Monday, 18 January 2010

'Empire of the Seas' vs 'Being Human'


In the last few days I've had two Bristol-related TV experiences, one good, the other not so good. Channel-hopping on Friday night I found Dan Snow, who was standing at the bow of an antique sailing vessel. He looked familiar (son of Peter?) and so did the ship. It was the Matthew, I realised, Bristol's favourite replica 15th century trans-Atlantic craft. And there, briefly, was her skipper, Rob Salvidge.

Unwittingly I had stumbled into the first chapter of the BBC's new series about Britain and the navy. Ah, I thought, John Cabot - good place to start. Only the presenter wasn't talking about the Bristol-based mariner. Instead he was using the Matthew as a setting for the story of Drake and Hawkins and the build-up to the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Fair enough. Snow might have mentioned Cabot, but perhaps he didn't want to confuse people. So on to the Armada, but here things took a strange turn. The Spanish invasion fleet was assembled and sent off to England, we were told, to take revenge against Drake and his attack on Cadiz. The upstart Englishman was to be taught a lesson, so the story went, but the small English fleet proved better organised and armed than the Spanish, and sent it packing.

It's a good story, in a 1950s prep school primer sort of way, but a bit disappointing on the history front. The aim of the Spanish invasion of England was, after all, to reverse the Protestant Reformation by force and restore the Catholic church. This may sound a bit dull for the Friday night viewer, but the subsequent history of Europe and the wider world would have been rather different had the Armada not been defeated. The subject of religious war may be delicate these days, but surely this is all the more reason to remember the great conflict that, at the very least, shaped Europe and the Americas.

To its credit, the BBC more than made up for this poor history lesson with a cracking episode of 'Being Human', the gothic soap opera which makes better use of Bristol's charms than 'Skins' or 'Casualty'. It has everything: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, creepy scientists, and a fantastic, atmospheric sense of place.

There's the wonderful old Bristol General Hospital on Bathurst Basin, part of the Bristol City Docks, and Redcliffe Wharf, which is just round the corner. Best of all, the three odd housemates live in Totterdown, a unique hilltop neighbourhood that boasts palm trees and a mosque with an elegant dome, a tremendous set of stone steps that would not look out of place in medieval France and streets that twist and turn as if designed by a builder of mazes on his day off. It's also home to the Totterdown Press.

Scenes for this series were filmed at my kids' school, just a short walk away - another inspired choice of location.

Bristol has a long connection with things gothic or fantastic: there's the connection with Coleridge, and Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey after visiting the Blaise Estate; Angela Carter relished the run-down streets of Clifton and Cliftonwood in the 1960s. The vampires, ghosts and werewolves fit right in.

1 comment:

  1. I started watching "Empire of the Sea" and gave up fairly soon; v much history-lite... what is it with werewolves? -they're everywhere, apparently, including in most of the books that young Katie is reading at the mo; and she was forced (forced, I tell you!) to watch a horror film in an English lesson. O mores.

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