Hysterically inaccurate … sorry, that should be ‘historically’!

Inevitably, as an historian, I am drawn to TV programmes that deal with the past. There’s an awful lot of hype re Wolf Hall (let’s hope it’s better than the book!). And dear old David Starkey is about to give us his take on Magna Carta. Starkey says (quite rightly) that it is surprising that the Prime Minister, expensively educated at Eton, did not know what it meant. What is even more surprising is that Starkey calls the misunderstood old document the Magna Carta, which is 100% incorrect as the definite article in Latin was rarely used and never in the context of Magna Carta.

Which brings me on to the Musketeers. Producer Colin Wratten, writing in the Weekend Mail hopes we’re all enjoying it and thinks they’ve all done a pretty good job of recreating 17th century France. It’s not the backdrops that are flawed, Colin; it’s everything else. It looks a little bit like the Wild West has come to Paris, France. The broad-brimmed hats are lifted at the side like stetsons. In PR stills the boys all stand around with legs apart like wannabe John Waynes. And when they whip out their six-shooter – er – sorry – wheel-lock pistols, they never miss, even at an impossible yardage. In this series, we have a black Spanish general – there were so many of those in the 17th century! Leave it to Alexandre Dumas, Colin, there’s a dear!

So, with my love of the past, it is just as well everything on the TV is a repeat!

Dancing in the Dark – no, nothing at all to do with Bruce Springsteen!

The Mem and I are huge fans of the various CSI programmes on satellite and Freeview TV. The intrepid teams of brilliant scientists, who also manage to look ravishingly attractive/handsome at the same time, solve the most gruesome and complicated murders in (allowing for the ads) 47 minutes. When there are two cases being run, 23.5 minutes. Superb, I hear you cry. We can all rest easy in our beds.


They could halve even that solve-time if they put the bloody lights on! They go into a house where a perp might be lurking, so its Koch automatics out and … torches!


No, we can’t, the programme makers would say – because that would give the perp too easy a target. Fair enough. But in the labs? There’s no excuse there. They are examining the most minute stuff under lenses, microscopes and powerful lamps because they don’t have any overhead lighting in the laboratory!

Go into any real lab and you’ll be hit by neon in all directions. That’s how you solve crimes. Maybe, though, it’s all down to expense. William Petersen, Ted Danson, David Caruso – I bet they don’t come cheap. So something has to go. I know, let’s make those savings on the lights.

Let’s just all chill out and smell the coffee – have you got an hour to spare?

I was queuing in a coffee shop the other day, kid glued to hip. He can walk, of course, but he’s so pampered he doesn’t have to – thank you, Alan Bennett for almost providing that line. I won’t mention the name of the coffee shop, but the founders pinched it from a character in Moby Dick. So there I am, in Queequeg’s, waiting to be served. And waiting. And waiting.

Now, I am not singling out Queequeg’s, because the problem is universal. The lads and lasses behind the counter are working their a***s off but the machinery is Stone Age. You have to switch it on, switch it off, adjust the milk, wipe the nozzle, put the cup under it, adjust the water, add the brown stuff and make those pretty patterns in the froth. You then have to ask the customer if they want chocolate on the top. I won’t even go into the resulting backlog when someone can’t decide. It’s chocolate. Have it. You’ll love it. Move on.

A nuclear explosion could have wiped us all out before we got served. But because I had an extraordinary amount of leisure time, I perused the menu and wondered aloud why the Italians have cornered the coffee market. Did they invent it? No. Did they discover it? No. So why did we let them invent silly names for it?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best lessons have been about Italians – Julius Caesar, Cesare Borgia, Garibaldi and Mussolini. Italians have contributed hugely to the culture of the world – think the Roman Empire and the Renaissance for example, not to mention about a million different shapes of pasta … I will probably be revisiting pasta at a later date – it is all the same stuff with different names, isn’t it? Thought so. But, what they have not done is earn the right to muscle in on coffee. Latte? Do what? Cappuccino? They’re monkeys, aren’t they? Espresso? That used to be a fast train.

There’s only one Italian word we should be using of modern coffee shops – lente.


Christmas Music … did I say music?

What was it about Christmas 2014? A hundred years ago, at some parts of the Western Front, a few of the lads from the British and German trenches played football and for a few brief hours, it looked as if sanity would prevail and the First World War really would be over by Christmas.

But that’s not how it turned out and we all know the rest. So, fast forward to Christmas 2014. There was a kind of reflection of the Football Truce but there was something altogether more ghastly and less uplifting. it seemed as if every shop and advertiser in the country had slipped back to the 1950s.

Now, don’t get me wrong. That was a great decade. I learned to read and write during it (so you can have the benefit of my words of wisdom now); there were blue bags of salt in crisp packets (the first time round, of course) and planes went bang as they passed through the sound barrier (oh, yes, they did!). But it was also the decade of the laid-back crooners in awful jumpers, who sat in front of a studio Christmas tree and … well, let’s be quite open about this … crooned.

All right, we had Dennis Lotis, Dickie Valentine and David Whitfield, but the Americans had Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Perry Como. They all sounded identical (except Frank, who couldn’t hit a note dead on if his life depended on it) and they were all very, very, slooooow. And suddenly, only weeks ago, all the retail outlets formed a conspiracy to bring them all back while we were Christmas shopping – and to do it at speeds of far less than the 331/3 they were designed to be played at. Sheer torture – and you thought the Inquisition was over!