The sudden slide from the tranquil Indian summer of the Edwardian age into a state of chaos previously inconceivable is quite the tale, but telling it has always been hard. It’s not only that it’s a complicated story, it’s that much of the work in piecing together what happened was done well after the events themselves, and even when you see these pieces, none of it seems to fit. There is naturally a bias at play – we know where these foolish actions and reactions would end – but even so, believing that supposedly rational human beings in charge of powerful countries could let all this happen, it all seems somehow wrong.
It’s a great credit to the makers of 37 Days that they managed to weave all of this together into a piece of work which pulls these characters into suddenly clear focus – from Ian McDiarmid’s Edward Grey, the sanest man in the room who puts too much faith in the forces of reason, to Rainer Sellien’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, pandered to by competing officials, all keen to make him feel that their plan is his plan.
For UK readers, BBC4 are now re-showing the 2015 series Sound of Song. If you are interested in the history of sound recording and the ways in which changes in technology led to vast changes in popular music in the 20th century (and, as you are reading this, I’m guessing you are interested) then it’s as good a place as any to start. The first episode even features the recording of a new wax cylinder, and a demonstration of the effects of microphones on singing technique. My only criticism is that too much was cut out, but the 100-hour documentary series I would like to see is probably not realistic on current BBC budgets.
These days you can’t move for historical reenactment shows, but back in the heady days of 1999 the concept was new, and hadn’t been swallowed up by the often frustrating enforced narratives and predetermined “journeys” which have now made the subgenre barely watchable. The members of the family tasked with living in 1900 find the experience to be genuinely difficult to take, and come out of it saying quite a bit more than “wasn’t that a fascinating experience.” Life was particularly hard for women in 1900, and the makers of the programme have no hesitation in allowing the unfairness of late Victorian life to play itself out with a minimum of interference.
At the end of August I paid a visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town in Shropshire – mainly as a fun and educational day out for the family, of course, but also because I’ve been watching it as the setting of the BBC historical recreation programme Victorian Pharmacy, the sequel to Victorian Farm.
You might expect the possibilities of a pharmacy to be less than that of a farm, but it was quite the reverse – from medicine and cosmetics to photography and dentistry, the pharmacy functions well as a gateway to exploring almost every social and cultural issue imaginable, and Ruth Goodman is still the most committed and enthusiastic host on TV.
A large part of this project involves immersing myself in the years I’m covering. Later on this will mean I’m able to include audio from films, radio, TV and eventually the internet. For now it means I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries and reading a fair few books. In order to fill some time between main posts (and feel like my time has been spent in some way productively) I’ll be reporting on these here.
The Victorian Farm was the first of the recent series of all-in historical re-enactments, and was a nice, entertaining way to get an idea of what life in this time was like. It also introduced Ruth Goodman, who seems to be in most of these things, and for good reason – her commitment to the concept is so total that I’m tempted to follow her example. All the episodes are on Youtube, but seem to be blocked in certain countries.