Monday, 26 March 2012

Reviews: White Heat, God Made the English, Explorers of the Nile, Titanic

The TV series White Heat moves forward to the crisis hit Heath government, and IRA bombs on the streets of London. It's easy to forget their "reign of terror" if just on the news, as clips, so just to bring it home, Lily is caught up in an explosion.

America saw the IRA as brave freedom fighters, and it wasn't until Robert McCartney, a Roman Catholic, was deliberately shot by IRA members that the sheer hypocrisy of the movement (i.e. supporting Catholic Ireland) was exposed. McCartney's sisters went to the USA campaigning for justice, and the IRA's support over there was seriously depleted. Their true colours as violence loving thugs masquerading as freedom fighters was exposed.

Elsewhere, Charlie's mother is not taking her medication, as it makes her feel like her brain's in cotton wool, so she goes for a session of ECT Therapy. This is done extremely graphically, as she goes into what is essentially an artificially induced epileptic fit.

A friend of mine was always in and out of St Saviours in Jersey, and would often have sessions of ECT, so I had read up on it in the 1980s, and did not like what I read. It seems likely that the reason for its short-term effectiveness was in part retro-grade amnesia, wiping out chunks of short term memory, so that recent feelings of clinical depression would be erased, rather like wiping a blackboard of chalk.

The trouble was, of course, it didn't deal with underlying causes, and also undoubtedly had long term effects on the brain of the unfortunate person undergoing "treatment". But it certainly was quite a popular treatment here and in the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Lithium was the most widely used drug for mental illness, and I also remember a friend of my sister's called Buzz , who was on that medication, and would sometimes be a little "off the planet" as a result. I think they still have not quite sorted out those problems of maintaining awareness and staving off malfunctions in brain chemistry.

One of the gang has now "come out" as gay, although his family and co-workers at the hospital don't yet know. The 1970s saw the start of a more tolerant society (The Naked Civil Servant aired on TV, based on a real-life story), but the most popular image of someone gay was a very camp and effeminate person, like Larry Grayson or John Innman (Mr Humpreys in Are you Being Served). We now have Civil Partnerships, but homophobia still rears its ugly head from time to time, and religion often feeds into that kind of hatred of the unlike.

"White Heat" is a very good series, and I'm very much enjoying the 1970s concerns and re-creation of the times, although the "framing" story of the present day doesn't really add much to the narrative at the moment.

I was not so pleased with "God Made the English". This week was on tolerance. It was, I felt, a little rushed, and as a result, made a few mistakes.

Diarmaid MacCulloch went to see a European Catholic Catholic procession with banners, music and relics, as an illustration of what it was like in Catholic England before the Reformation, where the religion "spilled out onto the streets". This, he proclaimed, is something not seen in England since the Reformation.

Yet he had only watched "The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon", he could have seen precisely a filmed record of that kind of procession by Catholics in Manchester in the Edwardian era, huge processions with banners and musicians, on the streets, on particular feast days. A correspondent of mine says "They still have Catholic saints day processions in some English
cities, with banners and bands."

The Blood Libel against Jews of the Middle Ages - that they murdered children and babies in their rituals, actually was not, as MacCulloch suggested, an invention of Catholicism, but goes back to Ancient Roman paganism, where it was used as a propaganda weapon against Christians. Later it would be taken over and used against Jews and also against Witches. All this has been well documented from original sources in Norman Cohn's book "Europe's Inner Demons", and it is a pity MacCulloch was not more aware of the roots of this myth. But for all MacCulloch's implication that we live in a more tolerant society, the same kind of myth invaded the minds of social workers and pediatricians with the Satanic Ritual Abuse fantasy of the 20th century. His history has too many Whig tendencies in this respect; it presents the present as a progressive improvement on the past.

When it comes to Catholicism and Queen Mary's burnings of heretics, he doesn't mention that Fox assiduously checked sources for his Book of Martyrs, because there was a real fear of burnings should Catholicism come back. After all 227 men and 56 women had been burnt horribly. The case of the baby being thrown back in the flames is well attested, but in fact it happened in Guernsey - I thought he was perhaps rather too vague about the geography, suggesting it took place in England, when it did not. The Catholic Bailiff of Guernsey threw the baby back into the fire when Perotine Massey gave birth as she was being burnt, saying it was a Protestant baby. But the Channel Island were not noted for tolerance - unlike England until the Civil War, people were regularly hounded as witches and burnt, sometimes alive, whereas in England, they were hanged.

His Indian history seems a little too rushed as well. As far as I was aware, the East India Company was actually opposed to the Protestant Missionary effort, they thought (rightly as the Indian mutiny showed) that it would be damaging to trade. So this TV show is a good fast-paced romp, but not as meticulous as his history of Christianity.

On missionaries, I've been reading "Explorers of the Nile". The explorers - such Livingstone and Stanley - all wanted to map out the geography of the Nile and surrounding rivers and lakes, but also where they could, to stop the slave trade, as well as promoting Christian ideals, and improved economic conditions for the indigenous peoples.

But this slave trade was not Europeans enslaving Africans; indeed, the American slave trade had been extinguished. But Arab slavers still abounded like Hamad bin Muḥammad bin Jumah bin Rajab bin Muḥammad bin Sa'īd al-Murghabī, a Swahili-Zanzibar trader, owner and governor, who worked for a succession of sultans of Zanzibar. By 1895 he had 10,000 slaves, and sold
many on to the Sultans of Zanzibar.

It wasn't until 1870 that the Sultan Sayyid Barghash helped abolish the slave trade in Zanzibar, signing an agreement with Britain in 1870, prohibiting slave trade in his kingdom, and closing the great slave market in Mkunazini.

It is strange that Europe and America receive a good deal of justifiable criticism about their part in the slave trade, but the Arab nations who were just as heavily involved in trafficking, do not. Just as slavery and Christianity could go hand in hand, so too could slavery and Islam.

Titanic last night was a disappointment. Julian Fellowes' mini-series suffers from a lack of epic scale. He's decided to split the action, so that we see the same events unfolding from different perspectives, rather than in historical sequence, so this week the focus was mainly on the toffs and their servants, with a nod to the crew, second class, steerage, and the general staff.

This may work well in the long run, but tonight's episode was decidedly below par. The odd CGI of the ship was really too short to convey the scale of the ship, which meant that when we saw the first class and their servants, there seemed to be only about a dozen or so, with servants.

The ballroom dancing sequences seemed to be taking place in an extremely small ballroom, and the dining area seemed to consist largely of the captain's table and one waiter. There was no vast dining area, no grand staircase, and only one stoker in one engine room shoveling coal when the iceberg hit. It was like a recreation of the Titanic on a ship the scale of the Condor Vitesse.

As a piece of character drama, it wasn't bad, but the class element did come quite strongly in Cameron's version; this didn't really add much. One of the most memorable sequences is when Rose's corset is tightened on her, conveying both the stylish fashions of the day, and also the confining aspects of a woman's station; there was nothing of this here, and corsets were invisible; it was not even apparent they were worn.

A few nods existed to known characters - Benjamin Guggenheim and his mistress, Jack Thayer and his mother, Lightoller and the Captain, but J.J. Astor seems to have been invisible, and the unsinkable Molly Brown has sunk without trace.

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