Ruben Lomas reviews Peter Ackroyd’s The Romantics, BBC2
The French Revolution — although it was a bourgeois revolution — also saw ordinary working people organising collectively, producing their own propaganda, literature, publications and staking their claim for a society in which those who produce wealth also have some control over it. The events in France in the late 18th century are still a central point of departure for anyone serious about studying our tradition.
You might think, then, that Peter Ackroyd’s new series — the first episode of which examined the poetry that was inspired by the revolution — would be essential viewing for socialists. But you’d be wrong.
It was, in fact, self-indulgent nonsense saturated with overused special effects, laboured camera-trickery and pointless periods in which absolutely nothing went on and the viewer was left to gaze upon on Ackroyd’s spectacularly porcine visage.
Even the presence of talented actors like David Threllfall (Frank Gallagher in the consistently fantastic Shameless, here playing William Wordsworth) and David Tennant (the new Doctor Who, appearing here as a dishevelled Rousseau) could not rescue the programme. They appeared in inexplicable flashes of golden light, recited quotations from the work of the men they were portraying and disappeared again in much the same manner.
But the programme was not only hopelessly uninspiring on an aesthetic level, Ackroyd’s idiotic commentary ensured that it was politically stupid too. He combined a crass lack of historical rigour with a deeply sloppy “great men” approach to history that, for example, saw him assert that the arrest of Denis Diderot in 1749 was solely responsible for “setting off a chain of events” that ultimately led to the beheading of King Louis in 1793. One expects better from the author of London: A Biography, a meticulously researched and fascinating book.
The poetry of men like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley (to be featured in a forthcoming episode) is, as Ackroyd said in the programme, amongst the most exciting poetry ever written in the English language. Much of it does reflect the intense hope inspired by events in revolutionary France. A programme that seriously examined its impact, its origins and took a slightly more rigorous attitude to assessing what was going on in 18th century Europe could have been stimulating, informative and interesting. This programme was simply not it.
Ackroyd kept banging on about “the dream of liberty”; perhaps the structure of the entire programme was meant to lead the viewer to empathise with the plight of the downtrodden common man in 18th century Europe, struggling to escape to shackles of decaying feudalism. Or maybe not. Either way, there was nothing liberating about watching it.
Now, a study piece on the Romantics delivered by Frank Gallagher…that’d be worth watching.