realised. The British even seem to be gaining the upper hand and for a moment the viewer forgets what the history books have told us and we’re cheering for the army of farmers even though we know the outcome. The sly French spread a rumour that their leader, Duke William, has been slain; the British fall for the rouse and allow themselves to be caught in a Norman pincer movement. They don’t stand a chance and they’re annihilated. But you knew that anyway...

‘1066: Battle For Middle Earth’ is a brave and impressive piece of TV. What makes it work is that the cast are pretty much unknowns (the only face you may recognise is Peter McGuiness as a Norman with a bit of a conscience – he’s the husband of Roberta Taylor, ex-The Bill) so there’s no ‘Oh, look, it’s him out of Emmerdale’ to tear you out of the drama. Like the best historical dramas it’s hugely educational, too – who knew that Tolkein drew so much inspiration for ‘Lord of the Rings’ from 1066? Britain at the time was known as ‘Middle Earth’ and’Orcs’ (devils) was a common nickname for the evil Normans. Beyond this we’re told that the legend of King Harold – the old arrow in the eye legend – is probably a load of old baloney and his ultimate fate – disembowelling, gelding and eventual beheading – was a lot more eye-watering.

This is history told with more reality and style than I’ve ever seen it told before. If you missed its transmission the other week it’s out on DVD on 1st June and I’d urge you to get hold of a copy if you’ve even the remotest interest in history brought to life and, more than that, great British drama. Brilliant.

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