Friday, April 12, 2024

The Trojan War: Myth and history?


The so-called 'Mask of Agamemnon', a gold funerary mask from Mycenae, c. 1550-1500 BCE, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. It depicts a flattened bearded male face, with his eyes closed.
I have a new blog post up on the MANCENT blog, about the 'history' behind the Trojan War. This is to do with my upcoming course on The Trojan War, for which you can book tickets here.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Screening Britannia: Horrible Histories: The Movie - Rotten Romans

Four Roman officers, of various levels of seniority, around a map table, in front of a large white tent.
Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans
. UK. Directed by Dominic Brigstocke. Screenplay by Jessica Swale with Giles Pilbrow and Caroline Norris. Starring Emilia Jones, Sebastian Croft, Nick Frost, Craig Roberts, Kate Nash, Rupert Graves, Alex Macqueen, Lee Mack, Warwick Davis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Alexander Armstrong, Chris Addison, Derek Jacobi, Kim Cattrall, and Rattus Rattus. Amazon, Ingenious, Silver Reel, BBC Films, Attitude Film Entertainment, Citrus Films, Scholastic Entertainment Inc., Lion Television. 2019.

I showed this to my Roman Britain students at the end of 2022, and again at the end of last year. The first time, they had asked for The Eagle, but I could find neither my own copy not that of the university library (both have since turned up). They nevertheless enjoyed this replacement, as did I. 

Horrible Histories, for those who don’t know, originated as a series of humour books detailing the funnier and grosser elements of history for an audience of children. It became a successful television comedy series for children, and then in 2019 a movie. Interestingly, the movie relies less on the regular TV cast, who are mostly in background roles, if there at all; instead, it turns more to stars who have been brought in for this occasion – the biggest coup is Hollywood's Kim Cattrall, but there's also Lee Mack, Rupert Graves, etc. (And even, in a small role, Ncuti Gatwa; truth be told, he’s a bit anonymous in his role as a legionary, but in the behind-the-scenes feature, star quality pours out of him.)

The topic chosen for this movie is Roman Britain, specifically the revolt of Boudica in 60/61 CE. It’s quite a bold move to treat the Boudica story as a comedy. Unless one is to count a brief mention of her in Carry on Cleo, the only other all-out comedic treatment I am aware of is an episode of the TV Horrible Histories called ‘Bolshy Boudica’ (2015), where the Iceni Queen is played by Lorna Watson (the one of Watson and Oliver who didn’t get to be on Doctor Who), from which this naturally recycles some material, but surprisingly little (and which I really need to watch again). Other than that, the most light-hearted portrayal is in an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (‘The Deliverer’, one of the grimmer Xena eps).[1]  Other versions tend to be extremely bloody and violent, and wallow in the nastier elements of the story. 

As a consequence of being a comedy, and even more as a consequence of being made for children, albeit for children expected to revel in the grosser parts of history, some of the more horrific moments in the story are toned down here. There’s no room for the rape of Boudica’s daughters, nor is the battle of Watling Street the bloodbath that Tacitus describes, though, from a distance, we do see lots of dead bodies lying about. Rather than dying in battle (the common cinematic outcome) or taking her own life (Tacitus’ account), Kate Nash’s Boudica quietly slips away when it’s obvious that the battle is lost. There is then a reconciliation song-and-dance number between Britons and Romans. (Oh yes, this is a musical, drawing upon styles as diverse as modern rap and Celtic folk.)

Elsewhere, the violence of the revolt is touched upon, but skirted around. Colchester is seen in flames, as is London (from a distance), whilst the destruction of St Albans is merely mentioned. None of the violence in the narratives of the ancient sources is depicted; you don't see any civilians being slaughtered. Nor is there the common link into the English folk horror tradition that Boudican stories often have, because the role of the Druids is very much reduced here. They are present, fought by Rupert Graves’ Suetonius Paulinus, and all looking like refugees from an Eisteddford (though fighting like ninjas). But they are only seen at Anglesey. There are no Druids around the court of Boudica herself, as there often are in movie versions (see, for example, 1927’s Boadicea, 1967’s The Viking Queen, and 2002’s Boudica). 

Other than that, a lot of standard elements of the Boudica story do make their way in. It is the avarice of Catus Decianus (Alexander Armstrong) that provokes the revolt. A common issue in these productions is the fact that, even in these post-imperial days, a British audience wants to identify both with Boudica, as a British heroine and proto-Elizabeth I, and with the Romans, since there’s a long tradition of the Britons seeing themselves as heirs of the Romans. It is common to negotiate this divide through the provision of bad Romans, who provoke the revolt, and much more sympathetic good Romans, who try to avoid conflict, and only very reluctantly take part in the battle. Here, the good Roman is Attilius Minus, known as Atti, played by Sebastian Croft in a performance that owes more than a little to that of Tom Rosenthal in Plebs. The bad Romans are Decianus, Nero (Craig Roberts), and Agrippina the Younger (Kim Catrall, relishing the opportunity to do some serious scenery-chewing). 

Another standard device is to have a romance that crosses the divide between Roman and Briton; Boadicea and The Viking Queen both do this, and so does Horrible Histories, with Atti falling for precocious villager Orla (Emilia Jones); the difference here being that Atti and Orla’s romance has a happy outcome, culminating in the big song-and-dance number that unites Britons and Romans. Also, because the characters are young adults, the romance never gets much beyond them being BFFs. (A thing I have recently come to notice in screen stories of Roman Britain is the preponderance of child or young adult protagonists; fully understandable here, but also to be found in Britannia and other productions aimed at a more adult audience.) 

Like most comedies set in the ancient world, a lot of the jokes rely on the placing of modern stereotypes and situations into ancient dress. So, for instance, the build up to the Battle of Watling Street is presented as if it were a modern sporting event, whilst there are also ancient traffic reports by Chris Addison, where the eye-in-the-sky is merely up a tree. But there are a surprising number of gags that seem aimed at an older audience. Rupert Graves’ Suetonius Paulinus talks about himself in the third person, much as Julius Caesar does in his Commentaries. There’s a marvellous moment in which it becomes obvious that the person impersonating Derek Jacobi’s classic turn as Claudius is in fact Jacobi himself. Lee Mack's character, Decimus Maximus (albeit that his full name is, I think, never stated on screen, only in the behind-the-scenes feature), is surely meant to recall Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator. I also suspect that the sequence where Atti is in search of gladiator’s sweat, whilst being one of the ‘weird but true’ facts on which Horrible Histories prides itself, perhaps also owes something to the mare’s sweat running gag in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. And there is more than one call back to Life of Brian. All of this raises the question that Movies We Dig brings up in their episode devoted to this movie; who is it actually for, given not everything is aimed at children?

There are also some of the standard jokes about the remoteness of Britain. Nero initially thinks that the outline of Britain on the map was actually a weird stain, and refers to Britain as ‘the stain’ for the rest of the movie. And of course some soldiers form the testudo, because they always have to in Roman movies.

I like the movie much more than Movies We Dig do, but they do raise some legitimate issues. They make the interesting point that the movie has difficulty negotiating the transition from a sketch show to a longer narrative. The selling point of Horrible Histories was the weird bits of real history displayed in a funny fashion, and the educational element of the show was always underlined by telling the audience which bits were true. There’s hardly any of that commentary here, just a couple of brief segments at the end where the sources for Boudica's death are mentioned, and some stuff about Agrippina and Nero. A lot of other examples, such as Sycophantus (Alex MacQueen) explaining to Nero that one cannot crucify Roman citizens, and that sewing someone in a sack with a snake, a dog, a rooster, and a monkey and throwing them in the Tiber is the punishment for killing one’s own father, are only really noticeable if you're attuned to Horrible Histories' way of presenting this sort of material. (It’s perhaps also worth noting Horrible Histories can be a bit imprecise when it comes to the things that are true. For instance, there is a reference to dogs licking wounds being a recognised medical technique, which it was, but as far as I can find out this was the case in the Greek and Roman worlds, whereas here it is attributed to the Celts.) 

Another point Movies We Dig make is how traditional this all is. The final song is essentially all about how, in the end, the Roman occupation of Britain is a good thing, because of all the benefits it brings, even if some concessions to the essential brutality of Roman rule are made. This is very much the mid-twentieth century picture of Romanisation. Equally traditionally, the Britons are universally referred to as Celts, a term that has rather gone out of fashion amongst archaeologists, though popular television programmes still use it. But, as Gideon Nisbet said a long time ago, popular culture remains very firmly rooted in ideas that most academics abandoned a long time ago.

Nevertheless, I still like this movie, and would recommend to to anyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about Roman Britain on screen, I’m running a course from mid-January. 

[1] About which I have a chapter coming out this year.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Obituary for John M. Burns.

A page of John M. Burns comics, for The Bionic Woman.
There's a new post by me (with a little help from Will Morgan) on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for John M. Burns.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

My Spring 2024 MANCENT teaching

A group of Roman legionaries determinedly marching up a hill, led by Lee Mack as a centurion. The Fifteenth Doctor is somewhere at the back.
I'm repeating my Mancent online course on Screening Britannia from this January. Anybody who fancies joining, you can sign up through Eventbrite. Anyone who pays the full course fee will get the recordings. Alternatively, you can book for individual sessions here

I'm also doing a London mythology walk for MANCENT, going down Pall Mall and towards Victoria. 

And finally, another walk I'm doing for MANCENT is a visit to Roman Colchester

 MANCENT's full Spring 2024 prospectus can be found here.

New post on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for Ian Gibson


There's a new post by me on FA-The Comiczine: An obituary for Ian Gibson

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Journey Planet with a photo-essay by me

The corner of Mitre Square, City of London.
There's a new Journey Planet out, on Jack the Ripper in fiction. It includes a photo-essay by me on Ripper locations, then and now. This is, I think, the first time I've been in JP since the Arthurian issue in 2021. 

Thursday, December 07, 2023

Doctor Who comics reviews

Cover of Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Anthology, with the Fourth Doctor and scenes from the comics. Credits: Pat Mills, John Wagner, Steve Moore, Steve Parkhouse, Dave Gibbons, Mike McMahon
So I had a series of reviews of Doctor Who comics published on The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide this week. The big one is The Fourth Doctor Anthology. This contains 'Doctor Who and the Star Beast', the basis for the first of the 60th Anniversary specials. Also: the 1986 Summer Special, which reprints 'Doctor Who and the Iron Legion'; Doctor Who Classics Volume 1, which includes most of the Mills and Wagner strips in colour; Doctor Who Classics Volume 2, which is mostly Steve Moore scripts, with Dave Gibbons artwork; Doctor Who: Dave Gibbons Collection, which brings together all of Dave Gibbons' work on Doctor Who, covering the Fourth and Fifth Doctors; and finally, The Tides of Time, which collects all of the Peter Davison/Fifth Doctor comics stories.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Doctor Who, 'The Eaters of Light'


A painted Pictish Warrior and Bill Potts pointing swords at the viewer and shouting.
Doctor Who, 'The Eaters of Light' (UK, dir. Charles Palmer, scr. Rona Munro, starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, and Matt Lucas, BBC, 2017)

Roman Britain is one of the historical periods that is fairly central to the British imagination, so one might have expected Doctor Who to have visited there quite a bit. But, as I argue in a piece in the latest Terrible Zodin, Doctor Who, at least in its early years, went out of its way to avoid the obvious historical periods. It is true Malcolm Hulke, co-writer of the successful Target Luna/Pathfinders sf serials for ITV, submitted an outline for a serial set in Roman Britain (referred to as 'Britain 408 AD', a purely descriptive title), which at one point was planned to be the sixth serial in the first season. But even that avoided the standard periods for Roman Britain on screen (which I discuss here), instead setting itself in 408 CE (or 400 according to a summary David Whitaker wrote in September 1963), at the end of Roman Britain. When the final years of Roman Britain do appear on screen, they are generally connected to the reign of King Arthur (who will then be treated as a historical figure), but David Whitaker's summary of Hulke's story makes no mention of Arthur. In any case, Whitaker changed his mind about this serial, feeling it was overcomplicated, with an ending too like that of 'An Unearthly Child' (the full story), and instead commissioned Hulke to write up another submission, 'Hidden Planet', about a duplicate Earth the other side of the Sun. This was in turn abandoned in 1964. Hulke resubmitted 'Britain 408 AD' in 1965, for the second season, but it was rejected by new script editor Dennis Spooner, because by this point the programme had already made 'The Romans', and Spooner didn't want to repeat himself. (Hulke would have to wait until the Patrick Troughton era and 'The Faceless Ones' for an onscreen credit.)

Over much of the show's existence, Roman Britain was something only vaguely alluded to. The Doctor and his companions are thought to be from Britannia in 'The Romans' (1964), because Vicki and Barbara are overheard talking about London/Londinium. Similarly, in 'The Fires of Pompeii' (2008) Donna is thought to be Celtic/Welsh when she tries to speak Latin. You could argue that the Romans who menace the Doctor at the end of Episode Two and beginning of Episode Three of 'The War Games' (1969) are in Britain - it's not stated, and the zones in 'The War Games' are from conflicts from all over the planet, but the sequence was filmed in Sussex (the Doctor says the Roman time zone was 2,000 years ago, which would rule out Britain, but it's not clear whether he is being precise, and whether he means that in relation to 1917, the time zone from where they crossed over). In 'The Stones of Blood' (1978) the Doctor makes reference to having read Caesar and Tacitus on the Druids when discussing Druidism with sect leader De Vries. And in Battlefield (1989), the Doctor gets mixed up with post-Roman Arthurian legends, though suggesting that they had their origins in the eighth, rather than fifth or sixth centurires.

But the first actual definite television visit of the Doctor to Roman Britain is in 'The Pandorica Opens' (2010), where the Doctor meets River Song at Stonehenge in 102 CE. Even this doesn't engage closely with the typical periods of Roman Britain on screen, and has to be treated as one of the outliers, along with things like Chelmsford 123. The typical periods have been engaged with by non-television Who; so audio adventure 'Wrath of the Iceni' takes place at the time of the Boudican revolt (and is a fully-fledged 'pure' historical, with no aliens interfering with history), and another audio, 'Living History', takes place during Julius Caesar's invasion (a rare non-comedic treatment of Caesar's landing, perhaps due to the presence of a Dalek).

All of which is an excessively-long preamble to talking about 'The Eaters of Light', the point at which Doctor Who most closely engages with the tropes of Roman Britain. It engages with the supposed 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion. As you may know, there are essentially two theories about what happened to the Ninth. Theodor Mommsen suggested that it was destroyed in some battle in the north of Britain. The discovery in the twentieth century of evidence suggesting that part of the Ninth was present in Nijmegen until c. 120 CE called Mommsen's theory into question (and it's hard to believe that, had he known of the Nijmegen material, he would have ever come up with the idea in the first place), so while the disappearance of the Ninth in Britain continued to fuel popular culture in the form of Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, or the 2010 movie Centurion, the scholarly consensus rejected the notion. However, in recent years, scholars such as Miles Russell, Neil Faulkner, Nick Hodgson and Simon Elliott have come out in favour of the Mommsen idea.

Interestingly, Rona Monro has the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) take different sides of the argument - Bill, who did a school project on the Ninth, believes that they left, whilst the Doctor says they were wiped out. The Doctor is, of course, proved right, though, being a modern Doctor Who story, they were destroyed by an alien menace.

Ninth Legion stories are often connected with Hadrian's Wall, but not here. The location of the action is moved to somewhere near Aberdeen (far further north than most people think the Ninth might have penetrated). But that location, as Juliette Harrisson has observed, allows the episode to be a love letter to Scotland, from where star, showrunner and writer all hail (though Monro is the native of the Granite City, Capaldi and Steven Moffat coming from Glasgow and Paisley respectively). A series of standard Scottish jokes about the weather are trotted out ('It's Scotland. It's supposed to be damp.'); but these also fit a standard trope of Roman Britain, where it rains all the time. Another standard trope of Roman Britain is its remoteness from the rest of the empire; here this can be linked to the perceived remoteness of Scotland from the rest of Britain. 

Other standard trope are to be seen. The Picts around Aberdeen (Picts are actually anachronistic for the second century) all have their faces painted. There is a Boudica equivalent in teenager Kar. The use of child protagonists is also something I have realised is to be seen a lot in Roman Britain tales.

And then there's folk horror (here, I am in considerably sympathy with Louis Bayman and K.J. Donnelly, who argue in the introduction to their edited collection on Folk Horror On Film that the defining characteristic of folk horror is that the horror arises from the people, customs and practices of the folk themselves, rather than anything outside that). Who has, of course, engaged with folk horror on many occasions, starting with 'The Dæmons' in 1971, continuing through 'The Stones of Blood' and 'The Awakening' (1984), through to more recent fare such as 'Human Nature'/'Family of Blood' (2007, directed by the same man who does the job here). So, much of 'Eaters of Light' takes place in dark woods, and though the threat is external, it is bound up in the Picitish traditions. Nobody mentions Druids, but there is a stone circle and a cairn, the Devil's Cairn, in fact (a name with echoes of Devil's End from 'The Dæmons').   

There is also a great deal to enjoy and appreciate. The Roman survivors are ethnically mixed, as they might well have been. They have names like 'Cornelius' and 'Lucius'. Which are the sort of names screenwriters give randomly to Romans, but they are actually the sorts of names, citizens' names, that members of a legion would have. That Bill is considered a bit weird not for being a lesbian, but for not being bisexual is a nice moment, though I'm not sure how rooted it is in Roman social mores. But I did enjoy the callback to the speech of Calgacus from Tacitus' Agricola: 'They make deserts and they call it peace.'

The Doctor claims to have lived in Roman Britain, to have 'governed, farmed, juggled', all presumably in adventures not seen on screen (but perhaps even now being written for Big Finish). He also claims to have been a Vestal Virgin, second class. Given that this is before it had been established that the Doctor had been a woman in the past, one wonders precisely what is meant by that. 

In general, there is a lot of food for thought in this episode. The main issue with it is that, like much of modern Who, the story doesn't really have time to breathe properly. It could have done with a second episode.

Writing about Doctor Who

There's a new issue of The Terrible Zodin out. I have a piece in it on history in the first season of the show, and contribute to sixty great things about Doctor Who (with a series of answers that are very '70s-centric).

And while we're on the subject of Doctor Who, I also have a piece in the upcoming volume 6 of Vworp Vworp!, which you can pre-order here. (My piece, which didn't make the highlights list, is on the history behind the Stone Age episodes of 'An Unearthly Child'.)