As referenced, both directly and thematically in recent posts, I have an interest in the history radio play sequences of Mike Walker (discussed somewhat previously). These chart the descent of a family line or an office; each play is either an hour or an hour and half long and each was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Details of each sequence and date of first broadcast will be shown below in the individual discussions of each sequence.
Why am I treating these as parts of one whole? Well, they come (sort of) from the same pen, were commissioned and distributed by the same company, deal with similar themes and topics in similar ways and contain a few cross-connecting references (Marcus Aurelius on cheese, 'Nettle tea with the stings still in', pigs not looking up...).
Why am I interested in these? What worth do they have? Well, firstly, I grew up listening to the radio. I'm fairly certain I heard The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy repeated on Radio 4 before I picked up one of Adams's novels. You can listen to the Radio while doing household tasks or exercising: audio material is ideal for travel - who wants to watch a good film on a tiny smartphone? Tons of decent creators of varying kinds got their start on the radio and some forms of comedy flourish better there. Certainly, the special effects are cheaper.
Secondly, and as hinted in my Lazarus review, learning history seems to require these icons and images, however broadly drawn (see also Skerples on this). Grammar and Vocabulary come before Dialectic and Rhetoric, to employ the language of the Trivium (Cf. Dorothy L Sayers, 'The Three Tools of Learning'). The pupil learns names and dates and places as a scaffolding for a more complex building. The relatively low cost of radio allows Walker to do cover stuff that would be less likely to get money for television. These plays cover a fair amount of ground, ground that history lessons likely would not have the time to cover (we don't get The Bloody Tudors Again). In that sense, this is exactly the sort of thing a public broadcaster should be doing!
(In the unlikely event that anyone reading this is doing so for educational advice, I would give these to a child of twelve and up - there's a certain amount of sex and violence, though it doesn't quite revel in it and by the nature of the medium it's not all that explicit.)
Thirdly, I enjoy these. It's that sweet spot of personal interaction and sweeping wider events, generally with a pretty decent cast. All dialogue, very little battle, sometimes with an odd framing device. Think of it as the award-winning bits of Game of Thrones, with a little connective tissue. Anton Lesser also makes a number of appearances, and because this is my blog and I wish to add some leaven of wit to proceedings, each entry below will discuss this.
Where can you find these? The BBC repeats them every so often, but given the international audience I get, that may not be so useful. I've found some of them for sale on Google Play's Books section for about the same price as a glossy new paperback. Audible also has them.
First broadcast 2003 - 2007. Subject matter - Rome from 48 BC to AD 476.
Series 1: 'Meeting at Formiae' [On Julius Caesar, circa 48 BC], 'The Arena' [Augustus - lived 63 BC -AD 14], 'Peeling Figs for Julius' [Caligula, lived 12-41]
Series 2: 'The Best of Mothers' [Nero, 37-68], 'The Glass Ball Game' [Hadrian, 76-138], 'Citizens in a Great City' [Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 and Septimus Severus, 145-211]
Series 3: 'Empress in the West' [Victoria, c.231 – c.271], 'The Maker of All Things' [Constantine the Great, 272-337], 'An Empire without End' [Romulus Augustulus, c.461-511]
(I shan't list here the missing links - there's an awful lot of Emperors unaccounted for!)
The first four episodes are based on Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. Suetonius himself actually appears in 'The Glass Ball Game' - as an imperial secretary under Hadrian, a role he really filled.
'Meeting at Formiae' is wonderful. A fictional meeting between Julius Caesar, Cato the Younger and Cicero at Cicero's villa, allowing them to attempt to thrash out their differences before civil war begins. There are occasional interjections from wives and daughters. Anton Lesser plays Marcus Tullius Cicero, Big Daddy Chickpea himself, with the correct level of wry humour and inner steel. Some suitably melancholy elements to the ending: I couldn't quite tell you why, but this has a quality of comfort food to it for me.
'The Arena' is the account of a young Augustus by the old Augustus, emphasising his callowness and vision - a deliberate contrast to the elder statesman we see in I, Claudius (et al.). The lives of Caligula and Nero are as violent and extravagant and decadent as you probably imagined (David Tennant plays Caligula).
There's a few semi-magical elements (as well as an interpersonal emphasis) to 'The Glass Ball Game' which make it fall a little flat for me, but the slow circling of a problem in 'Citizens in a Great City' works rather well. I don't know enough about the period portrayed by 'Empress in the West', but it serves as a sort of snapshot of the time and the problems it faced rather neatly, if with a little high melodrama.
Constantine will always be overshadowed by Christianity, but 'The Maker of All Things' functions as an account of his political struggles with rival Emperors in the East and his own family. There's obviously an element of religious reference in there, but it's subtly woven in. 'An Empire without End' portrays Attila the Hun and the last Emperors in the West - the last being Romulus Augustulus (played by Tom Hiddleston). The portrayal of a stagnant and dwindling Rome is at least arresting, if brief.
Anyway, Caesar! was very good at covering ground - the foundation of Empire, the problems of maintaining it, the splintering and rebuilding.
First broadcast 2010 - 2012. Subject matter - England (and much of France) 1154 to 1485.
Series 1: 'Henry II: What is a Man?', 'Richard I: Lionheart', 'John, by the Grace of God' [Skips Henry III]
Series 2: 'Edward I: Old Soldiers', 'Edward II: The Greatest Traitor', [Skips Edward III] 'Richard II: And All Our Dreams will End in Death'.
Series 3: [Skips/glosses: Henry IV] 'Henry V: True Believers', 'Henry VI: A Simple Man', [Skips/glosses over Edward IV and Edward V - like Shakespeare] 'Richard III: The Three Brothers'
Based in part on Holinshed's Chronicles - which also inspired Shakespeare.
Walker sensibly doesn't try and tread on The Lion in Winter's toes (claws?). 'What is a Man?' deals with Henry II's conflict with his eldest son, Henry 'the Young King'. It's a powerful setup for the rest of Series 1, with chest-beating competition and boar-hunting metaphors. The late David Warner plays Henry II, in a fine sarcastic mode. Richard I and John then cover some fairly familiar ground - brash Lionheart and cringing, ineffectual Lackland. Decent, but not exceptional - and doesn't turn into paens about Magna Carta.
|David Warner in a role rather different to Henry II.|
The strong father - weak son pairing of Edward I and II is then repeated with Richard II, son of The Black Prince. This is kept from being too obviously repetitive story-wise by the framing: Roger Mortimer serves as protagonist of 'The Greatest Traitor', and the Richard II - Henry Bolingbroke contrast fills much of 'And All Our Dreams....'
Series 3 is stronger than Series 2. Luke Treadaway's Henry V is a calculating, cold type, manufacturing the heroism of Agincourt - in contrast to the Prince Hal of Shakespeare, whose colder elements are there (turning his back on Falstaff, hanging Bardolph) but even in (say) Branagh's initially cold 1989 portrayal he warms up by the St Crispin's Day speech. I haven't seen the recent The King with Timothée Chalamet, but the young Treadaway (later to play Richmond) is possibly in that same casting type.
Henry VI is married and championed Margaret of Anjou, played with awkward resolve and urgency by Aimee-Ffion Edwards. Carl Prekopp, with his distinctive voice appears in minor roles in 'True Believers' and 'A Simple Man' before emerging as Richard III. I shall take this to be deliberate, rather than simply who was in the building on a particular day. Shakespeare's Richard is constantly with the audience, addressing them and winning them - is this a variant of that? In any case, Walker's Richard is less of a villain, circumstances (and the Duke of Buckingham) leading him into the throne (Cf. The Daughter of Time and The Dragon Waiting). Clarence's betrayal is far better contextualised than in Shakespeare - Cf. the section here entitled 'George, Duke of Clarence'.
No Anton Lesser, I fear - he was off playing the Duke of Exeter.
First broadcast 2013 - 2015. Subject matter - Scotland, then all the British Isles, then exile 1542 - 1789.
Series 1: [Skips the Stuart Kings Robert II, Robert III, James I through V] 'It came in with a Lass' [Mary, Queen of Scots], 'To Make the Plough Go Before the Horse' [James VI and I], 'A World of Fools and Knaves' [Charles I], 'This War without an Enemy' [Charles I].
Series 2: 'Charles II, Part One: Through the World in Various Fortune', 'Charles II, Part Two: The Long Lease of Pleasant Days', 'James II: The Storms of this Deceitful World'.
Series 3: 'William III and Mary II: To Have and to Hold', 'Queen Anne: Myself Alone', [Skips James Francis Edward Stuart, son of James II and VII, 'The Old Pretender', father of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 'the Young Pretender'.], 'Bonnie Prince Charlie: Who Dares to Be Free', 'Charlotte Stuart: The Last Stuart'.
Well, we already had the Henriad and The Lion in Winter. Time to do something new. The Stuarts is pretty bloody good, really. There's a decent account of Mary Queen of Scots's struggles with a Reformed Scotland while trying to be a Catholic monarch (Brian Cox plays John Knox). The standout element of the first series is likely Charles I - covering his personal rule and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms that followed it. Anton Lesser is on rare form as Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford - whose trial accords him excellent opportunities for nervy, righteous anger.
Charles II's reign is broken into accounts of his life in exile and the success of the Restoration, leading to the reign of his brother and the Glorious Revolution. We get James II's view of things before William of Orange's - and you'll never listen to Lilliburlero the same way again. It's a sympathetic view of James II, coloured by his attempt at religious toleration. William III deliberately gets the Dutch perspective before the English, though one could do with a deal more of his rivalry with Louis XIV.
The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill goes on display - a few years before The Favourite was released, but I'm told Deborah Davis wrote her script in the late 90s (not sure if the episode was broadcast before or after the 2015 play). In any case, Walker tends to write his favourites as 'Close, but Not Necessarily Sexual' - which has the ring of truth about it to me: intimacy may be a rarer thing than sex for a monarch.
Bonnie Prince Charlie gets an entire hour and a half to himself - necessary to cover the '45 rising and the misery of exile. It works fairly well, but it makes Cumberland's army look too English (Highlanders backed the Stuarts; Protestant Lowlanders were less enthusiastic). Cumberland's Germanic efficiency is a little cliched for my taste, but contrasts well with the Romantic Charlie. I haven't really encountered Charlotte Stuart outside this series, but in any case her episode serves as a headstone for the Stuarts as a whole (and Bonnie Prince Charlie in particular).
First broadcast 2017. Subject matter - Russia, 1547 - 2017
Series 1: 'Ivan the Terrible: Absolute Power' (Ivan the Terrible was Ivan IV), [Skips: Feodor I] 'Boris Godunov: Ghosts', [Glosses: False Dimitry I, Skips: Feodor II, Vasily VI, Vladislav, Michael, Alexis, Feodor III, Glosses: Ivan V], 'Peter the Great: The Gamblers', 'Peter the Great: Queen of Spades' (Peter the Great was Peter I). [Skips/Glosses: Catherine I, Skips: Peter II, Anna, Ivan VI, Elizabeth, Glosses: Peter III]
Series 2: 'Catherine the Great: Husbands, Lovers and Sons' (Catherine the Great was Catherine II), [Glosses: Paul I], 'Alexander I: Into the Woods', [Skips: Nicholas I], 'Alexander II: The People’s Will', [Skips: Alexander III].
Series 3: 'Nikolai II: Three Hundred Years', [Glosses: Alexander Kerensky], 'Lenin: Tears', 'Joseph Stalin: The Last Bolshevik', [Skips: Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Cherenko, Gorbachev, Glosses: Boris Yeltsin, Dmitri Medvedev] 'The Shield and the Sword' [About 'VV'.]
'The Bear has Seven Dreams, and they are all of Bears.' Best get used to that expression, you'll be hearing it a lot [incidentally, you get some bloody odd results if you put that in Google].
Good strong first series here: Ivan the Terrible setting the model of a Tsar in a mix of brutal authority and religious charisma. It's pretty overbearing, honestly - and has at least one very well used sound effect. David Threllfall plays Ivan, and apparently possessed appropriate facial hair for the occasion. Jerome Horsey makes an appearance to tie in England to proceedings - that Ivan proposed marriage to Elizabeth I is interesting, if hardly a vital part of the story. Boris Godunov is introduced here before his own episode. Both episodes set up a backwards, vast and somewhat mystical Russia with Horsey as the outsider able to comment occasionally on things - but it never quite lets this become a point of attack, I think. The focus is on the Russian nobility and their clashes and the deaths of their families - all bad, to be sure, but not used as weapons against some idea of Russia (Cf. the Coda of this blog post).
All that gives way to Peter the Great who is (correctly) portrayed as a reformer, but he's also someone who can only make those reforms because he is a Tsar and happy to take power when the time comes (eg, from the Streltsy). Energetic, capable and possessed of vast appetites - this is unlikely a portrait of Peter the Great that you haven't seen before. Still, there is the wisdom of spacing out over two episodes his rise and his zenith - that second episode telling of the startling rise of Catherine I, his second wife, who would reign for two years after his death. That's a rather interesting contrast between the nature of Peter, his court and the woman Menshikov cultivates to influence him.
From one Catherine to another, Catherine the Great's story is of a woman married at an early age to Tsar Peter III - as played by Anton Lesser in spiteful vein. The title 'Husbands, Lovers, Sons' is apt: it is an account of Catherine II sandwiched between a series of relationships with men - those she despises, those she cooperates with and those she must rely on. As with Peter, there's an emphasis on reform - tempered towards the end by news of the French Revolution: so much for Voltaire.
Napoleon follows on the French Revolution - but before then, Catherine's resentful son Paul I and her uncertain grandson Alexander I. French invasion is the final peril for Alexander - before then, he must confront the increasing instability of his father. Tying into the wider idea of a growing Russia is the nationalist bent of Alexander's resistance to Napoleon - eventually successful, of course.
Which leads into 'The People's Will' - dealing with the assassination of Alexander II by the left-wing group of the same name in 1881. The liberation of the serfs by that very Tsar is both indicative of a changing Russia - and not enough for some. Contrast is made with the American Civil War. A blend of procedural and flashback detail the fateful day in question, with points of view from the Tsar, the assassins, a visiting peasant and the investigating policeman.
Moving past Alexander III, we meet Nicholas II and the familiar events of the Russian Revolution. Agitation is suppressed at a cost by a diffident Tsar - then World War One breaks out. (The focus stays domestic - no scenes with Kaiser Wilhelm II). All familiar territory, but well-executed, and perhaps the most convincing portrayal of Rasputin I've encountered. Almost instantly, we cross over to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - that is, Lenin. Who, returned to Russia by the Germans must struggle against the provisional government, division in his own party and his own personal relationships in order to bring about the Revolution. That very Revolution is the cause of his taking up more and more power to himself - Tsar-like in scope, if not manner.
That is less so than 'The Last Bolshevik', Joseph Stalin. The framing of his episode is identical to that of Ivan the Terrible's. However, the difference is the threat Russia faces: this episode is set in 1941 shortly after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Stalin hides in his Dacha as the country cries out for leadership in response. We track back through Stalin's rivalry with Trotsky, his unhappy marriage with Nadezhda Alliluyeva, his relations with the inner party - and, crucially, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Brian McCardie plays Stalin - Georgian is to Russian as Scottish is to English, apparently. Well, it works to illustrate the ethnic background of characters in a fashion a trifle more focused than The Death of Stalin. The presence of World War Two makes the whole business rather frantic - beating the Nazis is of some importance! All that said, I am a trifle queasy at something that makes itself look somewhat redemptive for Joseph Stalin, of all people: it ends on a note of stern resistance - 'Party and Army made One!' Now, purges, the assassination of Trotsky and the unnerving presence of Lavrenty Beria (The horror of the last largely unspoken - but perhaps known to the informed listener. The scene with Stalin's daughter Svetlana is particularly unnerving.) have been features of the episode, but the end still is rather triumphal.
No reference is made to the USSR under Stalin after that, really. We go straight from Uncle Joe to 'VV'. Now, readers of this blog are attentive, intelligent and highly attractive - and thus will have worked out who that is: yes, we skip right over Khrushchev and Gorbachov to meet Vladimir Putin. This feels a little odd, if not strictly out of place in a media landscape that can include TV dramas on Dominic Cummings or Boris Johnson and a radio drama on Donald Trump.
Accordingly, the final episode is a series of brief stories, the fictional element of which is emphasised by a female narrator. In a scattered order, we see Putin's childhood, life in the KGB, apprenticeship under Yeltsin, early presidency and ascendancy. Now, this was episode was broadcast in 2017 - after the Annexation of Crimea, but before the Invasion of Ukraine. (And before the Poisoning in Salisbury, which would have made this episode rather different: espionage high-jinks only look jolly at a distance). Naturally, territorial ambitions receive less attention than grappling with oligarchs and the conditions of post-Soviet Russia that allowed Putin's rise.
Which is valuable information, to be sure - if, as we now know, incomplete. But Walker damn well knew that this was going to be an episode without straight answers. The nameless narrator asks VV about 'hacking the US election' and receives a none-answer - fittingly, frankly. 'Ah, President Trump. Hmm.', says VV - does Nicholas Murchie add the hint of a smile to his voice performance?
If I say that this episode wouldn't get made today, I don't mean that to imply some imposed censorship. It would not get made in this manner, certainly - 'The Shield and the Sword' is somewhat more lighthearted than 'The Last Bolshevik' - and it would likely not get made at all: there is still too much to answer about Putin's life and decisions. A playwright would have to be quite a Kremlinwatcher to even attempt it.
Castle of the Hawk
First broadcast 2021. Subject matter - Central Europe 1280 - 1913.
Series 1: 'Hawk Rising', 'Hawk Hunting', 'Hawk Wounded' [Rudolf I, Adolf of Nassau, Albert I - 1280-1310], 'Wallenstein' [Ferdinand II, 1618], 'Redl' [Franz-Joseph, 1913]
(Like Caesar! above, this skips an awful lot of both Habsburg monarchs, Holy Roman Emperors and rulers of Germany).
Castle of the Hawk is, I fear, the most disappointing of these. For one thing, it has no Anton Lesser. For another, there's a lot of ground uncovered, and not uncovered in the Caesar! sense where each episode sketches out a block of imperial history in the reign of one man. I can understand not wanting to cover Charles V and the great unity of Spain, Austria, Holland and much of Italy - that almost might demand a series in itself. But leaving out Maria Theresa is pretty strange - that would have made an excellent middle ground between the Thirty Years War and the First World War.
The initial Hawk trio is about the rise of Albert I, called Albert the One-Eyed, full of suitable medieval intrigue and belligerence. It is largely told from the perspective of a Turkish advisor and spymaster to the Habsburgs - which feels like a slightly off-kilter decision. Such a person existing is not impossible; the final reveal that his true purpose was to keep Europe disunited for the Sultan seems like a more modern form of espionage than could be adequately expressed or maintained in the period. There's also a degree of cynicism about religion more reminiscent of Game of Thrones (and not in a good way) than Medieval Germany.
Also, someone felt it necessary to rename Adolf of Nassau to Norbert of Nassau. Norbert, in the series, is portrayed as a pitiable, ineffectual dupe. Did they think we would somehow transfer a remote pity of Adolf of Nassau onto Adolf Hitler? Listeners are capable of telling apart Adolf of Nassau, Adolf Hitler and Adolphe Sax if needed, in the same fashion they can tell apart George III, George Washington and George H.W. Bush.
There have been a few other character meldings and meddlings, especially among Albert's sisters. But we leave that aside for now.
'Wallenstein' is pretty good, on the whole. The life and death of an ambitious mercenary general, used and using the Hapsburgs in turn. Count Tilly gets used as an awkward mouthpiece for prejudice and ignorance, which may or may not be true of the man, but certainly doesn't flow well. Everyone else is relatively subtle, and then he enters brash as anything and is still supposed to be a major player in the court and army. The odd musical sting using electric guitars is out of place but frankly the Thirty Years War needs the odd moment of swagger.
'Redl' is based on Colonel Alfred Redl's life, with an admixture of the Meyerling Incident. It's a treatment of the division and secrecy of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. Redl himself committed suicide after passing information to the Russians, and the revelation of his treason - and his homosexuality. There's some related material abut the many nationalities of the Habsburg empire in the 1910s, but it doesn't quite go far enough - one tastes the sauce, not the entire dish.
Medici: Gangsters, Bankers, Popes
First broadcast January 2023. Subject Matter - the Florentine Republic and Italy, 1434 - 1492
Series 1: 'Cosimo' [Cosimo de' Medici], [Skips: Piero de' Medici] 'Lorenzo the Magnificent' [Lorenzo de' Medici], 'Bonfire of the Vanities'.
['Bonfire of the Vanities' is listed as being written by Sian Ejiwunmi Le-Berre - but everything else is by Walker, and I assume the two discussed the overall shape of the series together. Can't recall other writers in the other series, but Walker has been willing to collaborate before - see Tumanbey.]
One series, and from the looks of 'Bonfire of the Vanities', that's all there will be: in that, a dying Lorenzo has a vision of future well-placed Medici scions (Pope Leo X, Catherine de' Medici, &c). Perhaps I'll be proven wrong - though I suspect that episodes on the French Crown or Papacy would be unlikely. Something on the end of Medici rule in the 18th century would be interesting.
Anyway, if you know anything about the Medici, you have an image of what this is. The subtitle gives it away. A blending of financial and political power, leading into the wealthy patronage of the Renaissance. The regular montage sequences with the ledgers work quite well.
There's two elements that could be drawn out a little more - firstly, the sin of usury. Even if the prohibition against money-lending at interest was honour more in the breach than the observance, some element of personal grappling with the religious ideals of the time would have been interesting. This gets touched on to some degree in 'Bonfire of the Vanities', with Lorenzo outright calling himself a new sort of person to his wife, who remains 'Medieval', freer of religious custom.
The transition also of 'influential banker' to 'ruler' is also smoothed over. I don't necessarily need a guide to the signoria, but I'd like a little hint that the nature of day-to-day responsibilities are changing, rather than another joke about this funny but talented rustic from Vinci.
Readers may wish to follow this series with these posts on Machiavelli.
Where to next?
Not for me to say, of course. Certainly, there are plenty of dynasties one could examine. If sticking in England, something on the successors of William the Conquerer - William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen and Matilda - would be good.
I should be interested in one on the Bonapartes. The life of Napoleon is fairly well covered, of course, but one can imagine a First Series doing 1) The Early Career of Napoleon, up to becoming Emperor, 2) The presence of his family during the zenith of his power - placing Joseph on the throne of Spain, for instance, or Jerome on the throne of Westphalia, 3) The Fall of Napoleon - playing the well known hits of Moscow, Leipzig, Elba, Waterloo, St Helena. A Second Series would presumably do 1) The brief life of the brief Emperor Napoleon II, contrasting with 2) The Childhood, rise, election as President and coup of Napoleon III finishing up with 3) The Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War (and exile). Tsar has furnished us with a Napoleon I and a Talleyrand - Charlie Anson and Robert Blythe, respectively. Anton Lesser can play the Duke of Wellington, if you can't get Christopher Plummer.
|"Welcome, gentlemen, to the Council of Lessers...."|