Charles I on the Television

Friday, 8 November 2019

A website reader has sent in an alert about a recent-ish documentary series looking at Charles I and the conflict with Pym in parliament in December 1641 and January 1642. ‘Charles I: Downfall of a King’ is a three-part series of 50 minute episodes was shown on BBC4 in July 2019. Look out for it in your area if you have an outlet which has BBC content. The presenter is Lisa Hilton and the historical consultant is Leanda de Lisle. It has the usual quantity of silly period costume re-enactments required of modern productions, and more than enough of presenter as TV star which proves to be unconvincing, but some interesting visits to important sites assist in telling the story. These programs do not come around very often and will be worth three hours of your time. Leanda de Lisle is a journalist turned popular historian and she has written several ‘easy reading' history books, the most recent being a 2018 biography of Charles I called 'White King: The Tragedy of Charles I’. She describes the book as a story about “...a brave king who, like the tragic heroes of Greek myth, falls not because of wickedness, but human flaws and misjudgements”. With these topical credentials the producer of this documentary - Catrin L. Evans - engaged her to check the facts in the script. The BBC publicity describes Lisa Hilton as an historian which rather under-rates her talent. She is as much a novelist, journalist and librettist as a writer of history. Quite a CV.

It is a complicated fifty days of politics and necessarily there is much simplification with the story told as a conflict between two men. Television can’t do what a written narrative can achieve, but it’s a worthy attempt and it does turn the story of those two months into exciting viewing. The series is punctuated by interviews with popular and academic historians as well as cultural commentators to bolster the narrative with expert opinion. This includes Leanda de Lisle, Dominic Pearce (Henrietta Maria’s biographer), Dr. Jonathan Healey from University of Oxford, Dr. Alasdair Raffe from University of Edinburgh, Professor Justin Champion from Royal Holloway University of London, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer from Trinity College University of Dublin, Professor Joad Raymond of Queen Mary College University of London, broadcaster and writer Anthony Adolph, and Desmond Shawe-Taylor from The Royal Collection Windsor. Gone are the days when the BBC could produce brilliant documentaries with voice and still images (Armada from 1988 for example) but this is about as good as we can expect on television in the modern era.