Judge Bryan Byun defeated an alliance of Scots, Danes, and Vikings at Barnes & Noble last week.
A 1,500-year history of power, passion, and glory.
Monarchy attempts the ambitious task of telling (nearly) the entire story of the English monarchy over sixteen hour-long episodes. As a Cliffs Notes-style cram course, it succeeds, but its brisk pace and narrow focus may leave viewers simultaneously overwhelmed and unsatisfied.
Facts of the Case
Monarchy was a British TV documentary series that premiered in 2004, and was rebroadcast on American shores on public television. Presented by David Starkey, a historian and TV/radio personality, Monarchy aims to be a comprehensive survey of England's royal history, from the Anglo-Saxon period, before "England" as a political entity existed, through the reign of Queen Victoria.
The series is a straightforward, unwaveringly linear march through nearly two millennia of the royal line. Starkey, a specialist in the Tudor period of England, guides us through this sprawling history assisted by a mixture of live-action reenactments, footage of historical locations, and shots of surviving buildings, artwork, and documents from each era.
It should be noted that the title of this collection, Monarchy: The Complete Series, is a bit of a misnomer. While it offers the complete set of sixteen episodes that comprise series 1-3 as originally broadcast in the U.K., it omits the single-episode fourth series, "The Windsors," that covers the period from the death of Queen Victoria through the present day. Since the episode aired in 2007, it's a curious—and significant—omission. Fans of the series on the American side of the pond, however, will be pleased to know that this collection contains episodes unaired on PBS.
Monarchy: The Complete Series offers sixteen episodes spread over five discs:
• "Episode 1: A Nation State"
• "Episode 2: Ængla Land"
• "Episode 3: Conquest"
• "Episode 4: Dynasty"
• "Episode 5: A United Kingdom"
• "Episode 6: Death of a Dynasty"
• "Episode 7: The Crown Imperial"
• "Episode 8: King and Emperor"
• "Episode 9: The Shadow of the King"
• "Episode 10: The Stuart Succession"
• "Episode 11: Cromwell—The King Killer"
• "Episode 12: Return of the King"
• "Episode 13: The Glorious Revolution"
• "Episode 14: Rule Brittania"
• "Episode 15: Empire"
• "Episode 16: Survival"
I have to admit to an enormous ignorance of English history. Most of what I know about Britain's glorious past comes, naturally, from movies, TV, and Shakespeare; which has left me with a vague and fragmentary—and often comically wrong—sense of its history. Henry VIII was fat and had a lot of wives. Richard III was a hunchback and was a bad guy for some reason. Prince Edmund became King of England for a few brief moments when he and his family were unwittingly poisoned. Wait, that last bit was actually from The Black Adder, sorry.
The appeal of a series like Monarchy, a sweeping survey of the royal history of Old Blighty, from its chaotic beginnings in the wake of the crumbling Roman Empire, all the way to the modern era, is the prospect of a proper grounding, a historical perspective in which to place TV shows like The Tudors or films like Elizabeth that inevitably play fast and loose with the facts. Or Shakespeare's history plays—written for an audience not far removed from the players and their stories—which can for many of us be a bewildering fusillade of unfamiliar names and references.
The thesis that shapes and unifies this massive tale is that England's monarchy was unique in that, unlike the absolute rule enjoyed by the Roman emperors and the kings of Europe, the government of England was always a collaboration between monarchs and their subjects. Starkey draws a very clear line from the fiercely independent Anglo-Saxon warlords, whose transition in the 10th century from warring nation-states to a unified England was bloody and tempestuous, to the formation of Parliament and the constant, uneasy tension between the English people's desire for strong leadership and their love of freedom.
One benefit of watching this story unfold in a continuous narrative instead of isolated chunks is a greater appreciation of the themes and quirks running throughout English history. Continuity and stability are of paramount importance, as we see time and again as each monarch's first task seems to be ensuring a smooth transition to his or her successor. We also see, again and again, how monumental shifts in the flow of history are touched off by minor incidents and quirks of fate on an individual scale: a scuffle between retainers results in the fall of a would-be king; a monarch's tragic infatuation with a retainer leads to his eventual destruction. And the premature death of Henry V leads us to wonder how history would have unfolded, if his plans for the unification of England and France hadn't been scuttled forever by a case of dysentery.
The downside of the wide scope of this series is, of course, that enormous swaths of royal history get astonishingly short shrift. Monarchy is scrupulously evenhanded in how it parcels out screen time to each monarch, which means that we get some fascinating facts about less-familiar rulers (Edward II was killed with a red-hot spit shoved up his posterior!) while the entire 45-year reign of Elizabeth I flashes by with little discussion of the enormous cultural significance of the Elizabethan era.
This lack of context is what ultimately limits the appeal and watchability of Monarchy. There's a story this series wants to tell, about the history of the English monarchy as an extended dialogue between kings and their subjects, without whose support they cannot lead, but the parsimonious focus on that narrative comes at the expense of other, equally interesting stories. You won't find in Monarchy any mention of the cultural flowering that occurred during Elizabeth I's reign (I don't believe the word "Renaissance" is even mentioned during this episode), or very much sense at all of the times these monarchs ruled in.
As a result, the tale of the monarchs unspools in a historical vacuum, seemingly unconnected to the world outside their castles. Except for the mention of dates and the evolving fashions in the royal portraits, it would be difficult to place most of these kings and queens in any particular time period. Monarchy isn't kidding around with its title—it is first and foremost about the monarchy, the institution and the line of succession, and other aspects of the subject, no matter how colorful, are placed well behind. If you're a political history geek, you'll be delighted; everyone else will find themselves frequently bogged down in lengthy discussions of arcane parliamentary and legal disputes.
We don't get much of a cultural perspective, but we also don't get much political or historical perspective, either. There's one voice in Monarchy—Starkey's, and his presentation of events is the only one we get. Maybe it's just that most documentaries these days feature a variety of talking-head experts offering a variety of perspectives, but there's something disconcerting about an entire series that is essentially one long history lecture from a single professor, without even so much as a critical text.
We're given many assertions—beginning with the idea that leadership by popular consent is the foundation of British monarchy—with no corroboration or contextualization. The problem with this approach is that Monarchy doesn't even pretend to be objective about its subject. Starkey is a royalist with an unabashed admiration for the English throne, and not only do his interpretations of key historical events firmly support his views, but in most cases we're not even told that there are any other interpretations. With few exceptions, the take on history we're offered is the traditional, mainstream view that Starkey prefers—there's definitely no revisionism going on here—and it would be interesting, and would give the series more credibility, if we got a dissenting viewpoint once in a while.
Strictly in terms of entertainment value, Monarchy is a mixed bag. Starkey doesn't let the solemnity of his subject matter get in the way of such irreverent moments as describing Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, as "the mother-in-law from hell," or noting that "the only thing rigid" about one particularly randy monarch "was his male member." Unfortunately, Starkey also has a dramatic, highly theatrical speaking style—the kind of overwrought pomposity Monty Python used to regularly parody, forty years ago, and which sounds comically anachronistic today—that never varies, no matter what the topic. It takes some getting used to, let's put it that way.
The writing and direction also too often match the vocal delivery. Starkey's descriptions can, and regularly do, go over the top, to humorous effect. ("The battle was both savage and bloody." Really—it was savage and bloody? That sure does beat those other savage battles where nobody bled, or the ones where soldiers just stood around meekly bleeding to death.) And there are the occasional très dramatique shots of Starkey against a stark English landscape brooding like Heathcliff on the moors, then turning sloooowly towards the camera, that made me glad I wasn't drinking anything at the time.
Video and audio quality for Monarchy vary considerably, as might be expected given its many different locations and attendant lighting and acoustic limitations, but the overall quality is acceptable. Besides the occasional grainy, dimly-lit shot—usually in some cramped underground chamber—or washed-out outdoors scene, the image tends towards a slight fuzziness, but it's rarely a distraction.
Audio is more problematic, with the Dolby stereo track sounding tinny and harsh, and the volume varying significantly between episodes. It's far from intolerable, but it is occasionally jarring.
Monarchy gets a disappointing bare-bones treatment, with extras consisting of a small booklet with supplemental information (a description of royal servants and some royal trivia), a series of text biographies of 20th century monarchs (you know, the ones we would have seen covered in the missing 17th episode of this "complete series") and one for Starkey himself (he's known as "the rudest man in England," which probably isn't saying much by American standards—Starkey should try going on one of our cable news channels). There's also a photo gallery of royal palaces, that fails on a basic level by giving us tiny feathered thumbnails of buildings crowded into corners by the descriptive text. Given the numerous gaps and neglected events in this history, the lack of supplemental material is a missed opportunity.
It's certainly asking too much for a 16-hour documentary on nearly the entire history of the British monarchy to cover each time period thoroughly enough to please every viewer. But as engrossing as Monarchy can be in its best moments, it's also uneven in its tendency to provide too much information on some subjects, and far too little on others. Furthermore, the limited perspective we receive from our solitary, decidedly biased narrative voice undercuts the authority of the series as a whole. Monarchy steers a safe, traditional course down the middle of British history, avoiding any hint of controversy and asking no difficult questions about the institution it celebrates.
Still, Monarchy, with its epic scope, offers at least a nominal grounding for those of us unfamiliar with the whole of English royal history. It may be a bit much to take in more than small doses, but if you can survive the millennia-long slog from King Offa to Queen Victoria, you'll be left with a much stronger sense of the various threads connecting these fascinating, often troubling figures of history. Not to mention a profound appreciation of the layers of historical context surrounding the doggie-style sex scenes on The Tudors.
Hear ye, hear ye! Let all present and to come know that we have found Monarchy, despite being a 16-hour documentary on the 1,500 year history of limited monarchy in Britain, to be not guilty of the charge of being interminably boring. Moreover, the Court shall take this opportunity to honor Dr. David "The Sexiest Beast in England" Starkey, a man without whose ceaseless energy and tireless skill the British Television Industry would be today.
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