The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning

First aired: 1999

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: Quest


Reviewer: Bradley Phipps

On the night of 21st June 1964, three civil rights workers – James Chaney (a black Mississipian), Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (both white and from New York) – disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The men were part of the Freedom Summer project, which sought to challenge racist restrictions on voting in Mississippi. The trio were victims of a lynching, and it was found that a conspiracy to kill the men had been hatched in cooperation between the local Ku Klux Klan and Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. The trio of civil rights activists were arrested by Price before being released from the station and pursued by the Deputy Sheriff in his patrol car alongside other Klan members. The group then murdered the three men before disposing of their bodies in an earthen dam. The murder of these three men has become one of the most well-remembered and infamous incidents of white supremacist violence, and was the subject of the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’.

The FBI Files: The True Story of Mississippi Burning seeks to tell the story of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) efforts to find the bodies of the three murdered men and subsequently and to bring the perpetrators to justice. The documentary relies particularly upon reconstructions of events and also makes use of interviews – primarily with three FBI agents who were involved on the case – but also occasional brief snippets of an interview conducted with Bob Moses, an African American civil rights activist who played a central role in the Freedom Summer project.


The documentary is particularly successful in demonstrating that racist violence did not exist merely on the margins of society, but also had support from those in positions of power and authority – in this instance, Deputy Sheriff Price, who conspired with other Klan members, played a key role in their murder by abusing his position of authority by using his legitimacy as a police officer to enable the lynch mob. Similarly, the documentary is effective in demonstrating the barriers to successfully prosecuting those responsible for the lynching, which was made more difficult by the fact that murder was a crime requiring prosecution at a state rather than federal level, and that juries in Mississippi remained resistant to convicting white men of lynchings. The issue of racism in the police and bias in the judicial system continues to be a relevant and contentious discussion to this day, with increasing attention being given to the number of African Americans killed by police and the issue of ingrained racism in the judicial system. The fact that Edgar Killen, the Klan recruiter who masterminded the lynching, was not successfully prosecuted until 2005 – 41 years after the murders – provides just one example of the ongoing limitations of the judicial system in situations such as this.

Also highly interesting – particularly in light of my own area of research – was the mention given to the role of the wives of Klan members who, growing weary of FBI investigations of their husbands and seeking to protect their children, began to give information to the FBI agents about the Klan and its activities. This was an  interesting snippet which alluded to the fact that segregationist activity did not occur in an all-male vacuum, but was also influenced by female family members. However, more could have been made of this angle and a more detailed exploration of the role of these women would have benefited the documentary. In particular, it would have been interesting to uncover to what extent they knew about the planned lynching before it was committed, and indeed what role, if any, they played in Klan activities. Though recent literature has begun to uncover the role of women in the Klan and in the defence of racial segregation and white supremacy more broadly, still not enough is known about their activities and influence, and this was a missed opportunity to contribute to that knowledge.


The viewer may be left with the false impression from this documentary that racism manifested itself only in the brutality of overt violence. In truth, white supremacy took many forms, including the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of segregationist groups which generally sought to portray themselves as respectable and morally-upstanding and tended to apply more subtle methods than overt violence, such as economic reprisals against African American activists. A brief exploration of the wider field of white resistance during the period, especially given that these murders took place in Mississippi, the heartland of white resistance, would have helped to place the murders in context and have aided understanding of the challenges faced by the FBI investigation rather than effectively viewing the lynching in isolation.

A key weakness of the documentary is brought about by its premise, in that it focuses solely on the FBI investigation of the murders. Though effective at detailing the events and the FBI’s investigation, the programme fails to provide the context necessary to better understand the murders, such as the political climate at the time. At times, this lack of context was jarring and seemed to undermine with the narration. For instance, the narrator asserts that ‘racists drew the line at murdering white people’, and as such ‘the FBI no longer seemed like the enemy’ to many white individuals in Neshoba County, Mississippi. However, all 19 of the men who were charged in connection with the lynching made bail, leaving the viewer to ponder the question of whether the men had assistance in paying their bail, and if so, from whom this assistance came. Additionally, the documentary’s narrow focus on the heroism of the (white) FBI agents is detrimental to providing a full narrative of events. A more detailed analysis – perhaps by speaking to civil rights activists, white segregationists, and Neshoba citizens, would have potentially helped to provide a better portrayal of how the racially-motivated murders were viewed in the county. Much as the 1988 film ‘Mississippi Burning’ has been accused by critics of having a ‘white saviour’ narrative, the same criticism could be made of this documentary.

Pic 3.png

The narrow focus on the FBI also brings about a potential conflict of interest. It resulted in a documentary which lionises the FBI, overlooking the claims of critics of the Bureau, who have charged it with being ineffective at investigating incidents of white supremacist violence during the period. Indeed, we know that J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI from 1935 until 1972, was sceptical of the Civil Rights Movement, believing it to be disruptive and radical, and that that the FBI took little action to protect civil rights activists and investigate racist violence – a fact which is alluded to by the documentary’s reference to the discovery of the bodies of other black lynching victims during the search for the three civil rights workers. Two of these bodies were the remains of black students who had been lynched the previous month. The lynchings of these two students – like many other lynchings – had not been investigated by the FBI, and this begs the question of why the disappearance of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner was different – and indeed why their deaths have been remembered and memorialised so thoroughly, in contrast to the victims of numerous other lynchings? If the FBI was as effective, meticulous, and dedicated to investigating this lynching as portrayed in this documentary, then the reason for this should have been explored, perhaps in the context of the public’s reaction to the murders and the pressure on Hoover and his Bureau to act, and whether the fact that two of the victims were white played a role. Instead, Agent Sullivan’s testimony that Hoover immediately took decisive action after the men went missing is allowed to stand without challenge or context. As such, the documentary’s reliance upon FBI cooperation somewhat undermines its balance and its ability to give a fair and critical appraisal of events. Despite this, the documentary does provide an intriguing glimpse into the investigation of this brutal lynching, and reveals the myriad challenges in bringing justice for the victims and the frustrations of an imperfect justice system.

Though the documentary acknowledges that ‘the hatred that split the nation was not so easily eradicated’, it also attempts to portray the murders – and Mississippi itself – as an aberration. Bob Moses’ assertion in the interview featured in the documentary that ‘Mississippi has become like every other state in the country’ seems intended to be celebratory of the progress made since the lynching. But when viewing this documentary today – 17 years after it was first broadcast – in the shadow of present-day racial divisions in the United States, including the resilience of racial segregation; the resurgence of Ku Klux Klan groups; racial bias in policing; and the continuing use of racial rhetoric in politics, one is left to wonder whether such optimism was premature.

Bradley Phipps is an AHRC M3C-funded History PhD student at the University of Leicester and the University of Nottingham. His research explores the role of gender in the White Citizens’ Councils, a network of groups which formed to resist racial integration in the United States. For more information, click here.

Posted in Bradley Phipps | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 80s: History, Politics and Social Media

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC2


Reviewer: Aaron Andrews

For a contemporary British historian, watching a Dominic Sandbrook documentary can be a highly emotive experience – just ask the #twitterstorians, whose trepidation I was able to follow before catching-up later. And so, in all honestly, my watching of the first episode of the three-part series The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook began without a completely open mind.

Sandbrook has a basic argument which has been building throughout previous series, and of course the accompanying books, and The 80s is where this argument will perhaps reach its zenith. Post-war Britain was becoming more individualistic. ‘Affluence’ had brought about a more consumer-driven and insular society focussed on the home – if there was such a thing as ‘society’ anyway, to misquote a woman who dominated 1980s Britain. No, not Delia Smith, but Margaret Thatcher; Sandbrook appears to take delight in conflating the two, though I’m not sure of Smith’s thoughts on monetary policy.

Andrews 1

I have some sympathy for this line of thinking, and as James Vernon’s Distant Strangers has shown, urban social change leading to atomisation was nothing new. Rather, it is Sandbrook’s supposition that this social change was leading almost inevitably to Thatcherism, as if there was no choice to be made on 3 May 1979, that is most problematic. This kind of teleology is anathema to historians, and ignores alternative structures and agency influencing historical change (OK, my attempt to sound like a #seriousacademic is over).

But this is not necessarily what irks many historians. It’s that Sandbrook shows his politics openly – he’s either avowedly Thatcherite, or a fantastic actor. There are a couple of times I’ve heard a question be asked, ‘can you even be an academic historian and a Tory?’. Yes, but whether we’re left-wing, right-wing, or somewhere in the middle, surely our work shouldn’t be about proving that our political opinions are right? Even if our politics understandably influences the type of history we do, should we allow that to blind us to alternative stories, or alternative possibilities?

The politics underlying The 80s undoubtedly skews the analysis. Sandbrook touched on my own area of research, covering industrial and urban decline in Merseyside. Sandbrook was right about one thing, Thatcher(ism) did not ‘cause’ industrial decline in places like Merseyside. De-industrialisation was a long-term process, and economic decline in Liverpool can be dated long before Thatcher’s 1979 victory as various changes in the geographies and technologies of trade and transport began to erode the economic vitality of the port and, to an extent, the city itself. Liverpool is a good case study for this argument, but the city was atypical in many ways. Much of its industrial manufacturing, by the late 1970s, had been driven to the area through post-war regional policy. The underlying causes of the early 1980s recession merit closer analysis than I have space for here, but The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook overlooks both the impact of the recession, and the extent to which its severity can be attributed to government policy.

On the other side of overlooking the role of government policy in the severity of urban economic change in the early 1980s, Sandbrook also over exaggerates the 1980s as a turning point in consumerism and its associated urban infrastructure (shopping centres to people not in the middle of writing a thesis). Watching The 80s with Dominic Sandbrook, the viewer is given the impression that the consumer society was born in the 1980s, with Next given a lot of credit for this. This ignores the centrality of consumer goods – washing machines, cars, clothes – to the post-war ‘affluent society’. But more importantly, Sandbrook’s narrative puts forward the view that, though Thatcher cannot be blamed for de-industrialisation, her premiership was instrumental in the move to services, a move which seems to have saved the day.

Andrews 2

The links between Next power dressing, Delia Smith and Thatcher’s Britain make a compelling argument for many. But the argument is skewed in such a way as to make uncomfortable viewing for historians of 20th century Britain. It’s not simply the case that lefty academic types don’t like Sandbrook’s politics, it’s that he allows his own preconceptions to cloud his analysis. This makes for poor history. And so, the next time there’s a Sandbrook documentary on, I would urge you to take much of what he says with a pinch of salt (to paraphrase Delia Smith), and to follow the #twitterstorians commentary, if only to find out that there was more to the early 1980s than Sandbrook let on.

Aaron Andrews is a PhD student in the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester. His thesis is on urban decline in Liverpool, c. 1968-86.

Posted in Aaron Andrews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dan Cruikshank: At Home with…the British

Year:                      2016

Genre:                  Documentary

Broadcaster:        BBC Four


Reviewer:           Phillippa Mapes

The BBC’s  ‘At Home with…the British’ series, aired in May 2016, consists of three episodes each dealing with a different type of housing including the Tudor cottage, Victorian terrace and post-war high rise and all described in the programme as the ‘ordinary homes that most of us live in’.  The series is presented by Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian who has a considerable pedigree of academic publications to his name (including Life in the Georgian City, A History of Architecture, and The Architects Journal) and who is fast becoming a ‘national treasure’ for his informative and accessible television programmes on the history of buildings.

Despite Episode 2’s title (‘The Terrace’) and billing, this is not a programme about the terrace per se, but focuses on the Victorian terrace and specifically a case study of the terraces of Toxteth in Liverpool, built in the second half of the nineteenth century.  The programme looks at how and why these houses were built and what life was like to live in them.  At this point it is not clear why there should be such a particularly narrow focus for a programme billed as covering the terraced house in general, except for the fact that this type of house became more available to a greater range of social groups during the nineteenth century.  Indeed, many of the social, economic and material issues affecting this form of housing development and described in the programme, (such as responses to increasing urban growth, restrictive land covenants, motives of the speculative builder and the cult of domesticity) were also features of the significant developments of terraced housing in the long eighteenth century in the expanding urban areas of Britain, albeit reflected in a different architectural style of terrace.

It’s hard not to like Dan Cruickshank with his gentle, avuncular manner and enthusiastic, whispering delivery.  He takes us on an historical journey of the built environment of this particular area of Liverpool from its infamous slum housing in the  early nineteenth century, to the single largest development of an estate by Welsh architect Richard Owens in the 1860s, and the urban decline of the area in the 1980s.  On the way we explore subjects including the influx of Welsh labourers and builders, how different types of building material effected the appearance and cost of these terraces, and the consequences  of improvements in sanitation provision on public health.  The changing demographics of this area are also discussed as Liverpool’s fortunes as a port rose and fell in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  In this clip Dan discusses building materials:

Mapes 07 1

The hour-long programme covers considerable ground, using current footage of the streets as well as archive photographs and documents, street and house plans, plus oral history evidence from local residents.  In places we are briefly whisked through a subject and on to the next, sometimes unconnected, section.   At times it is also not clear if we are talking about a particular middling class or working class terrace or experience.  For the historian well aware of the blurring of class boundaries  and the difficulties of defining class in terms of living space, this is slightly frustrating.  It is not until near the end of the programme, for example, that attempts are made to address this issue by categorising the terraces by the residents’ occupational status given in the 1851 census returns.

The tone of the programme is informal and in places light-hearted.  We see Dan manfully loading cement into a mixer, having a go at splitting slates and scrubbing a front doorstep.  We are made aware from the start that this is a programme about the homes of ordinary people and relevant to the viewer, not a weighty discourse on architectural styles.  The down to earth approach is re-enforced throughout, such as by Dan giving a piece to camera about sanitation in the terraced house whilst sitting in an outside lavatory, and footage of a lady resident giggling as he innocently states ‘now I’ve got you here I can explore your plumbing in detail’.

Nonetheless Dan Cruickshank’s erudite credentials and affable manner carry him, and we are treated to some fascinating glimpses into rarely seen or previously inaccessible buildings, such as the remarkable Toxteth Reservoir, an enormous structure built in 1853 to hold thousands of gallons of water and supported underground by a vast gallery of cast iron pillars.  In the clip below we gain access to one of the very few remaining examples of the Liverpool ‘court’ houses – slum dwellings built around a narrow courtyard:

Mapes 07 3

Although the programme is interesting and absorbing, at times it feels like it would benefit from the perspective of a wider geographical context or comparison.  One also wonders if there is a place in this documentary for Dan to interview a young mum and her daughter in a modernised terrace interior.  Do we really need to know about her plans to paint the child’s room baby pink and hang a pink chandelier?   However, as in the clip below, her enthusiasm and enjoyment of the house is palpable as she talks about its sense of history.  Here the point of the programme becomes clear. This is not so much a documentary on the ubiquity of the terraced house, as an attempt to point out the value and richness of heritage of that these commonplace homes represent.

Mapes 07 4

What Dan reveals is that vast numbers of these terraced houses were demolished as a result of the Toxteth Riots in 1981, as poor housing, rather than unemployment and racial tensions, were seen as a major contributor to this episode of social unrest.  Unsympathetic, top down planning by Liverpool council had seen the decimation of the once prolific Victorian terrace in this area.  We learn that the four remaining streets in the Granby area of Toxteth, saved from demolition by pressure from local residents, is the focus of an inclusive project run in partnership with the architectural collective ‘Assemble’ and was the winner of the prestigious contemporary arts award, the Turner prize in 2015 for its innovative approach to preservation and regeneration of these rapidly disappearing historic streets.

Dan Cruickshank is a Trustee of S.A.V.E. Britain’s Heritage, an independent charity which campaigns for the preservation of all types of historic building.  In this capacity he uses the forum of this programme to raise awareness amongst us all of how vulnerable to loss our built heritage is.  His personable manner stimulates an understanding and appreciation of the rapidly disappearing internal and external architectural details of these ubiquitous houses. With or without the toilet humour, this can only be a very good thing.


Phillippa Mapes is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Leicester studying the English Wallpaper Trade in the Eighteenth Century.

Posted in Philippa Mapes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Michael Wood’s ‘Story of England’

Year: 2010

Genre: Documentary

Broadcaster: BBC FOUR


For a local, family and community historian the premise of Michael Wood’s Story of England is an excellent one. Taking a multi-discipline diverse approach it aims to explore the development of a modern community through its historical past.  The program creates a narrative of how national and international events affected the local community, through those who lived and worked in it and its buildings, culture and institutions. It promises to encapsulate the ideal, a ‘Tale of one place through the whole of our history’.

The series consists of six parts which ambitiously spans a vast historical swathe from the Romans to modern times and my own viewing, episode 5, commenced with the Reformation and culminated at the Industrial Revolution. The geographical location for the series is Kibworth in Leicestershire and the focus is on the three villages of Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt and Smeeton Westerby.

The Story of England has a fine ancestry, feeding from other popular historical programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, Time Team and reality programmes such as The 1900’s House. But rather than being a passive observer Michael Wood challenges the viewer to engage actively with their history to look at primary sources, visit heritage centres and look at and engage with the built environment and all that may be available for their own location, their family, their house and their community.

In order to deliver its aims this series has to convey, in a short space of time, a wealth of information, without becoming a dry information documentary. This is tackled in a variety of ways, seamlessly combining the visual, auditory and intellectual. To set the scene for the programme’s aims the title introduction sees evocative scenes of the village transforming from the medieval to the modern before your eyes overlaid with sepia images of times and people past.

McMullon 1

The wide availability and potential use of primary sources is shown through various discussions throughout. For example, with archives as a backdrop, a discussion based on correspondence takes place about the Dissenters in the Civil War, of which in Kibworth there were ‘200 of the middling sort’. In another scene the will of John Iliff, a Catholic man, is used to demonstrate what a wealth of information is contained in the 20,000 Tudor wills that are held at the National Archives. John Iliff’s will reveals that a material world is developing during the Tudor Reformation as he had possessions in every room of the house.

A different perspective is brought to the written sources when during a section on the plight of the framework knitters the voices of local residents bring to life historical documents. Alongside this the life of the workhouse building is re-created for the current owners using historical documents and the evidence of the building’s construction.

McMullon 2

Alongside the importance of traditional research, using primary source material, whether that be at the local church, archive room or at a national institution, this series also sets out to demonstrate the sheer variety of alternative non-written historical research that can be engaged in by introducing other avenues of exploration and investigation.  There are visits to museums and interviews with specialists in their fields. These include a discussion at Foxton Canal Museum about the impact that the arrival of the newest transport system, the canals, had on Kibworth in 1790. A school trip to the Wigston Framework Museum shows children that history is alive and within touch as they witness first- hand what life was like for a child of a similar age to themselves.

The innovation, in 1609, of maps is discussed by Michael Wood as he informs that for the first time individuals could see what their village looked like and villagers knew who owned what and by walking in the countryside the viewer can see how the landscape can inform our understanding of farming and enclosure. In the centre of Kibworth a community archaeological dig, unearthing smashed pipe bowls, reveals that Kibworth was on the route of a major turnpike road between London and Leicester.

McMullon 3

A vibrant addition which appeals to all the senses is the re-enactment group, the ‘Sealed Knot Society’, marching through the village to the nearby Naseby battlefield recalling the Civil War that split the allegiances of the village communities.

There is much that could be criticised in this series. The time frame is perhaps too ambitious and often reference to national events is fleeting and touches only on the main events. But the events chosen do have real relevance for Kibworth history. It was also fortunate that the records for Kibworth are so extensive and available featuring notable individuals such as John Aikin, Unitarian preacher and Anna Barbauld, innovative children’s author. It is my own experience that this is not the case for every village. However it is also surprising what influential individuals do exist in your locality once you start digging.

What this series does do very successfully is demonstrate what can be achieved, in a variety of ways, by interested individuals for the local communities they are interested in, which all have their own story to reveal should someone care to look. In my view any method by which historical interest is created has to be a good thing. The real success is perhaps summarised  through the Kibworth Village History Day which demonstrates that everyone regardless of age can become involved in their local history and after the cameras left the project did not stop resulting in interpretation panels, a lottery heritage grant and guide booklets.

Posted in Sadie McMullon | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

De-industrialisation, Masculinity, and The Black Stuff

Year: 1980; re-broadcast 2010

Genre: Drama

Broadcaster: BBC FOUR


On 2 January 1980 the BBC broadcast a ‘Play for Today’ entitled The Black Stuff. The programme, which spawned a series two years later, followed a group of tarmac layers from Liverpool who had been employed to work on a construction site in Middlesborough. Set against a background of social and economic turmoil, it aired at a time when unemployment was rising rapidly. This was the first year of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, and the spectre of unemployment and union militancy loomed somewhat over the programme. It is easy, therefore, to read The Black Stuff as a firm critique of Thatcherism – this was certainly true of The Boys from the Blackstuff, the follow-on series which aired in 1982. But the original screenplay had been written (and recorded) two years previously – under a very different political context. What, then, can The Black Stuff tell us? Before getting on to questions of cultural (and historical) significance, I will first give an overview of the programme itself, focussing on the original ‘Play for Today’.

Opening with views of the River Mersey, replete with docks, but not necessarily much docking, the camera pans to familiar landmarks; three ‘Graces’, two cathedrals, and one radio tower. Over this scenery was a song about tarmacking. The tongue-in-cheek optimism of the lyrics contrasts starkly with our image of manual employment from the period (and, by the end of the programme, the experiences of the main characters): “There’s not a service equal to the old black stuff” and “If it doesn’t last forever then I swear I’ll eat my hat” being favourite lyrics. The main characters, Yosser, Dixie, Chrissie, Loggo, George and Kev, are setting off to Middlesborough with the promise of work. Though we get early glimpses into the lives of the characters, it was Yosser, played by Bernard Hill, who stands out – and not for good reasons.

Andrews 1

Yosser’s tumultuous relationship with his wife, who had left him all night with the children to go to the casino and had, by the time of his intended departure, still not returned, perhaps most poignantly raises the issue of masculinity. It is a theme which appears in many different guises throughout the programme, but it is at its most heightened through the spectres of misogyny and domestic violence, as encapsulated by Yosser. When he raises his fist to his wife, she declares that she is no longer afraid of him. A poignant moment early on, but one which foreshadows Yosser’s behaviour throughout.

On the way to Middlesborough, the boys stop at a café for breakfast. The light-fingered Loggo proclaimed to be on a diet, eschewing the fried breakfasts enjoyed by his friends. Of course, this is a means to save money, and out of his pocket comes a fully-plated cooked breakfast, covered in cling film. The show contains many light-hearted, humorous moments, contrasting nicely with the day-to-day struggles of making a living and, as we’ll see, retaining a strong sense of masculinity; at different points, various characters are criticised for being “soft”. The café scene also introduces a student, played by Janine Duvitski, hitch-hiking to Leeds. Yosser took an immediate dislike, the reason for which became immediately apparent, and tried to talk Chrissie, the driver of the boys’ van, into leaving her by the side of the road after promising a lift. Once again, gender is the principal issue. “Been raped lately, love?” berates Yosser, obviously taking the student to be a second wave feminist. “Not for ages”, comes her reply, to the enjoyment of all the boys, with the exception of a humiliated Yosser. Indeed, to Yosser’s assertion that “You don’t need an education like you’re getting to change nappies and cook chips” came a reply which can be summed up in the student’s words: “You’re scared”.

What the programme says about the gender politics of the late 1970s alone is interesting, but what most struck me was its relationship to seemingly anonymous economic forces. De-industrialisation, the closure of factories and loss of manufacturing employment is, along with ideas of ‘decline’, an important theme in contemporary British history. But the process was gendered; while the male-dominated manufacturing sector was shedding employment, services were hiring increasing numbers of women. In the face of the supposed ascendency of women, in Yosser’s case both inside and outside the home, Hill’s character increasingly struggled to maintain his strong masculine identity. It was something which would play out in the follow-up series, but with the precarious nature of tarmacking shown in the programme, also came the potential for unemployment. And if masculine identity was linked to employment and bread-winner status, then what would unemployment hold for a man like Yosser’s selfhood?

The programme drew on many more themes; the politics of trades unionism was crucial, as was hostility to Irish travellers. But identity is key. As events spiral out of Yosser’s control and he ends up unemployed and out of pocket (the travellers having taken his money), Yosser lambasts his “soft” friend Chrissie. Finally, his identity crisis is laid bare for all to see: “I wanna be somebody! I’m alive! I’m a human being! Look at me!”

Aaron Andrews is a PhD student in the Centre for Urban History at Leicester and is funded by Optimum-MBA. His thesis is entitled ‘Whither the City? Urban Decline in Glasgow and Liverpool, c. 1960-1990’. It looks at the various processes of social, economic and environmental change in the two cities and how they can inform our understanding of ‘decline’ in Britain.

Posted in Aaron Andrews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Britain’s Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones

Broadcaster: BBC One

Year: 2012

Genre: Documentary



Reviewer:  Katie Bridger


Britain’s Lost Routes with Griff Rhys Jones is a four-part series which attempts to retrace the hidden paths taken through history, coined as “the forgotten routes that made this country great” (00:01:18-00:01:33). It aims to discover these lost paths and to understand the people who took them, following a royal Elizabethan progress, a Thames sailing barge, Highland cattle drovers and pilgrim worshippers. The history of travel routes in Britain is possibly a topic less likely to quicken the pulse of the masses. It is the series’ context, however, such as the Elizabethan court, which improves its public appeal. The first episode in the series attempts to trace the route taken by Elizabeth’s royal progress through the west of England in 1574 from Windsor to Bristol, apparently recreating the “fun she had and havoc she wreaked as she went on her way…” (0:02:06-0:02:10). Rhys Jones sets the tone for the programme – light-hearted, yet informative – by drawing a debatable comparison between Elizabeth I and the Rolling Stones:

Bridger 1

Yet another documentary on yet another Tudor monarch is a tedious prospect. But here there is an attempt to place it alongside travel and landscape history in a combination that generally works, but occasionally loses its footing. It presents another aspect of Tudor England; one that touched the normal, everyday lives of its inhabitants at all levels of the social scale, with rarely an unfortunate wife or tragic statesman in sight. The programme incorporates a wealth of evidence, including correspondence, court calendars, maps and architecture.

Rhys Jones guides his audience with his usual combination of humour and intellect. As the 2012 equivalent of the progress begins its journey, Rhys Jones is cast as the monarch. His carriage is an interesting choice, a 1964 Rolls Royce Phantom V, which acts as the flashy catalyst for the remainder of the programme. The viewer is reminded that the prospect of turning heads appealed to Elizabeth, reflected in the public’s reaction to Rhys Jones shining, leathery royal carriage. A runway is the backdrop for the baggage train, which is itself composed of members of the public with various court roles. The roles are designated by rather fetching coloured baseball caps, much to amusement of the ‘courtiers’. The gentlemen of the privy chamber and privy councillors, for example, are given black and dark blue baseball caps to wear. Roles assigned, the viewer is treated to quite the spectacle. This segment encapsulates the appeal of the programme; visuals such as this permit the audience to conjure their own impression of the ripples cast by such a display, notwithstanding the problems created by the physical logistics alone:

Bridger 2

A number of experts are employed along the route, maintaining the core theme of the programme. A conversation with historical geographer Mark Brasher, for example, points to an innovative method for the reconstruction of the routes taken through the landscape. The problem created by the absence of marked roads in the series of county maps by the Yorkshire surveyor, Christopher Saxton (c.1540-c.1610), is arguably solved by the presence of bridges. The bridges are thus used to map a plausible route taken by the progress, used in conjunction with contemporary court calendars.

The programme sways between the route taken and the places visited by this Elizabethan progress, with a particular emphasis on the latter. The search for lodgings by the courtiers is replicated by Rhys Jones’ own search – in his Rolls Royce, of course – through a market town, looking for vacancies in a number of pubs, to no avail. A trip to a local coaching inn serves to explain the hospitable role of these establishments, discussed over a pint of replicated Elizabethan ale. Alternative forms of transport are considered, too, including horses, which for Rhys Jones are a “challenge with four legs” (00:18:41-00:18:43), and a litter. The sight of Rhys Jones being carried through a farmyard and down the Burford high street in a litter is memorable, to say the least. The implications of a changing landscape are considered, yet regrettably not fully explored, in an interview with landscape historian Dr. Amanda Richardson:

Bridger 3

Britain’s Lost Routes is a series with a commendable intention, which goes some way to achieving its goal. This particular episode is peppered with titbits – dramatic rolling landscapes, overgrown paths, interviews with experts – designed to appease its intended reconstruction of one element of the historical landscape. There is a tendency to focus on the physical features built into the landscape, such as Blenheim Palace, Sudeley Castle, and the architecture of medieval Gloucester. Whilst locations such as these lend a sense of place, it is a shame that the programme lacks confidence in casting the possible routes themselves in a leading role. Lessons in Tudor table manners, hawking and dancing practice seem only to serve the purpose of filling a few minutes, or perhaps to demonstrate Rhys Jones’ lack of skill in falconry. It has already been said that the programme is light-hearted in its approach; it does not pretend to be otherwise. It is fine as charming, comfortable evening viewing, but slightly more focus on its acclaimed hidden routes and slightly less input from tourist information would have been welcome.

Katie Bridger is a PhD student in the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. Her thesis is entitled ‘Expression and the landscape: the Leicestershire gentry, c.1460-c.1540’. It considers the implications of economic, political and religious change on the relationship between the gentry and their shire landscape as a reflection of their contemporary identity.

Posted in Katie Bridger | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

1916: The Irish Rebellion

Broadcaster:  BBC Four

Year: 2016

Genre: Documentary


Reviewer: Phillippa Mapes

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, the BBC  showed a series of documentaries covering this event from different perspectives.  Two of these programmes were broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland only, however a key contextual account of the events, and told from the Irish peoples’ perspective, was shown on the more accessible channel BBC Four.  This programme, entitled  1916: The Irish Rebellion, describes  the growth of the Irish peoples’ fight for freedom from centuries of rule by the British government and which led at this point to the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916.  The short lived  Rebellion lasted only six days before being suppressed by the British forces, but it marked a significant turning point in Anglo-Irish relations and in the move toward Irish self government.

Initially the viewer approaches the programme with some apprehension:  Previous film coverage of this subject made for general audiences has often been overtly emotive, sentimental and subjective, depicting a romanticised view of the Irish heroes fighting a one dimensional British enemy against a background of wistful folk-pipe music.  Furthermore the programme is narrated by actor Liam Neeson, chosen for his depiction of Irish revolutionary Michael Collins in the 1996 film of the same name, about which its creators openly admit to some fictional interpretation of events.  Not so with 1916: The Irish Rebellion however, and the viewer is immediately re-assured by the presence of no less than 18 academics (we meet three in the programme’s first short introductory overview), who provide informative commentary as the chronological narrative of events leading up to the 1916 Rebellion and its aftermath is compellingly told.

One wonders whether it is necessary to include quite so many individual historians for the ‘piece to camera’ commentaries, particularly as the narrative mainly covers the standard accepted historical account of the events as they happened.  Yet, in a sense this almost serves to reflect and re-enforce the many different protagonists that were involved in this struggle.  The programme provides a good sense of the complicated political situation at the time and an understanding of the internal divisions amongst the Irish themselves, not least between those with purely republican separatist aims and those more moderate nationalists led by John Redmond, who pressed for constitutional reform and a devolved government through negotiation with Westminster.  Added to these conflicting strands was the aggressive stance of the Unionists in the northern province of Ulster who saw a break with Westminster as a betrayal of their loyalties and interests, and a divided British parliament with both Conservative and Liberal parties seeking to increase their votes through tentative support of the Unionist and Irish Home Rule causes respectively.

The programme also effectively explains the further complications arising from the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  Whilst the British Government was diverted by this, Unionists signed up to fight for Britain and Redmond’s Home Rule party also pledged the allegiance of hundreds of Irishmen to fight for Britain in the hope of a reward of Home Rule at the end of the war.  Leaders of the Republican cause refused to fight, remaining in Ireland to plan their strategies but even here they were divided between the Irish Volunteer supporters of Padraig Pearse and Tom Clarke, and supporters of the Irish Citizen Army lead by radical socialist James Connolly.  Throughout the programme the narrative moves on at a gripping pace, leading the viewer forward to the catharsis of the Easter week Rebellion.   Throughout the documentary, the commentary is accompanied by a continuous rolling series of relevant, well chosen and often beautiful images comprised of contemporary land/cityscape shots juxtaposed with archive photographs, portraits, prints, newspaper cuttings and archive film footage drawn from an impressive trawl of archive sources.  Most effective is the use of archive film interviews with those involved, explaining in detail the actions and conflicting views on timing, approach and strategy of the Republican leaders on the eve of the Revolt.  In the following clip Bulmer Hudson of the Irish Republican Brotherhood describes the conflicting strategies that ultimately contributed to the failure of the revolt:

Mapes 1

The use of archive footage of the Republicans involved relaying accounts of the events provides an fresh personal touch for viewers who remember news reports of the Irish ‘Troubles’ in the sensitive political climate before the 1990s Peace Process.  Here television stations were instructed to dub the voice of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams with that of an actor’s, because of his associations with the terrorist group the Irish Republican Army.  Perhaps in the light of the Peace Process, this archive footage becomes more generally acceptable, notwithstanding the palpable belief of the protagonists that their cause was justified and honourable.  Balanced opinion is key to this programme.  The viewer is left with an understanding of the motivations  of those involved on all sides and factions.  The viewer can understand how an Irish republican rebel came to shoot dead an elderly Dublin resident as the latter tried to retrieve his own cart from a barricaded street, whilst at the same time comprehend the heavy handed suppression of the Rising by the British government which was already caught up in a protracted and bloody war in Europe.

Mapes 2

The programme reflects on how this severe repression served ultimately to galvanise further  support for the republican cause both within Ireland and amongst the Irish diaspora in America and contributing to the Rising’s legacy.  If there are any criticisms of this watchable programme it is that the decades of struggle for social and political reform on behalf of the moderate Irish Home Rule Party before the Rising is under-represented, yet this helps explain mainstream public opinion’s initial negative reaction to the rebels’ extreme actions.   The programme ends with a brief nod at the global implications of the Rising, suggesting that it was a “catalyst” for the fight for freedom from the British Empire in India, Africa and the Middle East.  This is argued superficially and appears added as an unsubstantiated and therefore unnecessary afterthought.   The impact of the Easter Rising on twentieth century Anglo-Irish relations is subject matter enough in this otherwise detailed and informative documentary.

Phillippa Mapes is an AHRC funded PhD candidate in the School of History at the University of Leicester studying the English Wallpaper Trade in the Eighteenth Century.

Posted in Philippa Mapes | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment