Putting a face to the story

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Stirring Times. BBC2 8pm November 27-December 18

Scottish history is popular all of a sudden. Welcome though it is, the surge in interest is stretching the educational resources available: many history teachers are not entirely comfortable with the story of their home country, and the range of basic reading materials is narrow.

So it is good news that BBC Scotland is putting out over the next month a series of four programmes looking at major historical figures: Robert the Bruce (November 27), Mary Queen of Scots (December 4), the Marquis of Montrose (December 11) and John Maclean (December 18).

Children have tended to learn Scottish history as a sequence of almost fairy stories at primary level, and will be ill-prepared if they do not meet it again until university. These programmes are intended to fill that gap, to reassure us all that Scotland does indeed have a colourful and exciting past without trivialising the issues they raise.

The methods chosen are original. The programme on Robert the Bruce, where I thought they worked least well, has four, even five, strands. It starts with a brief Braveheart-ish battle scene. The events are shadowed by newsreel footage, mostly of wars in the 1930s and 1940s, punctuated by academic talking heads voicing, in this case, rather tedious opinions. Then the background is sketched in by actors with a script that is a cross between Godfather IV and Michael Collins. It's all tied together by regular appearances from the feisty Dr Louise Yeoman.

She is quite a gal. Every time she appears she wears a different, striking outfit, to complement the deserted Highland scenery, the Parisian boulevard or wherever she happens to be regaling us from. At one point she sits in an antique saloon car wearing a trilby and smoking a cigar (everyone seems to smoke furiously; is this quite the right thing for New Scotland?).

Dr Yeoman uses the word "bastard" without blushing, and generally employs the diction of the bright modern teenager. She has some brilliant ideas - the yelp of the peacock at Scone as she describes the horrible death of Edward II of England is not to be missed.

Yet amid all this it becomes a bit hard to follow what is supposed to be happening. I watched the preview tape with a 13-year-old who, halfway through, declared it "rubbish'' and returned to his computer. If he had had to write an essay on what he had seen I suspect he would have had problems. Louise's main point is that Bruce was at least as much interested in his family as in his nation. Perhaps that is a bit too abstract, or just not interesting enough, to hold the strands together. As a means of matching word to image to produce understanding it fell well short of the ideal.

At the other extreme of time and style, I found the episode on John Maclean interesting. A class might well have been set a topic such as "Could Maclean have brought about a socialist revolution on the Clyde in 1919?'' and had enough material from the programme itself to answer.

There is footage of the George Square riot and contemporary disturbances in Glasgow. The talking heads - myself, Tommy Sheridan and a couple of others - put the cases for and against. The scripted part is this time realistic, covering Maclean's domestic life. And the indomitable Dr Yeoman is not quite so actressy, confining herself to climbing wally closes in illustration of the rent strike of 1915.

The other two programmes fall between the extremes. There is a delicious scene of Mary Queen of Scots, apparently in a French brothel, crooning over the phone to John Knox. In general, however, the episode on Montrose is the more effective, perhaps because the moral dilemma posed is starker: he combined military genius with terrorism. Can any cause justify the lengths to which he went?

The series is a courageous effort to deal in a fresh way with Scottish history, which succeeds despite yielding to the temptation of extravagance.

Michael Fry

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