A different kind of expertise

I haven't bought a television guide for years.  I always found that there was never anything of interest in the terrestrial and free-view listings, I never found a layout for the sky listings that didn't leave me confused, and there was always one answer on the bloody crossword that I just couldn't get!

So it was a complete stroke of luck that I turned on the bedroom television after my bath on Thursday, and flicked across to BBC Two in time to catch a fascinating documentary called The Last Days of Anne Boleyn.

Tudor history has always been a subject of great interest to me, long before my nose started burying itself into CJ Sansom's addictive Shardlake series, and even people with little interest in that period if history have heard of Anne Boleyn.  The first Queen of England to be officially executed (although I doubt she was the first - and we know she wasn't the last - Queen to be killed off by her husband) was also the cause of Henry VII's forming the Church of England, to my mind earning her a permanent place as one of the most memorable figures of history.  Of course, she probably wouldn't have hoped to be remembered quite this way, but I somehow think the controversy surrounding the lead-up to her grisly end wouldn't have displeased her. She can also claim some small victory in the knowledge that her daughter went on to be the longest-reigning - and sadly final - monarch of the memorable Tudor dynasty.

As has become commonplace in documentaries about this era, one of the prominent speakers in the documentary (but unusually not in his usual place of narrator) was David Starkey.  I've watched a lot of Tudor-esque documentaries with him as narrator, mainly for lack of alternative, but haven't been entirely put off him.

However, he was not the main focus of my interest, nor was the notably pretty historian - with her flattering nose-piercing - Dr Suzannah Lipscomb.  It was the input of two famous novelists: the established Philippa Gregory and the recent sensation Hilary Mantell, which caught my interest.  Documentary film-makers have called upon authors in the past for historical input, but these are usually authors of factual books, which are unlikely to cause a sensation for anyone who doesn't already have an established interest in the topic at hand.  It is also unlikely that you hear anything about these authors after the documentary has finished.

A little bit of consideration quickly makes sense of why these two respectable authoresses were asked to offer their insight.  Philippa Gregory is a hugely established author, producing such bestsellers as The White Queen, The Red Queen and, most relevantly in this instance The Other Boleyn Girl.  The tiny detail that the BBC is due to air an adaptation of The White Queen is also rather relevant.  Hilary Mantell is of course the lady of the hour, having earned many notable awards for her novel Bring up the Bodies, which focuses on the career of the noteworthy Thomas Cromwell during the time of the equally noteworthy Anne Boleyn.

I was not surprised that these two ladies - most memorably Hilary Mantell for my viewpoint - were considerably more knowledgeable than the narrator (did you know 1536 was over 600 years ago, rather than 477 years ago as mere maths would suggest?  I'm hoping I mis-heard that, o narrator!).  Historical authors of a best-selling nature are meticulous when it comes to researching their topic, sometimes including a chapter-worthy segment proving that point at the end of their book.  They have a stronger reason for doing this than their non-fiction counter-parts.  From my point of view, if an author makes a mistake in a non-fictional book, they may receive some criticism, and perhaps some 'respectful peer' - whatever one of those is - will gleefully ridicule the author for the mistake.  If the mistake is particularly dreadful, a revised edition can be published.  If an author makes a mistake, they are made to pay for it by the terrible condition known only as fans, which I am lead to believe is unavoidable and sometimes incurable.

Fandoms are the best and worst thing to happen with the rise of the internet, and as with most things the worst parts of a fandom are caused by selected individuals rather than the generally respectable whole.  Sadly, it is the former who stand out and who are remembered rather than the latter, and are usually the first to pounce on a mistake.  The popularity of social media - and I have Twitter in mind when I type this - offers these specific individuals the unique opportunity to voice their special brand of loathing and disgust to the author directly.  They're quite easy to spot: usually have followers and following people in the thousands or more, seldom tweet anything that doesn't have someone's username attached, and are often the quickest to complain about rudeness of other people.  Anyone with a basic understanding of Twitter will have spotted at least one during their time on the site, particularly for those who follow celebrities.

I'm sure that most of the people who are reading this do not fall into the category of which I have just spoken, and I do not think that if you spot a mistake and want to point it out to the author, then keep your mouth shut.  What I'm trying to point out is that there better ways to communicate with somebody than a bile-filled tweet or vicious post on Facebook.  Authors, like all human beings, are likely to respond better to a politely-worded email or private message than they ever would to a tweet which everyone is going to be able to see it.  Most people have the sense to realise this before their fingers start running over their keyboard.

Back on topic, I think it is telling about some of the phrases Hilary Mantell used as she offered her factual input.  "To the best of my knowledge...I believe...as far as I have come to understand..."  All very careful, and all very well placed to inform the viewer that these are facts and conclusions which she has gained from her own (probably exstensive) personal research.  It was very important to remember that both authoresses were both amateur historians, albeit very well-informed ones, who have researched their chosen periods of history very carefully.  Combined with their imaginations they both managed to produce very nice books and have both earned themselves even nicer sums of money.  Participating in this documentary, where I felt both of them came across as well as - if not much better than - David Starkey and Dr Lipscomb, will hopefully pay off even more for both ladies.  On a personal note, whilst I will put my hand up and admit to not being a fan of Philippa Gregory's style of writing, I had been considering reading Hilary Mantell's Bring up the Bodies since it was mentioned on the news last year and was waiting for the paperback.  After seeing  her in this documentary, I feel much more encouraged to do so.

With this in mind, I would like to encourage people to watch the documentary for yourselves.  It will take an hour of your time to do so, and you have four days left from the day this was posted to watch it from this  link. The documentary is quoted as having being produced "In a radical new approach to televised history, a stellar cast of writers and historians, including Hilary Mantel, David Starkey, Philippa Gregory and others, battle out the story of her last days and give their own unique interpretations of her [Anne Boleyn's] destruction." and personally I feel that I preferred this new style.

I'd genuinely like to know what you think about this "radical new approach" - do you think more novelists should be offered the chance to give their input in a serious documentary? Are there any novelists you particularly favour who you would like to see doing something similar? Or do you think the idea is a waste of time, for any reason at all?  I would like to know what people think.



  1. Hello Helen. First of all I would like to say I had no idea that you are back in Blogland after taking some time out. Welcome back Helen :-)
    As it happens I did see the documentary when it went out. Also I'm a fan of Hilary Mantel, having read "Wolf Hall," which focusses on Thomas Cromwell, and I have got "Bring up the Bodies," but have yet to read it. I have a traffic jam of books waiting to be read on my bookshelf and on my Kindle.
    My comment is that authors such as the people you have just mentioned, recreate living history. They are not merely fact finders and educators. They describe the feelings, the hopes, the fears and the anguish of the time they are writing about. Okay, people might say, nobody could possibly know for sure that is how it was, and they would be right. But authors such as Mantell and Gregory research to such an extent that they can take you there, assault your imaginary senses with the sights, sounds, smells etc of the time, which I know can be incredibly accurate, and in writing it down put themselves literally in the shoes of their subjects, intensely feeling what it was their subject was going through at that time.
    Authors by their very creative nature are highly sensitive people. The sensitivity within their story is then transferred to the reader. The reader is taken back in time, but only if the material is used is authentic. Without authenticity, the book will fail.


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