Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

DVD evenings

On several Saturday evenings last winter I have had supper with a friend and watched some DVDs on his television. Now as autumn gains upon us and the nights draw in here is something about three of the DVDs we watched for readers to consider viewing themselves. All three are about the background and lead-up to the Great War.

My friend already had "37 Days." This is a 2014 three part series from BBC Northern Ireland about the events between June 28th  and August 4th 1914 and the stumble into the First World War.  Filmed entirely in Northern Ireland it has Belfast City Hall as a passable Whitehall and such like. It chronicles events in a rather pedestrian manner with perhaps variable casting. The actor playing the young confident rising Winston Churchill as  First Lord of the Admiralty is one of the better and more credible performances, but the other really impressive one is that of Rainer Sellion as the Kaiser - a part which is a gift to an actor who can depict so complex a character.  The weakness of the production is that nothing like enough was researched or spent on creating the milieu or trappings of the courts of 1914. The effect is very worthy but rather lacking the gravitas of the subject matter, though I would say that the series improves on watching it again.

"Royal Cousins at War" also appeared in 2014 and presents the outbreak of war very much in terms of personal conflicts between the monarchs and dynasties of the time in a way that is I think, far too simplistic. It may be eye-catching but it is not very profound historically. However although I would not agree with all of its interpretation, it does use some fascinating archive film from the Danish Royal archives and contemporary photos as well as location filming. In those respects the two programmes are excellent.

The third series I suggested as I recalled watching it on television when it was first shown forty years ago. This is the drama series "Fall of Eagles", produced by the BBC in 1974. This presents in a series of plays the interconnected fortunes of the rulers of the Austrian, German and Russian Empires over the period 1848 - 1918.

What makes this such good viewing is the cast, which is almost a national repertory company from those years. The absolutely outstanding performance is that of Barry Foster as Emperor Wilhelm II. As a depiction of so crucial a figure in a whole range of moods and situations over thirty years it surely deserved an award, though I do not think Foster received one for it.  The whole series, almost all studio-based, is far more lavish and atmospheric than " 37 Days", and makes one sense how television drama has declined over the intervening decades.

Of the three series "Fall of Eagles" is much the best. It also had an accompanying BBC book - look for that in Oxfam or other bookshops or online.

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