Dan Snow’s latest documentary on the defeat of the Spanish Armada had something of the air of Hollywood about it. A clever mix of acting, action, narration, commentary and CGI brought this tense moment of history to life.
Indeed, its greatest success on that score was achieved by underlining just how much hung in the balance. Yes, we all know the Armada was defeated. But, each course of action taken could have been different. By highlighting key decisions made, key options weighed, Snow and the rest of the team underscored just how different the outcome could have been. The opening image, of Queen Elizabeth I, of Gloriana, going to her cell, frail and defeated, sent shivers down the spine. As a queen almost only ever shown glittering with gold, draped with pearls, this alternative depiction shows that while Elizabeth I might have believed she was appointed by God, her victory is this battle was far from preordained.
Of course, this history of epic battles, of Kings and Queens, seems very far removed from this history of everyday, daily life. However, in this summer of 1588, England was teetering on the precipice of war, the brink of invasion and destruction. Plymouth was, for everyone who was there, a scene of chaos. Our fleet was in port, sailors lay sick on the harbour side and the Spanish fleet might appear on the horizon at any moment. On this first day of fighting, ordinary people stood on the hills, looking out to sea, and watched the battle unfold. This may not have been their everyday life, but on that day, it probably was a defining moment. I can’t imagine it’s the sort of thing you’d forget. And their future must have seemed as precarious to them, as the Queen’s did to her.
The first of a three-part series, this opening episode was a promising start for what’s to come. It vividly captured the sense of the time. And the drama created did not take away from the history being discussed. A good scope of commentary offered the viewer their own chance to weigh up their own conclusions. In short, I’m looking forward to next Sunday already!
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