sat 24/08/2019

Charles I: Downfall of a King, BBC Four review - beheaded monarch upstaged by exotic presenter | reviews, news & interviews

Charles I: Downfall of a King, BBC Four review - beheaded monarch upstaged by exotic presenter

Charles I: Downfall of a King, BBC Four review - beheaded monarch upstaged by exotic presenter

Decadence, pomp and popery prove fatal to the Stuart court

Presenter Lisa Hilton at the Tower of London

“I want to discover how our government could fall apart and the country become bitterly divided in just a few weeks,” historian Lisa Hilton announced at the start of her BBC Four account of the traumatic demise of Charles I. In a mere 50 days in 1641-2, it seemed that the foundations of the state were sawn away as England tumbled towards a calamitous civil war.

Well, in outline it was fairly simple. Take one absolute monarch convinced that he enjoyed the divine right of kings and sublimely indifferent to the opinions of his subjects, and pitch him against the leader of the House of Commons John Pym, “a humourless financial official from Somerset” with an instinctive gift for inflammatory rhetoric and an implacable hatred of Catholicism. Charles was assumed to have been bewitched by his French Catholic queen Henrietta Maria, and was suspected of secretly plotting with assorted European powers to reintroduce Catholicism into England. The hanging, drawing and quartering of the 81-year-old Catholic priest William Ward at Tyburn epitomised the vengeful spirit of the era.

Charles’s problems were compounded by his disastrous lack of political insight, which rendered him oblivious to the tide of resentment building against him. Instead, he lived in a bubble of pleasure and privilege, frolicking with his decadent, wealthy friends in lavish masquerades at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. This prompted some poetic imagery from Hilton: “Charles and his queen were a shimmering, radiantly colourful Van Dyck in an England of black ink woodcuts,” she drawled languidly (Hilton with bust of Charles I at Windsor Castle, pictured below).It’s a fascinating story, persuasively told (despite a few tenuous analogies with Brexit), yet it became increasingly difficult to stop one’s attention wandering away from the 17th century and focussing instead on the presenter. The very antithesis of the Mary Beard school of history, Hilton prowls towards the camera more like a catwalk model than a mere academic. With her piercing blue eyes, platinum-blonde hair and collection of fashionably on-trend scarves, she could fit right in to the cast of Sky Atlantic’s Mediterranean odyssey of conspiracy, priceless artworks and even pricier sports cars, Riviera. As well as a historian, she’s also (as LS Hilton) a novelist. Her book Maestra was compared to 50 Shades of Gray. So was Domina, of which one critic wrote: “It’s got sex, shopping, a few Old Masters and plenty of murder.”

Times have certainly changed since Lord Clark brought us Civilisation, but perhaps Hilton is surfing the zeitgeist, stripping history down to its rawest emotions and primal urges. Watch out, Alice Roberts and Suzannah Lipscomb.

Charles and his queen were a shimmering, radiantly colourful Van Dyck in an England of black ink woodcuts

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A first class perception of the presentation...!!

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