History on TV: MOAR Richard III

I’ve seen some fantastic historical TV. Frances Pryor’s The Not So Dark Ages was almost 100% flannel-free with some great in-depth case studies, well worth seeking out. Time Team is always worth a look as long as you don’t mind Tony quavering “human sacrifice” every time they turn up someone who didn’t die peacefully of heart failure at a great age. Richard Miles’ Ancient Worlds aimed to contextualize our centuries-old obsession with Greece and Rome by setting them alongside other ancient civilizations, and went into an impressive amount of depth given that broad remit. Pretty much everything Alice Roberts presents is fantastic.

I’m currently watching Jago Cooper’s Lost Kingdoms on BBC4 because I know next to nothing about South America, though to be honest I’m enjoying cheering on the Tintinlike antics of the presenter as much as the actual archaeology. In the first episode alone he was featured paddling down a river on a giant lashed-together raft, macheteing his way through tall undergrowth and abseiling none-too-happily down a sheer cliff-face in the cause of archaeological enquiry. I thought we were in for a real treat when he turned to the camera with a haggard expression and said, “There’s another tomb just over there I really want to explore, but it’s guarded by A NEST OF KILLER BEES.” The producer must have backed down on that one though, because no TINTIN JAGO FIGHTS NEST OF KILLER BEES sequence ensued.

Anyway. There are your classics, your fair-to-middlings, your Starkeys and Schamas (needing no review from me, which is just as well because I’ve never seen any of them). And then there are your abysmal turkeys.

Really, is anyone not at least a bit disappointed by Richard III – The King in the Car Park? There was some good stuff in there, probably 25 minutes worth over the hour and a half and nearly all of it proceeding from the lead archaeologist, the site director, the osteologist and other ladies and gentlemen of the lab whose statuses I haven’t retained. The rest of it was basically exploitation of a rather tearful woman from the Richard III Society who looked – bafflingly! horrifyingly! – like Nadine Dorries and was scarcely less fundamentalist, though you soon realised she was positively moderate in her defence of Richard’s name, character and person set alongside some of the horrors the presenter unearthed from dark corners of the internet for Skype interviews.

I’m not saying it’s not anthropologically interesting to reflect on organisations like the Richard III Society – in fact I may well do so soon, and not in an altogether hostile way, either. Simon Farnaby did it rather cleverly, I thought. But for all that she made me want to scream, I ended up feeling sorry for Philippa Langley. TV is famously a total bastard. At times we seemed to be segueing from one “Make Philippa cry and point the camera at her” sequence to another. Whether TV’s bastardly instincts are reigned in at all depends on the task at hand, and I would have hoped that something trailed (however misleadingly) as a great triumph for scientific and historical enquiry might have attracted a certain seriousness of purpose in the documentary maker. Nup.

Within hours of the presser this morning, commenters on the University’s website had got more deeply into the problems and implications of the DNA evidence than the programme managed in an hour and a half. How do we know this was not another matrilineal relation of Richard’s and Michael Ibsen’s? Were all other matrilineal lines of research exhausted, even though Richard’s mother Cicely Neville came from one of the most prolific noble dynasties of the fifteenth century?

Of course, taken altogether the circumstantial evidence – features and age of the skeleton, the oral tradition regarding the burial – is weighty, so one doesn’t necessarily need certainty on the DNA. It is perhaps enough to rule out the possibility that it will disprove everything. But it’s exactly that kind of compromise you might make in an archaeological or historical investigation that I naively think people would like to hear more about. The point of history and archaeology, the thing that it’s about in its – hah – bones, is problem-solving and pattern-matching. If you like that, you’ll like history and archaeology. If you don’t, it’s hard to see how any amount of “human story” is going to talk you into liking it. There is a separate programme – and a fascinating one – to be made about amateur history, its good bits and bad bits, and how it inspires emotion in people. This shouldn’t have been it.

UPDATE: The stuff we wanted to see, both about the investigation of the skeleton and the wider details of the dig, is on the University of Leicester’s YouTube channel.



  1. Decades before anyone thought of digging Richard III up, I read a fascinating novel by Josephine Tey (aka Elizabeth Mackintosh) called “The Daughter of Time”.

    If nothing else, it makes one realise that history is written by the victors and even Shakespeare was influenced by Tudor propaganda.

    There were only three generations in the Tudor dynasty – and Elizabeth Tudor made sure she was the last of that house.

    Just saying.

    1. Fantastic novel! Read it as a kid, it’s what got me into history in the first place.

      I do think though that the arguments are all a bit strawmanlike. No-one disputes that propaganda arts were alive and well in medieval and post-medieval England. Why RIII in particular should generate such emotionally charged defence against it (and not, for example, RII or EII, both of whom met equally horrible ends and were probably as unfairly smeared by contemporaries and successors) is an interesting question.

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