Playful view of the past

26th March 2004 at 00:00

BBC1, Sundays, April 4 to May 9, 6.30-7pm

Who was Dick Turpin? Why did Caesar try to conquer Britain? Was there a robber in Sherwood called Robin Hood? Did Tudor spin doctors malign Richard III? The BBC's latest history series examines these questions, and others that you never even wanted to ask.

Going out in "the family slot" on Sunday evenings, Historyonics is meant to be fun - but it tries to be good history at the same time. "It was always conceived as a series that would involve the family," producer Annie Heather told me. "We think it works on several levels and should appeal to anyone from age 10 upwards."

At the centre of each episode is a key personality: William of Normandy, then Robin Hood, Richard III, Dick Turpin, Julius Caesar and Mary Queen of Scots.

Presenter Nick Knowles, (formerly of DIY SOS) meets the famous figures, chats to them about their reputations and watches episodes from their lives. There is respect for the facts (this is not 1066 and All That), but no great reverence for the past. When dates are mentioned, they are quite likely to appear as: "1322 AD - just after lunch." The deliberate anachronisms and puns come thicker than Norman arrows at Hastings. Not all are as bad as the one in the title: some are much worse. Ancient British weaponry is "Britney Spears" and a bloke in a tin suit is greeted with:

"Good day, good knight", just so that he can answer: "Well, which is it? Make up your mind!" And if you think I'm giving away the best jokes, don't worry. That was jester sample.

Even so, the narrative can be quite complicated. The first episode explains Richard III's claim to the throne, making the rival factions and their leaders clearer than most "serious" histories. "Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new," Annie Heather says. "The secret was to simplify it - I hope it's got slightly more sophistication than Horrible Histories."

The comparison is bound to be made, but may be unfair to both.

Historyonics is more focused and less about social history than its literary counterpart. It gains weight, too, from occasional interventions by Professor Ronald Hutton, who gives a historian's perspective from his desk. Not that anyone should have much trouble separating the facts from the funnies.

The unstated question behind most of the stories is: "Who says?" The standard versions were written by the winners - as, in its own, unique way, Historyonics constantly reminds us. Perhaps Julius Caesar was not the brilliant general he makes out, Robin Hood was an amalgam of at least three different people, Dick Turpin a pretty nasty thug, and Richard III - well, who knows what Humpback Dick did or didn't get up to? It could even be that King Harold survived Hastings. To the extent that it gets viewers interested and asking questions, Historyonics will be an education as well as a laugh.

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