Wednesday, 15 July 2009


Last night on the iPlayer I watched the excellent 'Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution'. The talking head format was combined with footage from old black-and-white silent movies, which had a sort of repro-antique effect, and a well-acted docu-drama based on primary sources. It was all integrated very effectively.

The programme had a number of other strengths. Not least was the editing, which had an appalled and incredulous Simon Schama providing responses to the pro-Terror arguments of the bearded, swivel-eyed Slavoj Zizek (below).

Zizek's arguments in favour of mass-murder and expropriation were largely founded on the old breaking eggs to make omelettes justification. Schama's response was along the lines of people are not eggs and besides, the 'omelette' the French people were being forced to eat was rancidly inedible.

The Slovenian sage also argued that Robespierre's sincerity and idealism trumped the fact that he was a mass-murdering ideologue. I still struggle to understand how sincerity - and also consistency - are often seen, self-standing, as such virtuous qualities. Surely they have very little moral content in themselves, their value being determined by the principles they adhere to?

Another talking head was Hilary Mantel, who wrote a terrific novel on the relationship between Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton: 'A Place of Greater Safety'. It's a great read and fascinating on the interplay of the personal and political. It also happens to provide a good overview of the Revolution for those who want to patch their historical knowledge up a bit.

The real star of the novel is flamboyant journalist Camille Desmoulins (above), who steals the show despite playing a less historically prominent role than Robespierre or Danton: mercurial, witty, mischevious and, judging from his portraits, looking like one of those cute French rugby players that make T a fan of Les Bleus.

I did wonder whether the programme should have tried to find a modern Desmoulins to argue* in favour of Terror. It would have helped convey why, despite its manifest wickedness, so many seemingly unremarkable and sensible people found themselves attracted to it. Charisma is always an important component in these things and Zizek, to say the least, wasn't able to provide a sense of the treacherous attraction of the demagogue.

'Terror!' (exciting title, eh?) is on the iPlayer for another three days, but it appears to be due for a repeat tomorrow night, meaning it could be there for another seven days after that.

* He was a stutterer who apparently lost his stutter when stirred to address a crowd. And a TV camera?


worm said...

I've managed to forget every single thing I was taught about the french revolution at school, apart from the fact that they had natty little red hats.

might have to do a trawl round the web tonight to refresh the old grey cells

Kev said...

I watched that too and thought it was excellent, I hadn't heard of that lunatic who was arguing in favour of the terror before, is he well known?

What I also found interesting about it is that it was almost entirely about the idealogical background behind events and dispensed almost entirely with descriptions of them. It was unusual television that will eschew the chance to describe mass blood letting in favour of a long discourse of Rosseau's ideas of virtue.

Gaw said...

Worm: Just watch this doc if you want a refresh. I would also recommend Schama's Citizens as well as the Mantel book.

One of the anecdotes in Citizens is a gem. An aristocrat escapes from the Paris mob and heads for the Channel. He stops at an inn as he's a bit peckish. However, he gives himself away, is captured and executed. How so?

Inn Keeper: "Ah, and how many eggs would Sir like in his omelette?"

Aristocrat [in best impression of common accent]: "Er, twelve please."

Kev: I'd sort of heard of him. He's certainly a character. I read up on him on Wikipedia and he's one of those bonkers academics who can be amusing, that is unless they get anywhere near power or influence.

It was, indeed, good to watch a programme that didn't dumb down or patronise its viewers.

I wish we got more of these serious history programmes. I really do think there's a lot of latent demand for them. People don't study history at school so much now - which probably means they don't get put off it!