Daytime TV: The history boys

The Norman Conquest and the Domesday Book offer great sparring material, says Gary Day

August 19, 2010

Roll up! Roll up! Don't miss the fight of the century. In the left corner we have Dr Stephen Baxter (Domesday, BBC Two, Tuesday 10 August, 8pm) and in the right we have Professor Robert Bartlett (The Normans, BBC Two, Wednesday 11 August, 9pm). "Smoking Steve" and "Bruiser Bob" were going head to head over the Normans. Who can best hold our interest? From whom can we learn the most?

The bell rings and out they come. Steve skips around the ring but "Bruiser Bob" holds his ground. A fighter of some experience, he knows not to go chasing after his opponent. He just watches and works out his tactics. How will "Smoking Steve" approach the problem of transforming the Norman Conquest from children's story into proper history?

Oh, a bit of a risky move there, aiming only at the Domesday Book. Can "Smoking Steve" keep his fans happy talking about that for a whole hour? It is not easy, even in an epic contest like this, to hold an audience when your subject is an 800-page audit in Latin, even if it is written in two different-coloured inks. Young as he is, though, "Smoking Steve" has a few tricks up his sleeve.

It was a brilliant decision to have himself filmed in a variety of picturesque spots. That way, if the mind started to wander, you could always look at the scenery. And is there anything more splendid than the countryside in full bloom? Slightly tweak the script and, hey presto, you have an advert for the English Tourist Board.

Was that "Smoking Steve" tramping through a field of oilseed rape? It was hard to tell. The stalks were high. Maybe it was the wind making the flowers sway. He stopped at Old Sarum. It was there that William the Conqueror, himself a bit of a bruiser, received seven thick parchments detailing what the Normans had seized from the Anglo-Saxons. By 1086, only 5 per cent of the land remained in the hands of its original owners. Once free men, they now laboured for their Norman masters "onerously and miserably".

"Smoking Steve" jabbed with facts not fists. But did we really need 10 minutes on how the parchment was prepared? Then, just as your guard began to slip, he hit you with humour. The Anglo-Saxons were sometimes named after their appearance. "We can only guess what Humphrey Gongbollocks looked like."

"Smoking Steve's" equivalent of the uppercut was his new interpretation of the Domesday Book. It was not a means of raising more tax. If that were the case, it would have been organised by villages rather than by persons. The real purpose of the survey was to legitimise William's rule and to show that all tenure derived from the king. "Bruiser Bob" had a fight on his hands.

But if he was afraid, he showed no sign of it. Where "Smoking Steve" tried to hit only one part of the body, "Bruiser Bob" pummelled the whole of it. Not just the Domesday Book, but Norman rule in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Bob countered Steve's pastoral touch with shots of brooding skies, bleak moorland and tumbled tombstones, images to bring a smile to the granite face of Beckett himself.

All this underscored William's "harrying of the North", his merciless destruction of those Anglo-Saxon nobles mad enough to rebel against this most pitiless of rulers. Those inhabitants still alive after William's army departed survived partly by eating the flesh of their slaughtered neighbours.

Materialising like a ghost at a castle in Wales, "Bruiser Bob" told the story of how the legendary beauty Nesta saved her husband from slaughter by propelling him down the toilet chute. Bob's expression as he gazed down at it seemed to suggest that he wouldn't mind trying that himself.

Bob was at his most entertaining when assailing us with anecdotes. William was apparently so fat that, at his death, they had to force him into his coffin. His stomach burst as they did so and the stench was so overpowering that the funeral rites were, to say the least, perfunctory. Such tales showed the "Bruiser's" flair for the dramatic and his relish for the grotesque, which is enough to unnerve any challenger to the title.

The iron in Bob's gloves was his constant ability to relate the effect of the Conquest to the contemporary world. His observations about how the relations between the French and English languages are still being played out today were as bright as camera flashes catching a knock-out punch. And his account of how the English colonial mentality arose from the Norman treatment of the Irish was the sound of the victor beating his chest. But as Bob had three programmes to put his case and Steve only one, let's say it's honours even.

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