Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’…

Jonathan Willis

Early modern history has done pretty well out of the BBC lately. Earlier this year, in late May and early June, there was a season of programmes (apparently 5 documentaries constitute a ‘season’) based around the Tudor Court. We had an interesting and quite adventurous treatment of The Last Days of Anne Boleyn, which made the brave decision not to give top billing to a single authoritative historical narrator, or wrap up its argument with neat historical conclusions, but instead featured a real diversity of opinions from half a dozen historians and historical novelists. Diarmaid McCulloch presented a view of Thomas Cromwell which, while at first glance appearing to owe much to GR Elton, also contained a few tantalising hints of the major new biography he is working on (and which I for one am very much looking forward to reading). Thomas Penn told the story of Henry VII, Winter King, and Ian Mortimer presented a Time-Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. And finally, Melvyn Bragg made the case for William Tyndale as The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England in appropriately evangelical mode, in a strange piece of film which was shot like an episode of the late-lamented popular BBC spy drama, Spooks.
spooks002These documentaries were accompanied by re-runs of the Showtime series, The Tudors (which I don’t intend to dissect here!), and all in all I think that this sort of documentary interest in the period is, in the immortal words of Sellar and Yeatman, A Good Thing. Another recent onscreen foray into Tudor England has been conducted by David Starkey, in his four-part series Music and Monarchy, which began airing on 20 July and finished on Saturday 10 August: UK residents can still catch it on iplayer. Entitled ‘Crown and Choir’, the first episode looked at ‘royal music’ in England from Henry V to the death of Elizabeth I. I have to say, that as a historian who has written a fair amount about sixteenth century music, I had somewhat mixed feelings about watching this documentary. I like the fact that the history of music is something that people (and documentary-makers) seem to be increasingly interested in: in recent years the BBC has also given us Sacred Music and Howard Goodall’s Story of Music, both of which were interesting pieces of television. But music and monarchy? Starkey is of course primarily an historian of elites, and of court culture. But (and I hope that, given the recent online symposium on history from below, I am preaching largely to the converted) the story of music in the sixteenth century is so much more interesting than that, in terms of the broader role it played in popular culture and religion. david-starkey_2622826b

On balance, watching this first episode of Music and Monarchy I was pleasantly surprised. Starkey, for all his controversy and confrontational style as a commenter on current affairs, is a compelling and captivating storyteller, and it’s pretty clear that he is passionately interested in his subject. The tone strikes about the right balance: it isn’t overly simplified or patronising, and neither is it loaded with too much technical jargon. Occasionally Starkey allows his effusiveness about the music to cloud what could be a more rigorous analysis, but this is popular TV, not an academic lecture. He talks to a small number of musicians and academics, including the multi-talented David Skinner, and includes lots of long, sumptuous performances of pieces of early music in the venues in which they were (or at least in which they could possibly have been) performed. All in all then, this documentary too, to my surprise, is probably A Good Thing. Except… For 50 minutes of ‘Crown and Choir’ I broadly enjoyed what I was watching. But for the last 10, I pulled out my hair, and if my train carriage had had opening windows I might have thrown the iPad I was watching out of one of them. This is for two main reasons.

Bad Thing #1. In large part, the interplay between music and monarchy (and religion) was dealt with well, but in the final ten minutes what had functioned quite successfully as a lens turned suddenly into a pair of blinkers. Elizabeth I saved church music, we were told (partly right), but not only that, she did it singlehandedly, solely by maintaining a chapel royal of equivalent musical magnificence to her father, Henry VIII. Inside it, Elizabeth composed for herself a warm and dazzling sacred oratorio; beyond her chapel was merely a cold and frosty Protestant wasteland. Now that is just plain wrong. Even if we leave aside the complex musical picture in the Elizabethan parish church, which may well have still contained an organ, a choir, or at least a couple of paid singers, what about the musical livings she preserved elsewhere, and the university college and cathedral choirs up and down the country? True the chapel royal was probably the best resourced choir in Elizabethan England, but its musical reputation was maintained in part by poaching singers and composers from other musical establishments, such as the composer and organist William Byrd from Lincoln Minster.

Bad Thing #2. Where the parish church was briefly mentioned, it was as a cold, austere, whitewashed box, devoid of all visual and oral ornament. Cue a group of aged parishioners slowly and tunelessly droning out the ‘Old Hundredth’, a musical oxymoron; ‘all people than on earth do dwell, sing to the lord with cheerful voice’! That, Starkey observed, was as good as it got: the best that the man in the street (or at least the parish church) could aspire to. Again, leaving aside the complexity of the parish situation, which I would characterise as a vibrant and amorphous fusion of traditional and innovatory musical forms, the problem with this sort of approach is that it harks back to an outdated musicological approach that equated musical ‘quality’ with historical significance. Congregational metrical psalmody might not be the sort of music that features on the glossy CDs produced by modern choirs like the Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars, but that does not mean that it lacked value or importance (interestingly, the bibliography of the book that accompanies the series references rather dated literature on this topic, such as Temperley’s 1979 Music of the English Parish Church). For the first time, ordinary men and women were invited to play an active and participatory role in parish church worship, by joining in and singing praises together in one resounding voice. Starkey even misses a trick here in terms of his focus on music and monarchy. Such was the popularity and success of congregational song, that in the 1570s the government produced a series of metrical anthems, to be sung to familiar tunes to the glory of both God and the Queen. These works were most obviously to be sung on the ‘Crownation Day’ celebrations of 17 November, and far more people sang them than ever even heard Byrd’s beautiful motet, O Lord, let thy servant, Elizabeth. The reason that the vernacular sacred oratorios of Handel proved so popular in the eighteenth century, one might surmise, is at least in part because by that point the English had been singing themselves Protestant for the best part of two centuries. The reformation had effectively turned every parish church into a choir, albeit often a not very good one.

I don’t feel professionally qualified to comment on the rest of the series, and anyway this is supposed to be a blog, not a monograph. I’m now three-quarters of the way through, and broadly I think that his perspective is an interesting one, and that the documentary is a Good Thing – it might even inspire some people to find out more. But just as the story of popular religious music cannot be told without paying some attention to the interventions of kings and queens, so the musical legacy of kings and queens cannot be properly told without paying some attention to popular reception. And ‘reception’ in this context should not be envisaged as a passive process, but as a means by which people helped to shape the Protestant nation of which they themselves were part.

11 thoughts on “Tudor history on TV, and a partial review of David Starkey’s ‘Music and Monarchy’…

  1. Great post Jonathan, although I am still not sure I could bring myself to stomach Starkey! It is a troubling thought though – when you are watching a TV series which seems to be quite well informed, then it comes to the period you specialise in and trots out a tired and outdated argument based on work from the 1970s. At that point I usually start to wonder about how well researched the rest of the programme is likely to be. Although I suppose fundamentally it is still great that history is getting an airing, so we shouldn’t moan too much.

    • Thanks Laura! I do know what you mean. It’s a bit like historical fiction, either in books or on film: it’s often much easier to enjoy something more remote from the area you work on, and where you have a bit of critical distance from the subject matter. And you’re exactly right – I’m sure there are problems with other parts of the series too (eighteenth-century opera experts, by all means pitch in here!). I think the problem here isn’t so much poor research though, as willful blindness. By that, I mean that Starkey tries to create an overarching meta-narrative, in which initially musical dynamism is centred on the Chapel Royal. The decline of the Chapel in the C18th is used to explain the talent vacuum in English music between Purcell and the late Victorian revival – Handel of course being a German import – and the founding of the Royal College of Music is the catalyst for the English musical renaissance of the late C19th and early C20th. It therefore doesn’t suit Starkey’s argument to acknowledge that there were other important centres of musical expertise, let along a vibrant popular tradition. It’s the choirs that were resurrected by the Oxford movement that are important for Starkey, not Calvinist metrical psalmody or even the hymns of Wesleyan methodism (which doesn’t get a single mention). There was an interesting article on Ireland in the Guardian the other day, about how history students will no longer tolerate or believe grand narratives. It’s good that this documentary got made, but it’s a shame that it sacrificed accuracy in some respects to peddle its own grand narrative, when there are alternatives available (such as the Anne Boleyn doc. I mentioned at the start). Moan over!

      • Thanks Jonathan – I really like the sound of this Anne Boleyn documentary, which, as you say, seems much better suited to showcasing what the discipline of academic history is about, rather than the sole narrator model, I will have to look it out. It actually sounds a bit like a play I was involved with at Hampton court a few years ago. Set during the last few months of Boleyn’s life, it was an ‘immersive’ production, where the audience chose to follow one of four courtiers around the court as the performance unfolded. I thought it was fantastic, because each section of the audience was therefore presented with a different interpretation of events depending on which historical actor they chose to follow. The writers and performers worked closely with academics from the outset of production, so it was not only collaborative, but also conveyed a real sense of the competing interpretations that make up the stuff of academic debate. The courtiers chosen allowed for some interesting perspectives – Anne’s brother and uncle enabled the exploration of some more standard fare on early modern government, but Jane Seymour and the Queen’s physican William Butts broadened the scope of the play to gender and medical history. Such innovative work is surely a great way to capitalise on the appeal of all things Tudor, whilst inviting the audience to explore the broader cultural context. Much more satisfying than the grand narratives, which The Tudors and the ‘Elizabeth’ blockbusters have surely got covered already?

  2. I enjoyed your post Jonathan. Since I don’t really know much about music during this period it was interesting to read your analysis of the programme, especially because I started to watch it but ended up (as usual) put off by Starkey himself.
    I’m working on a couple of post-Restoration female writers and in the course of my research came across some records of professional actors performing in a local church in 1575, 1580 and 1590. I wondered if you had any views about the connection between the strength of music in parish churches at this time and the strength of drama? Traditional narratives of the development of drama seem to echo those of music – that there was nothing interesting going on outside the court and London. This has been overhauled in recent years, but the importance of Elizabeth I in encouraging drama, stealing the best actors for her own Company and so on is still emphasised over the role of groups in the provinces and the existence of drama after her reign.

    • Thank you for the comment Kate, that’s a really interesting parallel. I’ve blogged elsewhere on the ‘monster about how brilliant the REED volumes are, and one thing they do without a shadow of doubt is establish the vibrancy of provincial drama, in a similar way to what Bob Tittler’s brilliant book on provincial portraiture does for painting. In other words, you’re exactly right: we’ve inherited a tradition that England outside of London (and particularly the court) was a cultural wasteland, and we are only now beginning to find out how wrong that is! In musical terms, it’s true that cutting edge developments are mostly happening within or rapidly appropriated by the capital, but throughout the country there is a distinctive and vibrant culture of practice based around what ordinary people actually like.

    • Thanks Mark, that’s a really interesting insight into some of the issues that academic documentary makers have to deal with. In a programme about music, the issue is even more acute (to some extent I’ve grappled with the same issue in undergraduate lectures), because the more time you spend listening to the ‘source material’, the less time there is to say anything interesting about it!

  3. I think you have really got to the heart of some issues with TV history here, Jonathan. I haven’t seen the Boleyn programme or Starkey’s on music, but from what I’ve heard they tie in with some things which tend to trouble me about TV history shows. One is, of course, the single-voice narrative, but as far as I know at second hand, the Boleyn programme mostly featured popular historical novelists and Starkey (who is rather dubious in my opinion), though perhaps academics were involved behind the scenes? There’s nothing wrong with that except that these are already well-known people, with their opinion easily accessible. Though even when academics do present shows, they also often go for a dramatic narrative, like Diarmad MacCulloch’s on Cromwell (shameless plug – I reviewed it on my blog here http://wp.me/p3jQZG-Z).

    Perhaps I’m unduly critical (and out on a limb when I haven’t seen the shows!), and I realise TV has to pitch to a variety of audiences, but I think that programmes should do more not just to bring in debate, but also to bring in expert voices who do not already have a mass platform in the way Starkey and successful novellists do. I’d also like to see evidence given a more prominent place in TV shows. Otherwise we get the same stories (usually about elites) told by the same people.

    Of course, Mary Beard is the exception who shows us how it should be done!

    • Richard, thank you for this perspective, and for the link to your blog – shameless or not, I enjoyed reading what you had to say about the Cromwell documentary! I was surprised when watching it just how much MacCulloch chose to stress the ‘popular’ perception of ‘Cromwell the thug’ – it seemed much too much like a straw man. I might have been in this game too long, but for me the portrait of Cromwell which is most in need of critical dissection is the one provided by GR Elton during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and as I suggested in my blog MacCulloch himself seemed to be towing quite an Eltonian line at times. In addition, as your blog points out, popular perceptions of Cromwell today are probably being most powerfully shaped by the very sympathetic portrait drawn by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. As you suggest, there was a tension between the overall narrative of that documentary, which felt rather forced at times, and MacCulloch’s very insightful approach to particular situations or pieces of evidence. It’s hard to tell whether that dissonance was inherent in the documentary though, or just something that we as historians create for ourselves!

      On the Boleyn programme, it certainly wasn’t perfect (and I have to say Anne Boleyn herself has something of the snooze factor as far as I’m concerned!). It did one of the things I most hate in historical documentaries – that is, having modern actors acting out key scenes in character. The device used in the MacCulloch documentary, of bringing to life and animating original drawings and woodcuts, was much more imaginative, interesting and effective. But at least in featuring a chorus of voices, it did row back from presenting a simplified narrative, or from seeming to argue against a straw man. The contributors were Greg Walker, George Bernard, Susannah Lipscombe, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Alison Weir and David Starkey. I have a few issues with that roll call – most significantly, I think that giving the novelists almost equal billing with the academics is rather problematic: one or (at most) two would probably have sufficed! Even so, some of them – Bernard, Walker – are serious figures in this area, and not at all ubiquitous when it comes to this sort of programme,

      Trying to draw this together, I agree with you that Mary Beard is a fantastic example (I really enjoyed her recent piece on Caligula). That documentary presented a compelling narrative, but one which wasn’t afraid to admit to where there were gaps, either of evidence or interpretation. Mind you, bearing Laura’s comment in mind, a classicist will probably come along now and tell me how dreadful it was!

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