It has been a while since the BBC really pushed the boat out on the epic history documentary front. Perhaps to make amends it is treating us to possibly the most historian-studded, blue-screen-special-effects-enhanced, rare-documentastic, no-hyperbole-knowingly-under-employed series ever shown on television. Armada: 12 Days to Save England (Sundays, BBC2).
Having clearly spent a lot of money here, the BBC is taking no chances with its demographic spread. For the laydeez, in the Ross Poldark role it has Dan Snow, captured somewhat gratuitously piloting his handsome yacht into the choppy waters of the English Channel. (Just like in 1588! Sort of.) For the dirty old men it has no fewer than three yummy female historians, looking scrumptious in Tudor settings, while telling us about different aspects of Elizabeth’s beauty routine.
For the gamers, it has yet more boysy historians, pushing the English and Spanish fleets around a sandtable, talking tactics in the inevitable historic present (‘But your problem is that your fleet is divided, which means that these ships alone have to be able to try to stop our Armada!!!’). For classic soap fans, it’s got Ange from EastEnders (Anita Dobson) playing Elizabeth I with, for Blackadder fans, someone a bit like Nursie playing the Queen’s companion Blanche Parry.
And for the Modern Generation — anyone under 40 who wasn’t private- or grammar-school educated, basically — it offers the edge-of-the-seat possibility that England might lose this particular engagement. That’s why it opens (OMG — this historic present stuff is infectious) with a scene of a bald, emaciated Elizabeth chained in a dungeon, awaiting torture and execution, while, off camera, the victorious Spanish chuck the dismembered bodies of her people into the Thames.
For all its mild preposterousness and its queasy dog’s breakfast of a format (Election Night meets Troy meets Wolf Hall), I’m enjoying it quite a lot. The scene, for example, where you see a fleet of more than 100 Spanish galleons approaching the mouth of the Channel. All right, so the CGI was a bit rubbish, but it still gave you a pretty good idea of what a terrifying prospect the Armada represented. It’s a sight which, until now, only an infinitesimally small fraction of mankind (in essence, those few mariners who weren’t below decks prior to a major naval engagement) can have witnessed.
Equally illuminating were the vignettes of Elizabeth I’s domestic life. We remember her today as the indomitable Gloriana, but at the time, it would appear, she was anything but: frail, vacillating and terrified that, any moment now, her country was about to be crushed by a Spanish invasion or destroyed by the Catholic enemy within.
Each day, the fiftysomething Queen was compelled to put a brave face on it — quite literally — by covering her pallid, pockmarked skin with an impasto of thick white slap. When combined with her red wig and the rouge on her lips, it gave her an ‘almost frightening’ appearance. This was part of the theatre of monarchy: ‘She didn’t want to look like an ordinary human being. She had been appointed by God and therefore she was going to appear at court as some kind of semi God-like figure...’
There to give the programme some gravitas and a raison d’être was a historian, Geoffrey Parker, who was billed as having dedicated his entire career to deciphering 16th-century Spanish documents and who had recently unearthed, in a Madrid archive, the Armada equivalent of the Holy Grail: the correspondence between the fleet’s second-in-command and his seasick boss, the Duke of Medina Sidonia.
Much was made of this groundbreaking research in the build-up. Perhaps I wasn’t paying proper attention, but it wasn’t quite clear to me what new thing we’d learned that hadn’t been known before. Was it that the second-in-command had advised attacking the main English fleet while it was stuck in Plymouth harbour but that Medina Sidonia had stuck doggedly to the plans of his dictatorial micro-manager of a boss Philip II to carry on sailing the length of the English Channel in order to launch a combined assault with the Duke of Parma’s invasion force waiting in the Netherlands?
If so, it would have been useful to have been told what chances the Armada might have had of pulling off this stunt: how well defended was the harbour; mightn’t the Spanish ships have been driven disastrously on to the rocks by the prevailing winds? As it was, the programme fudged the issue by presenting it as a disaster for the English narrowly averted — when it might possibly never have been a runner in the first place. TV’s a bit like that though, isn’t it: forever spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar.