wed 11/12/2019

A Very British Renaissance, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

A Very British Renaissance, BBC Two

A Very British Renaissance, BBC Two

Sections of inspired elucidation let down by sometimes crass script and sound effects

Dr James Fox: narrative gifts dazzle between the daft bits of scriptBBC

The miscellany, a varied collection of works on different topics, was originally a Renaissance concept, an opportunity to bulk up a single volume with a diverse assortment of topics. The concept kept coming back to me, watching this peculiar programme, in places coherent and persuasive, in others curiously perverse, as if form and content had been devised by different people. The concept of a miniseries about the arrival of the Renaissance in Britain and its effect on our damp archipelago is most worthwhile, and presenter Dr James Fox, a young Cambridge don who already has a BAFTA nomination for a previous series, looked a good prospect. Yet the programme was nearly scuppered by an eccentric choice of examples and some misjudged rhetorical flourishes. 

The programme began predictably enough, like the Renaissance, in Italy, with a Lonely Planet-style recapitulation of Michelangelo's David and the Florence Duomo. It was when we got back to Britain that the weirdness began. As Fox trudged through the coastal mud, imagining himself to be one of the continental intellectuals arriving in isolated, backwoods Britain, the soundtracked twanged cowboy-style steel guitar riffs. It was spectacularly crass, and any viewer still dreaming of polyphony and the Duomo will have felt utterly disoriented. Perhaps the cowboys just hid them well, but the wild west was always believed to be rather short of perpendicular Gothic cathedrals and the works of Chaucer.

Unlike the programme’s other European immigrants, Damian was no great intellectual

Fox’s historical scene-setting was also rather hit and miss. “The Renaissance is supposed to have passed Britain by,” Fox assured us. Who supposes that? Fox didn’t say. Broadly understood, the Renaissance is inseparable from the Reformation, which (among other things) depended on the reinvigorated scholarship kicked off by the Renaissance, and led to the Protestant Church, Cranmer’s Bible, the language of Shakespeare, and quite a lot of other things most people who are at all concerned about the Renaissance will be familiar with.

Eventually, when Fox had a sensible story to tell, the programme improved a lot. He began with the stories of a few expert, cultured European arrivals in Britain, who sowed the Renaissance seed. Some of these, such as the painter Hans Holbein, are indisputably important, and Fox’s portrait of the great Swiss-German was expertly sketched. Others, like the section on German sundial craftsman Nicolaus Kratzer, were a curiosity; while the story of John Damian, an Italian alchemist at the court of James IV of Scotland, was simply bizarre.

Dr James Fox

Unlike the programme’s other European immigrants, Damian was no great intellectual. His place in history now mostly rests on his attempt in 1507 to fly from the ramparts of Stirling Castle wearing wings improvised from chicken feathers. He broke his leg. The fact that he wasn’t killed (it’s a long way down) was interpreted by Fox as evidence that his wings must have had some effect, and his leap, the cause of widespread hilarity among his contemporaries, therefore an important event in the history of human flight. (At this point a fat pig also leaped from the ramparts, managing to stay airborne longer than Damian, before declaring the episode a shabby and transparent attempt at Scottish tokenism to justify the “British” in the programme’s title.)

After that, things could only get better. Fox was amusing and engaging on Holbein, Thomas Tallis and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt. The exploration of the stunning Elizabethan house Longleat, the first built following continental models was fascinating, only spoiled - again - by ridiculous choice of music. Why, in a programme arguing for a more accurate understanding of cultural influence, would you play a 19th-century Viennese waltz to illuminate a 16th-century English house in the Italian style?

Let’s hope next week Fox has edited his script better, and set about his audio effects assistant with one of the gruesome instruments of torture that the Renaissance religious community - due a higher profile in weeks to come - spent such ingenuity devising.

Why would you play a 19th-century Viennese waltz to illuminate a 16th-century English house in the Italian style?

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I thought the programme was very good. I am not an intellectual and very much aware of the gaps in my knowledge. I have always been curious and if this series can inspire any one to awaken their thoughts and try to improve their conception of the world it can only be for the good. Well done Dr Fox and thank you.

Thank you Catherine. I too loved the programme and would like a book and DVD to send to my sister (who is English) in Italy and therefore misses out on these wonderful prorammes. However, I cannot find a BBC publication so obviously Dr Fox is not as pushy as Simon Schama whose programmes I also love.

The program confirmed to me the view that somewhere in some dusty corridor of power a few years ago somebody said ‘right chaps, the Jocks are having a referendum soon and we’re playing up the British thing, so every second time we would have said the word ‘English’ before we’ll say ‘British instead’. Don’t worry if it doesn’t make much sense because most people think the words mean the same anyway’. How could any historian claim that generic terms which don’t even make much sense today like ‘British Art’ or ‘British Literature’ made any sense at all in the 15th and 16th century, when the two countries were completely independent? Poor James Fox had to say the most absurd things, like claiming that the reign of Henry VIII saw a period of peace so that ‘British’ art could flourish. It did in England but in Scotland, Henry VIII’s armies were busy pillaging their way through Scotland burning down the monasteries, destroying priceless art. A two minute stint at a misty Stirling Castle did nothing to convince me that this programme was anything but sloppy history with a bit of shoddy contemporary politicising thrown in.

Only got as far as Henry VII's tomb. Was defeated by the totally inappropriate music. Why have it at all? Why doesn't it drive everyone bonkers?

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