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DVD Review: Monarchy: The Complete Series

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Monarchy: The Complete Series is perhaps a misnomer for the newly released 2004 British documentary. While it is complete in the sense that it includes an additional three and a half hours of material originally broadcast in the UK which had not previously been available in the two sets of DVDs released in North America in 2006 and 2007, it is much more a historical account of a specific monarchy, that of Great Britain, than it is an attempt to deal with the general concept or its manifestations beyond the British Isles. No doubt the general concept can be defined and analyzed through the specific example; still the emphasis in this series is less the idea of monarchy than it is the historical account of the British brand.

The series is presented and presumably written by David Starkey (although no writer is credited in the promotional material), noted historian who has taught at the London School of Economics, written more than a dozen books, and become a regular presenter on televised documentaries. A biography of Professor Starkey, perhaps best known for The Wives of Henry VIII, is included as a bonus feature with this set.

To give him his due, Starkey does begin the series with an attempt to broaden the concept of monarchy to include all systems of government where a single person, call that person what you will, is in control. Later on, he also distinguishes between “limited monarchy” where the monarch rules with the consent and approval of the governed as in England after the Magna Carta and “absolute monarchy” where the monarch has no need to get consent for his actions as ruler, as in France. He talks about Louis XIV in France as developing a model of the modern monarchy and republican rule in Holland. There is even some discussion of the rise of the prime minister in the 18th century as a pseudo-monarchial power. Still, whenever he discusses monarchy in general or specific examples outside of England, it is always to make some point about the British system.

Monarchy then is really a history of the British throne, and as such it is sweeping and complete. In 16 episodes on five discs with a combined running time of about 776 minutes, Professor Starkey traces the English monarchy from its Anglo-Saxon beginnings to the reign of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. No important event and almost no important personage, British or foreign, with any significance in that history goes unmentioned. Landmark events, like the Norman Conquest, the Wars of the Roses, the Glorious Revolution, and the American Revolution, are described and analyzed at length. Monarchs of particular significance, like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, may have whole episodes devoted to their reigns. Lesser royals get limited coverage. Courtiers and commoners—Thomas Wolsey, Sarah Churchill, William Pitt—are given their due. There is some repetition, but with an epic so vast to cover, a little repetition helps to keep the players straight.

For the lion’s share of the 776 minutes of the series the only voice we hear is that of Professor Starkey. In some of the later episodes there are some readings by actors from historical documents, but you can count these on the fingers of one hand. We get shots of Starkey lecturing as he walks famous battlefields. We see him in the churches and palaces that were the scenes of great events. We watch him walking through streets and parks from Hampton Court to Williamsburg, Virginia. While Starkey is adept as a narrator, and the views of these splendid historical monuments can often be breathtaking, some greater variety in narration would not be unwelcome.

The earlier episodes, those through the Restoration of Charles II, use scenes with costumed actors, while Starkey does the voiceover. Later episodes discontinue this technique. In all episodes, visual representations tend to rely on portraits, statuary, and historical paintings to complement the narrative. Historical sites like Bosworth Field, Westminster Abbey, the Marlborough estate at Blenheim, and St. Paul’s Cathedral are spread judiciously throughout the series and provide a magnificent backdrop for the historical events. There is nothing like a camera panning around a Kensington drawing room to give the viewer an idea of the splendor of monarchy.

The stereo DVD includes text biographies of the British monarchs of the 20th century and a gallery of royal palaces, as well as a booklet describing some of the typical court functionaries, the history of Westminster Abbey (including a picture of the Coronation Chair with the famous Stone of Scone, which Starkey, perhaps in a Nationalistic pique, mentions generically, but doesn’t name in his narration) and a section of royal trivia (although some of the information doesn’t seem all that trivial, such as the modern explanation of the madness of George III). The booklet also includes a royal timeline from 802 through 1952.

That the British monarchy is still going strong in the 21st century is testimony to its ability to adapt to changing situations, as well as the willingness of the British people to put up (most of the time) with it while it adapted. David Starkey’s Monarchy is an eloquent history of those adaptations and a love song to the institution, warts and all.

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