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History-lite romp

24 January 2014

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IT WAS mean of BBC1 to choose the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to launch The Musketeers; for Alexandre Dumas's Gallic anti-clericalism reinforces visceral Anglo-Saxon Protestant prejudice to find in Cardinal Richelieu every conviction of how Roman Catholics really behave, if only they have the power to do so.

Here is the lust for power, the ruthless ambition, the hypocritical sensuality, the immediate recourse to torture and murder to achieve desired aims - everything that justifies the Reformation and strengthens our resolve to remain separate from such Continental monstrosities, secure in our virtue.

But I suspect that few of the audience will draw such a serious conclusion; for this is more of a costume romp than profound drama, building on the original history-lite novel to produce entertainment rather than a considered analysis of the socio-political complexities of 17th-century Europe.

The production belongs to a developing genre in which sumptuously accurate costumes, authentic sets, and the highest production values are allied to a consciously contemporary script. It is all done extremely well.

But the conventions of the plot mean that, for me at least, it is all rather unengaging. We know that, whatever the odds, our gallant musketeers will overcome vast numbers of their enemies. However hopeless the situation, some far-fetched circumstance will enable them to live to fight another day. It is entertaining, but I soon found that I hardly cared one way or the other about their fate.

Will another generation take up the challenge of continuing a life of service, maintaining its place as central to the life of an English community? Surprisingly, this was not a documentary that analysed whether, despite Lord Carey's gloomy prognostications, the Church of England has any hope of living to fight another day. Hidden Histories: Britain's oldest family businesses (BBC4, Wednesday of last week) was the first in a series that did exactly what it says on the tin: tracing the history of a few of our handful of commercial concerns that have weathered the centuries and are still trading.

Balstons Family Butchers, of Bridport, proved a worthy opener, the oldest such concern in the country. Richard, the current Balston, was a compelling ambassador of the value of his trade, convinced that most of the world's ills would evaporate if only we all ate more meat. The programme traced the history, and provided a little social context, besides presenting the current activity and likely future of the concern.

A visit to the County Record Office unearthed the document on which the claim to longevity rests: the 1535 lease granting a stall in the Shambles to a Balston, 20 generations ago. Then the archivist achieved a splendid on-camera coup: she revealed a similar document confirming that the Balstons had, in fact, traded there since 1515, 20 years previously.

Mr Balston greeted this just as he should: with delight that his family claim had even greater kudos, and pleasure that only one digit needed alteration, meaning that he could change the firm's carrier bags at minimal expense.

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