30 January 2008 | Terrell-4
An elegant CliffsNotes version of Britain's kings and queens. Don't blink or you'll miss one
Think of a full-color CliffsNotes combined with one of those Monty Python spoofs of a BBC interviewer and you have a slightly unfair idea of Monarchy. In six episodes of less than an hour each Dr. David Starkey whips us along in a survey of England's...well, Britain's...no, make that the United Kingdom's...queens and kings. Sir David, as he is known in punctilious society, has given us an elegantly written and presented quick tour, sumptuously mounted. There are beautiful location shots of castles and palaces along with actors richly dressed to the purpose looking at us while Starkey tells us what they were plotting. The one great value of the series, to my mind, is the theme he gives his survey, and that is the continuing struggle between the sovereigns, on the one hand, to be supreme, and the barons, followed by the merchant class, on the other, to maintain a tight hold on the power of the purse. That struggle in one form or another gave us the Magna Carta, the grudging acceptance of shared rule along with kingly restraint, the concept of the rule of law, and the rise of the common man, even if, as in the House of Commons, the common man and woman wasn't represented all that well by the landed and mercantile classes who filled the Commons' seats. No matter how you look at it, England is a remarkable story for which the civilized world, which often includes the United States, should be grateful.
But don't expect more from Monarchy than a barely scratched surface. In my view, Starkey did a reasonably fine though fast job of the tumultuous period leading up to Edward the Confessor and the Norman Conquest, the characters and issues of two of the Tudors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, and the issues that led to Cromwell. Everything else for me was a blur. British history is so rich and, because so much of the history of the United States directly draws from it, so accessible to most of us, that I have mixed feelings about Monarchy. For grandparents, it would make a great present for a precocious middle school grandchild. For those reasonably familiar with British history, it simply condenses too much. Starkey uses his theme to effectively frame what he gives us, but what he gives is so little and so without nuance that, for me, it quickly became something to watch while glancing through the newspapers. Starkey doesn't help things by his manner of presentation. He is deadly serious and absolutely without doubt, humor or skepticism. I'd love to see Eric Idle or Terry Jones interview him. With Starkey's reputation for rudeness, it would be quite a show.