Fantastical Histories

History! The name says it all – or so my standard two teacher Mrs O’Neill informed us: His Story, the story of Mankind [we were not much troubled by gender correctness back in the 60s] and we little girls listened enthralled to tales of King Canute getting his feet wet, of Boudicca leading her warriors, and of the beastly beheading of Mary Queen of Scots.

How better to stimulate the imagination than with stories of the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke settlers,  King Charles hiding in an oak tree, Bonnie Prince Charlie [in drag] sailing over the sea to Skye, the opulence and excesses of the courts, and the poverty and degradation of the slums?

But there was always a very strict divide between fact and fiction, and it all became a lot less interesting when politics, constitution, finance and economics came into the play: the  academic study of the subject I once found so compelling proved dry stuff indeed.

I continued with history even as a post-graduate, but the magic was gone – briefly rekindled by the odd historical romance, such as The Three Musketeers or Forever Amber – but those fascinating personalities had been, for the most part, overshadowed by drear treaties, political developments, and egregious economics.

Thanks to television though, history has been given a new lease on life: generations who have never been taught about Rome, or the Slave Rebellion, the Reformation or the Tudors, are suddenly glued to the box, anxious to find out what happens next in these addictive ‘historical’ dramas.

We have series which take facts as their basic flour but add an egging of fantasy, a  sugaring of love, with the spice of sex and scandal,  buttered by evil and intrigue, often coloured by the supernatural, and always well dusted by fabulous fashion, resulting in an irresistible treat only the most piously pedantic could fail to enjoy.

One of the first of these Adults Only [who do they think they are fooling?] offerings was the remarkable Rome. Apparently, it was initially intended to be a multi-seasonal run and although it made only two seasons in the end, what seasons they were!

Classical scholars will recognise the hand of Suetonius in the scandals around Julius and Augustus Caesar: in addition to the story of the fictional characters Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, we learn a bit about Cicero, Mark Antony, Brutus, Cleopatra, Pompey and a host of other real life characters, placed in brutal, sentimental, tragic, erotic or sensational story lines – most often a combination of all the above.

After Rome we have Spartacus: even the death of the actor first playing the lead did not stop this series from going from strength to strength: there certainly was a character called Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator who probably trained in the gladiatorial school of Batiatus and, with Crixus, was elected a leader in the slave rebellion against Rome.

The rest of the lurid details – mainly scandalously sexy – are pure fantasy. Who cares though when it makes such excellent viewing and gives us immortal lines such as the following “Once again, the gods spread cheeks and ram cock in fucking ass!”  Batiatus says it but really, which of us hasn’t felt that way?

And what about the divine Jeremy Irons and The Borgias? Yes, Pope Francis would be hard pressed to enjoy the lifestyle Pope Alexander did in these days of media scrutiny but, like most characters in historical series, the real  Alexander and his family were nothing like as attractive as the actors who portray them in this exciting series.

Now Henry the VIIIth was known as one of the tallest men in Europe in his day. He also became one of the fattest and, as a piggy-eyed ginger with a suppurating sore on his leg which stank so badly it could be smelled rooms away, he was certainly not one of those men who just improved as he got older. Plus he had VD.

But when his life was filmed for a sexy new series, the abnormally short, brown-haired, slight and somewhat gorgeously androgynous Jonathan Rhys- Meyers was chosen to act the role. Even unto death, the Rhys-Meyers’ version of Henry was slim and sexy: bearded, yes, but he kept his hair, with no sign of Henry’s ‘ranga curls.

The home lives of other major characters – notably Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell, Princess Margaret to name a few – are much embellished. To put it mildly.

Then there is the total fantasy Reign: this is a romantic drama/thriller about the early life of Mary Queen of Scots but, other than using the names of real characters, bears almost no relation to reality. Witches, black magic, serial killers, the devilish Papacy, conspiracies, and rampant sexual intrigue make it unmissable.

Something you have to admire about Reign is its compete disregard for historical accuracy: fashions vary from Medieval to Edwardian; Queen Elizabeth the first of England drinks tea from 18th Century China, unwittingly ingesting an abortifacient slipped to her by her closest confidante and advisor, making her miscarry her baby by Robert Dudley.

Reign is great stuff but it looks as though Versailles will be another goodie of a similar kind. Of course it is based around real characters and places but the salacious details and bloody suspense that makes the series so completely addictive are largely fictional.

Really, Donald Trump is more likely to give birth to a black baby than the pious Spanish wife of Louis 14th, the concept of a conspiracy of masked murderers slinking around the Royal court is far-fetched, and although Versailles is outside Paris, it is no so far removed as to be prey to an unscrupulous band of homicidal highwaymen.

War, sex, violence, intrigue, conspiracy, beautiful women, handsome men, good, evil, true love – wonderful stories. They may not be 100% true, or even 30% true, but they have put the magic, the imagination, and the story back into History. Thank you, television.

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