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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 67 - Television dispels fears that history was becoming a thing of the past

WHAT is taught in schools nowadays is a closed book to me but, from my contact with our youthful intelligentsia, history either does not figure prominently on the curriculum or, if it does, often fails to make a lasting impression on malleable minds. Hands up those who know the dates and reasons for the Synod of Whitby, the Diet of Worms and the War of Jenkinsís Ear?

For most people, excepting readers of this newspaper, I would expect a melancholy recital of ungleaned or faded facts. If you missed any recent report on the ignorance of history among Britainís youth, donít worry because soon a new one will come, usually in survey form, revealing that 75 per cent of school children think Hitler won the Battle of Hastings, that Tony Blair is president of Britain and that the Picts were a 1960s pop group.

Fears that history was becoming a thing of the past are being dispelled by a spate of TV historical programmes over the past few years. History is entertainment, and hardly a month passes without some series for shell-shocked viewers on the First World War, or some new revelation about the Second World War: the " truth" about the Dunkirk evacuation is to be revealed by the BBC.

There was the impressively-presented tapestry of Simon Schamaís History of Britain, and the recently-ended, absorbing, history-as-popular-journalism of The Sword and the Cross presented by Richard Holloway.

Standards, however, have slumped in other productions. BBC1ís Charles II: the Power and the Passion has dropped its final tawdry curtain and BBC2 showed, last Tuesday night, The Private Life of Samuel Pepys, a production purporting to be an historical drama but which, after an hourís screening, mainly consisting of the social peccadillos and sexual proclivities of the great diarist, secretary to the Admiralty and reformer of Navy administration, turned out to be a grotesque mixture of threadbare comedy and grubby sexual romp.

We diary readers know our Pepys - not only a bit of a lad with the ladies and serving- wenches, man-about-town, bon vivant, but also a keenly-observant proto-civil servant of high intelligence, wit and industry, lover of books and the theatre, a friend of Wren, Evelyn (another diarist), Newton and Dryden, a battler against corruption and debauchery in high places, especially when they threatened naval administrative efficiency although, in lower places, he maintained a less rigorous moral stance.

If you believe the production, Pepys, played by comedian Steve Coogan as a lubricious lout in a frowsy wig of super- Shirley Temple hairstyle proportions, spent most of his adult life, lolling, to adapt a Shakespearean phrase, on lewd love beds with mistresses and maids.

The plague-filled air was filled with the sonic turbulences of sexual athleticism; groan succeeded grunt, moan preceded sigh like steam escaping from a pipe and there were gurgles suggestive of overflowing gutters and other crepitations that, in a family column, defy elaboration.

Not a vital remained unstapped, not a tush unpished in that farrago of historical codswallop. Stuffed mattress-full with crass sexual and comedy cliches, the production showed Pepys seeking to demonstrate the concept of the bawdy beautiful and that lust was a many-splendoured thing.

Meanwhile, what of the nation? Not in good shape. "The whole of London is burning," observed Sam, eyes alight and heart a-glow after, probably, emerging from burning passion between the sheets. Red light flickered at the edges of the screen, but of that conflagration, no more. "Youíll just have to take my word for it," he observed to viewers. The great plague was verbally brushed aside, perhaps as inappropriate to pillow talk and around the time when Dutch fleet guns were heard on the Thames, Pepys was romantically entangled with a fair craft berthed on a grassy bank. When did he have time to run the Navy, write his diary and quarrel with his wife?

Nothing was spared viewers in that scrofulous world of heaving bottoms and bosoms: Pepysís operation for the removal of a kidney stone - apparently the size of a small hand-grenade - scatological oaths and dubious factual accuracy.

"History," observed American car maker, Henry Ford, "is more or less bunk." No qualifying words about that tasteless travesty of a complex and contradictory character. Such offerings are unadulterated bunk and should, for the screen, become things of the past.

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