Boys of my age (mid-60s)—and many girls as well, I’m sure—will have very happy memories of those dramas shown regularly (endlessly!) on ITV in the children’s slot in the 1950s and early 60s. Before the rise of SF with Gerry Anderson and Dr Who, we pre-teens were all immersed in historical dramas: Sir Francis Drake, The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Buccaneers, William Tell, Sword of Freedom, and many others.
Now, thanks to the marvel that is Talking Pictures TV, we’ve got a wonderful opportunity to revisit some of those seminal series, and to see how the reality lives up to our rose-tinted memories. And the result, I have to say, is surprising.
Just looking at the titles, you might have thought that these series would play into a ‘loss of Empire/Englishism/proto-Brexit’ agenda, like the earlier Boy’s Own Paper and the novels of John Buchan and G A Henty. And inevitably, any historical dramas made at that time can’t wholly escape such elements. But there was something much more interesting, much more subversive, going on.
Almost all the series I’ve named above were produced by the same company, or by people who had worked with that company: Sapphire Films. And Sapphire Films was created by a very remarkable woman: Hannah Weinstein (who seems to be no relation to the other cinematic Weinsteins). This is where fact becomes stranger than fiction: Hannah Weinstein set the company up with funds from the Hollywood branch of the American Communist Party (and you thought the Coen’s ‘Hail Caesar’ was a fantasy….), and created ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ specifically to make work for no less than 22 left-wing writers blacklisted by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. One can only assume that arch-media capitalist Lew Grade had no idea of this background when he agreed to back the series! Especially as all the writers (who included some of Hollywood’s biggest names, like Ring Lardner Jr, who would go on to write the original ‘Mash’ movie) were either anonymous or pseudonymous.
Robin Hood is of course the perfect vehicle for communitarian/anti-authoritarian/anti-capitalist views, but several of the other series also embody similar values. William Tell, with its much more serious tone of jeopardy and echoes of wartime Resistance movements, is even more explicitly rebellious. In its first few episodes The Buccaneers did a 180 degree about-turn, from being about the historical King’s representative, come to bring the buccaneers back to the flag, to focusing on free-wheeling, devil-may-care Buccaneer captain, Dan Tempest, played by the wonderful Robert Shaw. Even Sir Francis Drake is about a man prepared to go against authority and break the rules for what he believes in, a man his enemies consider a mere pirate.
There’s another fascinating aspect that several of these series have in common: very strong female role models. Queen Elizabeth is played (brilliantly, by Jean Kent) as a powerful and commanding figure easily able to dominate the courtiers jostling for her favours and undaunted by the threats of (male) enemies. Maid Marian can match Robin in archery and horse riding and is often shown as more emotionally mature than the overgrown public schoolboy that Richard Greene portrays. And William Tell’s wife Helga similarly can take just as many physical risks as Tell himself, and often ends up having to save him from the consequences of his own rashness.
These three series, as well, are surprisingly rich in historical detail. Though playing fast and loose with chronology, Sir Francis Drake has episodes about merchant venturers, the disastrous Roanoke colony, the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and her Catholicism, and much more. William Tell has a lot to say about the power politics of the Holy Roman Empire. Robin Hood explores quite serious themes about witchcraft hysteria, an oppressive aristocracy, and corrupt officials. Compared with the a-historical nonsense produced in recent years for adults—the Tudors, Great, all those Roman epics—these Sapphire Films and their offshoots did quite a good job of giving their young audiences a grounding in history.
Above all, they don’t condescend to those young audiences. Of course, there’s no sex, though some of the violence (especially in William Tell) can still be surprising. And there are touches of farcical humour that help to keep younger viewers entertained. But they tell strong stories efficiently (in less than 25 minutes an episode, leaving time for the adverts) and don’t shy away from themes that would normally play out in ‘grown up’ dramas. I found the same, recently, when rewatching another favourite of my childhood, the BBC adaptation of the Further Adventures of the Three Musketeers, with the peerless Joss Ackland. This gripping drama immersed itself in the power politics of the infant Louis XIV, Cardinal Mazarin, and the Fronde insurrection, with few concessions to the youth of its target audience.
And, now that I’ve had the chance to relive these childhood influences, what effect do I think they had? Did it matter that I was—as some might say—being fed left-wing propaganda? Well, for my entire working life I’ve relished leading small, distinctive and somewhat off-the-wall teams, made up of strong and characterful individuals. I’ve shied away from working for large, bureaucratic organisations, and when I’ve done so, have tried to recreate that team ethos within them. Though no radical, I’m a natural non-conformist, equally sceptical of authority and crowds, and unwilling to accept orthodoxies. And I married a very strong woman who has been a wonderful life partner (and I do have a beard that resembles that of Sir Francis Drake…). So, thank you, Hannah Weinstein, you laid the foundations for a pretty good life, and it’s time we recognised and honoured your achievement.