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Britishness by Michael Brooke
Introduction The British Character Ancient & Mediaeval Royalty & Empire The Class System Conflict
Landscape Foreigners Culture Leisure Eccentricity Shopkeepers
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Ancient and Mediaeval
Still from The Wicker Man

A pagan ritual in
'The Wicker Man' (1973)

It's fitting that evocations of ancient British history are often depicted as being shrouded in fog, as that neatly sums up our own certain knowledge of the period. Many aspects of ancient Britain have survived to this day, but we have no idea what Stonehenge was used for, or the precise purpose of many surviving artefacts.

Accordingly, most attempts to capture ancient Britain on film, television or another dramatic form have been very much at their creators' discretion. William Shakespeare made no attempt at giving his play Cymbeline an authentic period setting, even though the character was based on an actual king who reigned in pre-Roman Britain up to about 40AD. King Lear is even less time-specific, generally assumed to be set at some point in the so-called "dark ages" of around the 5th and 6th centuries.

Alternatively, many dramas take elements of ancient traditions, often pre-Christian or pagan rites, and shoehorn them into contemporary drama. The Wicker Man (1973) is set amongst a remote Scottish island community who run their lives according to their own interpretation of pagan lore, while Penda's Fen (BBC, 1974) sees a troubled teenager being attracted by similar impulses. The Owl Service (ITV, 1969-70) draws on the Mabinogion, a collection of pre-mediaeval Welsh manuscripts, while Children of the Stones (ITV, 1977) was shot at Avebury in Wiltshire, a Neolithic monument that dates back five millennia.

Some ancient traditions survive in the form of pageantry and other folkloric displays. Many of these were recorded by the Topical Budget newsreel in the 1910s and 1920s, including Stratford-upon-Avon's Ancient Mop Fair (which dates back to mediaeval times and culminates in a large-scale ox-roast), the so-called "furry dance" of Helston in West Cornwall, and the election of London's then new Lord Mayor, shown carrying bunches of sweet herbs in accordance with ancient custom.

Mediaeval British history has long caught the popular imagination. Shakespeare immortalised much of it in his history plays (most famously the Henry IV diptych, whose Sir John Falstaff is one of the greatest of all British comic characters), while the twentieth century saw such ratings-chasers as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955) and The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (1956-7), drawing on two of the classic British legends, which have been perennially revisited in later decades - the most recent Robin Hood (BBC, 2006) being shot in high-definition video.

But the most successful evocation of mediaeval Britishness can be found in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). This isn't as flippant as it sounds: the film was directed by two keen amateur historians of the period (and Terry Jones went on to build a substantial reputation as a Chaucer scholar), and for all the deliberate anachronisms and calculated silliness the actual period setting is surprisingly convincing - certainly enough to cast a long shadow over all other mediaeval films, very much including John Boorman's lavish Arthurian epic Excalibur (1981). And while the Carry On team rarely delved this far back into British history, Carry On Cleo does open with a British Stone Age scene.

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