Popular History

We’re getting through The Crown, one (old) episode an evening. Last night’s was the one about the Profumo scandal: its inclusion justified, no doubt, by Prince Philip’s association with Stephen Ward. (Otherwise what did it have to do with ‘The Crown’?) According to this version, Anthony Blunt persuaded MI5 to keep his treachery quiet by threatening to reveal pictures of Philip drawn by Ward. That must be it. It was also a way of completing the series’ deeply unflattering picture of Macmillan, for dramatic effect.

In fact that’s what the whole of The Crown has been about: using incidents in the lives of the royal family to make dramas out of – one per episode. The continuity is very thin; and spoiled last night by the re-casting of all the main characters – Dr Who-like – in order to keep up with their ageing. In this episode that was rather crudely signalled by the early scene in which the ‘new’ Queen remarks on her image on a new set of postage stamps. Well, it had to be done, I suppose, with a story spanning 90 years; and both the actresses (actors?) playing Elizabeth have got her peculiar enunciation off to a T.

Of course to a serious historian it must appear all wrong: seeing public lives portrayed in self-contained episodes, the history of Britain presented only through public lives, and the most dramatic moments in those lives at that; most of the dialogue obviously made up, and some of it rather unconvincingly (if only because it’s too good); and key characters almost entirely left out because – we assume – they’re not colourful enough (Attlee): all this quite apart from questions relating to its factual accuracy, or otherwise. This may be OK as drama. In fact Kajsa and I are thoroughly enjoying it, although Kajsa was (rightly) shocked by the Gordonstoun episode. And it’s by no means an unusual way of presenting ‘history’. Look at Shakespeare! 

But it does get you wondering about where non-historians get their history from. Ronald Reagan is said to have got his from Hollywood movies. I wonder if Boris got his from films and TV? He appears not to have studied any history later than the ancient Romans at school. (I’ve written to Eton asking about their syllabus, but they’ve not replied. Probably wise.) These can illuminate aspects of history, ‘bring them alive’, as they say; but ideally they should not comprise the whole sum of people’s historical knowledge. 

That of course is where we ‘serious’ historians come in: to leaven the personal dramas with the deeper but more boring context that alone can make sense of that knowledge. Macmillan is not fairly or adequately portrayed as a foppish and cuckolded aristo (as it happens he wasn’t an echt aristocrat at all); or Clem Attlee as the nonentity he was made to appear by contrast with Churchill. It’s these men’s wider relationship with the country, the world and the grand tides of history that explains their ‘place’ in that history, which may be more important in the cases of the bores or the fops than of the eccentrics. But TV viewers clearly prefer personalities and drama: as don’t we all? Which is why The Crown gets immeasurably more viewers than my books get readers. (No hard feelings on that account!)

And it probably explains Boris Johnson’s romantic but very false view of his country’s history, and of his own hoped-for place in it. We are governed by a patina of myths, overlying and obscuring the – I would say – material imperatives lying underneath. There’s probably no way of getting away from this. I think I’ve always known that.

(Incidentally: I’m waiting nervously to see if my own encounter with Her Maj – https://bernardjporter.com/2020/12/01/the-crown/ – will be covered. I’m hoping to be played by George Clooney.)

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