'The creators of 1066 are clearly worried history is boring. They are taking no risks'
From Dan Snow in 1066 to the Nazis in SSGB and beyond – say ’Allo ’Allo to the history of Great Britain in five TV shows
‘Action historian’ Dan Snow presents 1066: A Year to Conquer England: “Next week he will probably explore what it feels like to hunt and kill a man.”
1066: A Year to Conquer England (Tuesday, BBC2) is a docudrama presented by action historian Dan Snow, a man who can tell you historical facts while doing a forward roll out of a burning car and firing a gun loaded with truth bullets (probably).
So 1066 is a bit mental. It includes historical recreations with ominous countdowns (“286 days to the Battle of Hastings”); regular split-screen effects depicting each of our key historical characters looking angry, worried or hunky (depending on their historical USPs); and halls filled with conniving courtiers soundtracked by exciting electronica (presumably produced by court DJ, Ulf Wickedbeats). It’s heavily influenced by 24.
The creators of 1066 are clearly worried that history is boring. They are taking no risks and have every angle covered. As well as hiring actors and a world-bestriding presenter, they have also forced three hungry academics to argue the case for each of the three kings as they monitor a big interactive computerised battlefield. Then later, another professorial sort examines a document in a Brussels library using a magnifying glass, to the inexplicable sound of funky drums. An executive producer must have come into the edit at that point and said: “Ah jaysus, not books! Anything but books. Add car-chase music.”
The plot? It’s (spoiler alert) 1066. Childless Edward the Confessor is dying and three scowling grouches vie for his throne. There’s Harald Hardrada, a craggy Viking intent on bringing the Scandinavian social model to the UK (in 1066, the Scandinavian social model largely involved axing people to death). There’s Harold Godwinson, a fourth-generation Saxon immigrant and brother-in-law to Edward the Confessor, who has a hipster moustache and totally heard the dying king suggest he, Harold, should be king while nobody else was in the room. Why would he lie?
And then there’s William the Conqueror, who, now that I think about it, may also have a spoiler in his name (spoiler alert: he conquers Britain). He is, like all the best Englishmen, French, and he is also, we’re told, a “bastard”, both in the sense that his parents were unmarried and also in the sense that he had a whole town mutilated for talking smack about his bowl haircut (I’m presuming that’s the reason he had whole town mutilated). William is my favourite. At one point he shakes his fist and cries “Godwinson!” like the affronted boss in a 1970s sitcom.
The subtext is that none of these men should rule Britain. Presenter Dan Snow should. He poses handsomely at the prow of a Viking ship like Harald Hardrada, then zips up an estuary in a speedboat like William the Conqueror. He has cavalry men show him what it’s like to be charged by horses, and then, when he wants to see what it’s like to attack a target on horseback with a sharpened stick, they let him do that too.
Next week he will probably explore what it feels like to hunt and kill a man. And why not? It’s all very educational (if slightly ridiculous). And it’s timely. Depending what set of facts you favour (and these days, you’re allowed choose), it’s either a patriotic origin story for Brexit Britain or a cautionary tale about immigrants stealing British jobs (in the lucrative King industry).
SS-GB shows us another, later invasion of Britain. It’s based on Len Deighton’s counterfactual “What if the Nazis won the war?” novel and is not, as I initially assumed, a remake of 1980s sitcom ’Allo ’Allo. It’s about a London policeman, Douglas Archer (Sam Riley), who finds himself investigating a murder under SS supervision. For the most part, it cunningly reduces the horrors of the second World War to a simple observation: “Isn’t it annoying when you have a new boss?”
And thus, SS-GB manages to make the fictional Nazi occupation of Britain seem less like a human-rights disaster and more like a matter for HR. The show’s creators drape swastikas around London monuments but, unlike ’Allo ’Allo, they show little of the day-to-day life under occupation and merely imply it.
Archer is no beleaguered everyman, unlike Rene in ’Allo ’Allo. This grunting love god (leading men these days all have sinus problems) floats around London’s Nazified incongruously jazz-soundtracked high society, feeling sorry for himself for being a collaborator, seducing a soporifically vague American journalist/spy (she’s no Yvette from ’Allo ’Allo), being coaxed into the resistance movement by three posh Englishmen (not a patch on the British airmen from ’Allo ’Allo) and being taunted by a cartoonish SS officer (who is, alas, no Herr Flick from ’Allo ’Allo). There’s even a character called Spode, but sadly he’s nothing like Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts in the PG Wodehouse stories.
The Nazis are gone in time for the 1960s and Call the Midwife (Sunday, BBC1). It’s still a worthwhile love-letter to the NHS and the post-war social consensus. Despite its reputation as a cosy Sunday-evening escape filled with tearful realisations and the string-accompanied comforts of progressive forward momentum, at its core are the moving realities of childbirth and poverty, and, in this week’s episode, mental illness and female genital mutilation.
All of these stories unfold as its main characters listen to radio reports of the Cuban Missile Crisis. By 1973, in the aptly named Prime Suspect 73 (there’s a prime suspect and it’s set in 1973) everyone has moved on to the Watergate scandal (both crises we’ve become actively nostalgic for since the Trumpocalypse).
Against this backdrop plucky, posh WPC Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) faces crime and sexism and the fact she will one day evolve into Dame Helen Mirren (that will be some episode). The pilot (Thursday, TV3) puts everything in place with little space to breathe, but both Endeavour and The Muppet Babies have proved that period prequels featuring well-established characters can be rich with dramatic possibilities.
The future, or perhaps end times, of Britain is represented in the deranged dating programme Game of Clones (Monday, E4), in which, this week, a young woman named Charlotte designs a perfect mate using a computer programme and then moves into a house with eight identical men, identically dressed (they’re dressed like bespectacled, cap-wearing toddlers, since you asked), who follow her around like a clutch of chicks. The clones, God bless them (if God exists for clones), say things like “I never dwell on the past and every day is a new day. You go to sleep you wake up and it’s a different day!” and “If I had to have a nickname, it would be ‘Clone King’.”
However, they cannot stay in this state of prelapsarian bliss, for Charlotte must choose her consort, and one-by-one, the clones who displease her are “sent home” (possibly a euphemism for “destroyed” or “hunted for sport and educational purposes by Dan Snow”).
She has, by this point, forgotten that she is not a literal mad scientist and as she dispatches the first to Snow’s killing fields, she weeps and says: “I am sending home my own creation.” Yes, it’s absolutely batshit crazy, but no doubt it’s what William the Conqueror would have wanted for that green and pleasant land.