Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Untold Invasion of Britain?

Readers in the UK recently had the opportunity to view a TV documentary entitled The Untold Invasion of Britain. Now, as a grizzled old Roman emperor, I know that there were two Roman invasions of Britain: Caesar's visits in 55 and 54 BC, and Claudius' invasion in AD 43. Readers of Wikipedia are even offered a third instance, when the province was recaptured from Carausius in AD 296 by Constantius Chlorus, on behalf of the western emperor, Maximian.

Channel 4 have now defined a fourth "invasion of Britain", when the emperor Septimius Severus visited the province in AD 208.

Channel 4 Bloody Foreigners

A Fourth Invasion?

They helpfully explain that their documentary is about "Rome's African Emperor who fought a brutal campaign in Britain, crossing Hadrian's Wall and helping to forge the English-Scottish divide familiar to us today".

I'm not certain that the modern Anglo-Scottish divide owes anything to Hadrian's Wall. Notice, for example, that nowhere does it mark the border between the two countries. Nor am I sure that the visit of a Roman emperor 1800 years ago could have had any influence on dividing two nations (the Scots and the English) which did not exist at the time. But I suppose Channel 4 had to somehow drum up interest in their documentary. (Although the fact that they couldn't simply tell the truth speaks volumes about the audience they expect to attract.)

Counter-insurgency, Roman-style

Interestingly, the documentary had another selling point. "In a mountainous land, at the limit of its influence, ..." [Afghanistan, anyone?] "... the world's only superpower ..." [America, anyone?] "... gets bogged down in an asymmetric war against a deadly insurgency ..." [Taliban, anyone?]

As I said, Channel 4 have to boost their documentary somehow. But there were far more serious flaws than this rather simplistic comparison with modern history. First, the dodgy CGI footage: "Brought to life with animated sequences based on contemporary Roman sources ..." Clearly an attempt to entertain the UK's youth, with their notoriously short attention span; but, in this grumpy old emperor's opinion, poorly (and repetitively) done.

To distinguish the historical scenes from the modern day live action we degraded the footage and bled the colours into each other, before adding a flicker and grain to replicate the appearance of old archive reels. The effect is designed ... to give the impression that archaeologists had unearthed an eighteen-hundred-year-old year old (sic) film, documenting Septimius Severus and his attempt to conquer the whole of the British Isles for his empire.
Who did they think would fall for this conceit? Or even enjoy it?

Channel 4 Bloody ForeignerSecond, the unfulfilled promises: "This programme follows Severus's trail from the magnificent remains at Lepcis Magna in the Libyan Desert, to the military hardware left by his campaign in Britain." I don't recall following any trail, but it was difficult to tell, with all the grainy, repetitive CGI scenes. I think we saw Leptis Magna. That was probably the place where Tom Holland, renowned Septimius Severus expert, gave us the benefit of his hard-won knowledge. (After all, it can't be easy for a novelist to suddenly become a Roman historian.) But what was this "military hardware left by his campaign in Britain"? I half-expected to see burnt-out tanks with Praetorian insignia, lying forgotten in the Tweeddale heathland.

Extraordinary documentary?

Channel 4 claim that they have told "the extraordinary story of a very bloody foreigner: the little-known Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, an African who seized Rome's Imperial throne in a vicious civil war and then fought a brutal campaign in Britain, transforming the country in his wake." Little-known emperor? Mehercle, if Channel 4 have heard of him, then he can't be little-known. An African? This, of course, was another major selling point: a foreigner, not only in Britain, but at Rome. However, as Channel 4 were forced to concede, North Africa was simply another region of the Roman empire: Septimius Severus was a Roman, not an African. brutal campaign in Britain? Okay, all Roman campaigns were, by definition, brutal. But transforming the country in his wake? What on earth were Channel 4 thinking of?

This old emperor's verdict? Must do better.


  1. Heh, you want a German documentary about how Arminius is really Siegfried (of Nibelung fame) instead?

    TV these days ... *shakes head*

  2. Fast and loose with the facts....

    Could be worse.

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