Why the Civil Wars are Never on Telly

(artist unknown)
The Execution of Charles 1, 30 Jan 1649 (artist unknown)

The last week in January was a big one in British history, for in 1649 it saw us put our King on trial and then cut off his head. It was one of the most radical political coups in history and a moment of astonishing drama. Not that you’d tell this from the Radio Times though, as the British Civil Wars of the seventeenth century are never, ever on the telly. There’s a new show about Henry VIII every other week, and no British actor is allowed to work in the UK unless they’ve starred in a Jane Austen adaptation. But no-one ever bothers with Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and the gang.

Why is this, you ask? Here’s why.

It’s all too bloody complicated. Tudor historians have it easy. Honestly, they do. One simple rhyme (Divorced, Beheaded, whatever) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the reign of the garrulous TV-celebrity Henry VIII. Those of us who work on the seventeenth century don’t have it so good. It’s a confusing century. It just is. There’s a guy called Sir Julius Caesar. People like Denzil Holles start off as radicals but then become conservatives. The Scots change sides more often than Robbie Savage, and literally everyone was Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law. Ever wonder why people assume Cromwell led the Roundheads? It’s because it’s easier than remembering it was John Pym and sort-of-Lord Saye and Sele, followed by the Earl of Essex, followed by sort-of-Thomas Fairfax/sort-of-Denzil Holles followed by sort-of-Cromwell.

There’s hardly any sex. Some of the Royalists were, of course, quite naughty in the bedroom. But they were nothing on the Tudors, and the Parliamentarians were so notoriously unsexy that they made adultery a capital offence. We, on the other hand, have voted Boris Johnson to high political office. Twice.

There’s way too much talking. Demographers will tell you that war brings disease, and the Civil War is a case in point, for never in history has a whole country suffered such a chronic attack of the verbal shits. Cromwell once sat Parliament down in a hot room, promised not to talk to them for too long, and then rambled on at the poor MPs for over three hours. The first day of the Putney Debates was entirely taken up by arguing over what to talk about. Even the fighting is often described as ‘armed negotiation’, a sideshow to the real business of the thing – talking.

The good-guys are arseholes. Politically, of course, most of us are Roundheads. Outside the Bullingdon Club, we are not generally supporters of absolutist monarchy, and are sympathetic to stuff like elections. The trouble is we also like football, and fun, and Christmas Day. Okay, so TV can do complexity these days, and we do quite like anti-heroes, but how could anyone support a bunch of people who – given half a chance – would pop a musket-ball in Father Christmas’s ass?

Dogs Get Shot. Another biggie is that the Parliamentarians only won because they managed to kill a dog. No, really, they did – there’s a whole Wikipedia article to prove it. And if there’s one thing audiences won’t stand for it’s the death of dogs (cf. ‘Independence Day’). Quite apart from this, TV execs know that if they did depict any canine mortality on screen, Morrissey would emerge from his hellish underground grotto and subject the world to a cavalcade of animal rights batshittery. This is something nobody needs right now. Or ever, for that matter.

Nothing was achieved. After years of war (nine, to be precise) and 700 different attempts to fiddle with the constitution, the monarchy returned and with it the political settlement of 1641. So inevitable was the Restoration that the main thing to excite Samuel Pepys when it actually happened was the king’s dog having a poo in a boat. The new king even had the same name as the last one. Indeed, one of the only lasting consequences of Cromwell’s rule was the capture of Jamaica, an achievement marred by the fact that a) there was practically no-one on it at the time, and b) the soldiers were trying to get Hispaniola. Nineteen years of people shooting each other and huffing in and out of Parliament whingeing about baubles to the effect of precisely naff-all does not make good TV.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. LoisD says:

    I seem to remember that a television series of my youth (way before yours, Jon), titled ‘By the Sword Divided’, purported to be about the Civil War. Lots of sword fighting and noble words. To my knowledge it’s never been repeated, although it may be out there on some channel somewhere in the ether.

  2. AnneP says:

    Not quite never, ever. The Devil’s Whore (Channel 4) sprang immediately to mind. Written by Peter Flannery (Our Friends in the North). Cast as stellar as Wolf Hall – Andrea Riseborough, John Simm, Michael Fassbender, Peter Capaldi. And there was a sequel.

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