Yesterday was an exciting day for historians and anyone interested in history. Amidst great hype, it was confirmed that the skeleton found in a Leicester car park was indeed that of Richard III. And last night there was an accompanying program about the find on Channel 4. Afterwards I saw many reactions to the day and the program, both positive and negative. Some were valid, others, I felt, were a bit harsh. Therefore (because it was on my mind all of last night), I think some of the main ones need to be looked at further.
(1)The address given by the team from University of Leicester responsible for the remains
Overall it was handled wonderfully – apart from, and I think most people will agree – the long tease!! It was a bit like waiting for the results on some reality TV – all that was missing was the long pause and dramatic music. Even so, it WAS a big occasion so personally I can forgive them for that. They have also been criticised for hyping the event so that it was more about the university than the announcement. Personally I didn’t think so, but even if they did, so what? Universities these days are facing funding crises and have to fight to keep departments open, as well as attract students to fill courses. This discovery and all of the work done at Leicester will surely safeguard many courses and departments – which i all to the good.
(2) The tone of the Channel 4 program was too ‘dumbed down’ and not historical enough.
This complaint was one I heard a lot of last night – mainly from other academics, historians and those with an interest in the period. There was too much of Philippa’s crying (more on that later), too many Shakespearean quotes, a strange-looking and random presenter, and not enough of what actually happened in Richard’s lifetime, the DNA process etc.
Well, yes, as a historian myself I do agree that there should have been more history included and maybe demonstrations of weapons that caused the wounds, armour… that sort of thing. As for th rest… it has to be remembered that Channel 4 is a maker of television programs and a business. It therefore needs to cater to the majority of its viewers which, in this case, I suspect are not historians, but just people interested in this unique event. Secondly, the program makers themselves probably do not hold degrees in medieval history and so followed storylines that they deemed to be of the greatest interest, no doubt assuming that the same storylines would capture the average viewer’s attention as well.
Programs about such unique events are always hard to make and I’m sure that if they went and made it more historical or scientific, people would have moaned (or not watched) too.
(3) Philippa Langley*
The negative reactions to Philippa’s part in the program ranged from being uncomfortable at her emotional reaction to nasty remarks about her mental state. I feel that these were totally uncalled for. For a start, the program makers were in charge of the bits and pieces that went into the program and it was they who chose to portray Philippa in such a way. I assume that the nuttiness remarks came from her ‘feelings’ about the car park before it was dug, about the R (for reserved of course) painted on the spot where she got the strangest feelings, and her seeming insistence that she knew it was him before any analysis was done. People are entitled to their opinions of course, but I would just like to point out that whatever the reasons for her having the feelings, she was absolutely right! Lastly there were many complaints about her getting so emotional about the bones. For heavens sake, this is a woman who had researched, lived, breathed and consumed Richard III for years. Of course she was going to feel like she knew him. As someone who has researched Hugh Despenser at the same intensity for years I would be just the same. And I’m sure a certain historian for Edward II would too if she had Edward’s bones in front of her!
Philippa is a screenwriter, not a scientist. She had no need for stony-hearted objectivity and yet in no way did she (despite her convictions) not keep an open mind about what was to be discovered. Indeed most of her emotion came from the fear that she would be proved wrong and that it had all been for nothing, that her instincts could not be trusted. Maybe some people are just uncomfortable with others showing emotions on screen about something they would not feel the same about themselves. Or maybe some people just have that very British disease of having to put things and people down just for the sake of it.
And really, really finally, I would like to remind those who lambasted Philippa that without her research, vision and dedication to fundraising and chasing the right people, this dig would never have happened – and we wouldn’t now have Richard III’s body being found.
So please, before you criticise people or programs or institutions, just consider the whys, whats, hows and whens – and whether you could have done any better.
By the way, I have another blog post up about the finding of Richard’s skeleton and comparing the hype to that of the finding of the Hulton Abbey skeleton at Lady Despenser’s Scribery
*Just in case you were wondering, no I do not know Philippa and I am not even a die-hard Ricardian. I just know someone with passion about their subject when I see one!