How should the BBC show religion in historical drama and documentaries?

What is the BBC doing about religion?

The BBC is reviewing the way it deals with religion: not only in ‘religious’ programmes but also in drama. A long overdue review. As a practicing Christian and a historical novelist, I have a particular interest in this subject. I cannot avoid approaching this with a certain bias, but I will try to be as objective as possible. I have written recently about Gunpowder.

Do historical documentaries treat religion fairly?

Some are very good. A lot of the ones about the Tudors have been. However, some have played down the very real threat to England from Catholic Spain and the oppressive nature of the mediaeval church against which Protestants were protesting.  It would be helpful if more documentaries gave  information, as a few have, about the role of religion in everyday life, not just doctrinal disputes among academics.

A preacher indulging in an argument about religion
A preacher indulging in an argument about religion
Which ones are most unfair to religion?

Generally, anything about the nineteenth century. They usually show, rightly, the shortcomings of the church with far too little attention to the positive side. They also tend to judge it by the standards of the twenty-first century. For instance,  most people would have expected the church to speak up for the ten commandments, at any time before the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

What about the Empire?

Documentaries tend to blame missionaries and others for exporting both the Christian religion and the British Way of Life, wherever they went, with no cultural sensitivity. This is a fair criticism up to a point. However, there were always some who tried to separate biblical truth from Britishness. They were among the most successful in the long term. I would also like to see more information and analysis about that which Christianity and the British way of life replaced. I would like to see some discussion of the alternatives. Would modern secularists have permitted the burning of widows, the sacrificing of infants or the deprivation of property of converts? Would they not have challenged unscientific beliefs about disease and disability?

Can’t fiction depict religion as the writer wishes?

Of course, it is unfair to object to any one drama that portrays a religious person in a negative way. Noone can say it is unrealistic to suggest that there were some clergymen and religious lay people who were judgmental, hypocritical, selfish or guilty of any sin you can name. People have always been human. Likewise, there must have been many who were well meaning but naive or simply inept. My problem is that historical dramas seem to portray almost all religious people as fitting into one of those categories.

How should religion be shown in costume drama?

There is plenty of evidence from contemporary letters and diaries that many ministers of religion in every age were sincere, sensible and competent, like Brother Cadfael and Father Brown.  I especially congratulate the makers of The Last Kingdom for showing King Alfred as a sincere Christian. He seems fully human, with good and bad qualities, but with real faith. I am sorry that these seem to me to be the exceptions. Why? Perhaps it’s too easy to go for the stereotype, rather than having to create real characters.

Let us pray that the review is thorough and extends to historical dramas and documentaries. 



Do you agree with the review of Highwaypersons?

What review do I mean?

So far, only one person has posted a review of Highwaypersons on Amazon. Kathleen M Lance. She gives it a mixed reception. Her main point is that the pace picks up a lot about a third of the way through. She found the first part much less of an enjoyable read than the next two thirds. I am glad she liked the book once she got to the action.

How do I feel about  this review?

I think it’s a fair point, although I am surprised Ms Lance found the change of pace made such a difference to her enjoyment of the story. Obviously I would have been happier if the reviewer had said it was a great read from start to finish. On the other hand, you don’t learn anything from such critics. This one gives me something to think about as I work on my next novels.

Give me your review.

I would love to hear from more people about this. Did anyone appreciate the slow start? Time to get to know the characters and understand the background. Or would a shorter lead-in have gone down better? Did any of the incidents in the early part make it interesting, even if not so fast-paced? If you’ve not read the book yet, now’s the time, as it’s free on Kindle until Friday. Read the book and the review. Then say what you think.

Any other comments would also be welcomed.

Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties is free on Kindle until Friday 22nd December.
Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties is free on Kindle until Friday 22nd December.

Your Christmas present from me – get it free on Kindle this week

What is this present?

As I said in my last blog, I’m giving away Highwaypersons, Book I, Debts and Duties, FREE on Kindle. It will run from Monday 18th to Friday 22nd December, so get yours while you can. Be ready for Book II coming soon. Buy one, or both, as a present for someone for Easter? On Monday, go to the link above.

The picture from the cover of Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, my present to you this week
The picture from the cover of Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, my present to you this week.

Here’s something free to read over the holidays

Is this a time to read?

Got plenty to read this Christmas? Expecting books among your presents? Whatever your answer, here’s some good news. I hope to publish Highwaypersons II, The King’s Justice in the New Year. Watch for the launch. And now for more good news.

A free read!

Perhaps now is a good time to start Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, so you will be able to get the most out of Book II. As the publication of the second book has been delayed, I’m going to offer Book I for free on Kindle for a few days just before Christmas. I’ll announce the exact dates soon.

Have a good read.

Highwaypersons, Book I, Debts and Duties will be free on Kindle shortly

Why am I still rewriting “Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice”?

How often have I rewritten my latest novel?

I have lost count of the number of times I have rewritten my latest book, Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice. Not that I have scrapped it and started again. I have revised it and changed lots of elements each time. I keep thinking I have nearly finished, but every time I am wrong. Whenever I am just going through it one last time, I notice something I am not happy with. I was beginning to think I was becoming a perfectionist, when I was reminded that most great writers, and lots of not-so-great ones, rewrite their books time after time. One famous author said, “Any fool can write: the skill is in the rewriting.” 

What am I rewriting?

Although I do keep spotting typos and grammatical errors, my main focus is the story. I find parts that don’t add anything to the whole. Someone said, “Give readers information on a need to know basis,” making a lot of the chapters redundant. I also keep finding things that need adding, in order to make clear the characters’ characters and their motivations.

Is that all I am rewriting?

No. I want to have another look at the period detail and other descriptions. I want you to feel you are right there. On the other hand, I don’t want to slow down the action with too much detail. Then I want to think if I have expressed myself as well as I could, to make it an interesting and enjoyable read. There is the complication that it is a sequel. Not everyone reading it will have read Book I. This means that I need to ensure I don’t take too much for granted, such as assuming all readers know who all the characters are and how they relate to each other. Or how my characters became highwaypersons. On the other hand I don’t want to include so much backstory that it detracts from the actual sequel.

Why is rewriting taking so long?

Every now and then, I leave it and get on with some other writing. Some of that will be published in another name but I am also working on more Geoffrey  Monmouth novels. It helps to go away from a work and come back a little fresher. You can be too close to it. I can see how difficult it would be if I was working on the same book all the time. I would fear for my sanity. (Don’t answer that!) Sometimes, I just get a bit of inspiration relating to one of my other books and I just have to follow it up before I forget it. There have also been times when I have come upon historical facts that I have wanted to incorporate into one or other of my books. OK – if I did my research properly before I started that would occur less often. Sorry!

Am I doing all this rewriting myself?

So far, yes. However, when I am as satisfied as I am likely to be, I will probably send it to an editor to correct mistakes and improve the wording, because I want this book to be as good as it can be.


This could be me or my editor rewriting Highwaypersons II
This could be me or my editor rewriting Highwaypersons II

Of course, this gives you time to read Highwaypersons, Book I, Debts and Duties if you have not already, before the sequel comes out. Or read it again. Or encourage someone else to read it.

Highwaypersons Book I, Debts and Duties is available on Amazon and Kindle
Highwaypersons Book I, Debts and Duties is available on Amazon and Kindle

Was there a reasonable balance of horror in “Gunpowder”?

Remember what I wrote about Gunpowder before?

It is nearly the end of November. The last fireworks have fizzled out, at least for a while. There is plenty to remind us that Christmas will soon be here. It seems a long time since I wrote about the BBC series Gunpowder. I did promise to say more when I had seen the whole series.

My overall opinion is that I liked it. It was a good drama and it told us  a lot more about Guy Fawkes and the others than most of us knew. There were some fascinating details, such as the incident where a barrel of damp gunpowder exploded just before the conspirators’ final encounter with the King’s forces. The series also showed that Guy Fawkes was just one member of the team, not its leader.

What did you think of the horrors in Gunpowder?

If you have watched Gunpowder, you will have seen not only the horrors of the British Government’s cruelty towards Roman Catholics but also the violence of the Spanish Inquisition in support of the Catholic Church. How does that affect your view of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators? Of King James I and his government?

Is this monk writing messages to the gunpowder plotters?
Is this monk writing messages to the gunpowder plotters?
In what way was Gunpowder not fair?

My biggest negative criticism is that the series lacked context.  Of course, you can’t expect the whole of British history in a three-part drama. However, I will point out a few facts that might help explain certain things.

  • England was still at war with Spain since the Armada. It is unlikely that the Spanish would mount another invasion, but they could have backed a coup. The government had reason to be worried.
  • The last Catholic monarch of England was Mary Tudor. She had tried to impose that religion on the country. To her, Protestants were heretics. The authorities burned over 300 at the stake, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and two other bishops.
  • The Pope had declared Queen Elizabeth illegitimate and had announced that if any Catholic was to ‘remove her from the World’ he would gain ‘merit’.
  • During Elizabeth’s reign, Catholics made several plots to assassinate her and put her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne.
  • Many people living in the days of James I would have had personal memories of those times. Others would have heard about them from their parents and others. The anti-Catholic feeling did not exist only at the Court.
The saltire: Scotland ejected Mary but her supporters tried to make her Queen of England.
The saltire: Scotland ejected Mary but her supporters tried to make her Queen of England.
What happened after the Gunpowder Plot?

Despite the oppressive measures taken by the government at that time, Britain moved towards democracy and human rights faster than it would have done had the plotters or anyone succeeded in restoring Catholicism  at that time. In an article on the Reformation, I pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church benefited from the Reformation as it gave impetus to overdue reform within. I must stress that, because that reform did come eventually, anti-Catholic attitudes today are outdated and unjustified. That Church is no longer the enemy of democracy.


Can only Protestants celebrate the Reformation?

Should anyone celebrate the Reformation?

In recent blogs, I have commented on other revolutions that happened, or almost happened, at this time of year: the Russian Revolution and the Gunpowder Plot. I have mentioned that the 31st October 2017 was the fifth centenary of the Reformation. OK it did not happen all on one day. But that is the day when Martin Luther nailed 95 theses (propositions, really) to the door of his parish church at Wittenburg in Saxony (now part of Germany). That set the ball rolling. It was the beginning of Protestantism and centuries of conflict between denominations. Surely, you have to take a one-sided view of history to celebrate that? Weren’t people better off when they were all members of the same church?

A preacher proclaiming the Reformation.
A preacher proclaiming the Reformation.
All Protestants should celebrate the Reformation

Not just extremists. Until the Reformation, you had to at least pretend to believe what the Church, i.e. the Pope, told you to. Yes, I know there were debates within the Church, but the papal authorities decided how far you could go before being burned as a heretic. They did not permit alternative approaches to any aspect of religion. None of our Protestant or non-denominational churches would have existed. The Church would have suppressed views within the Church that were not mainstream.

Humanists should celebrate the Reformation

I know Protestant governments, including the British, often oppressed dissident views. However, once the reformers broke the Catholic Church’s monopoly, they did not replace it with a Protestant monopoly. The idea of pluralism was there. If people could read the Bible for themselves, because it was in everyday English (or German or whatever) they could form their own views as to what it meant. This had implications beyond religion. It opened up the possibility of thinking for yourself generally.

Faith and doubt must coexist
Faith and doubt must coexist
Democrats should celebrate the Reformation

The mediaeval world was hierarchical. The structure of the Church was similar to that of Society: the Pope at the top, then the bishops, next the priests, lastly the laity. Just like the King at the top, then the nobility, next the gentry, lastly the peasants. Those in authority liked it that way. Breaking the power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy had implications for the secular hierarchy. In the short term it put more power into the hands of kings. Henry  VIII comes to mind. But in the long run it worked in the opposite direction. If church leaders were answerable to their congregations and not just to God, then kings had no divine right either. It is not a coincidence that puritans, parliamentarians, egalitarians and the middle classes were all on the same side in the English Civil War, against royalists, catholics and the aristocracy.

Roman Catholics should celebrate the Reformation!

This probably sounds a bit odd, but think about it. There were a lot of people in 1517 who wanted to see the Church reformed. They knew the World was changing and the Middle Ages couldn’t go on for ever. However, the system was just too slow and cumbersome to respond. Popes couldn’t get much done. Even the ones who wanted to. The Reformation changed that. It gave impetus to the Catholic Reformation, also called the Counter-Reformation. The process has continued. Thank God for the Second Vatican Council. And for Pope John Paul (I and II). It still continues.

Apply the counterfactual history approach to the Reformation

What? I mean, ask yourself what the World and the Church would be like if Luther had kept quiet.

  • Could we still be in the Middle Ages?
  • Would kings have clashed with the Church and imposed reform or just undermined it?
  • Would there have been more revolutions?

I think you will find lots of reasons to celebrate the Reformation, whoever you are.

Twitter has changed but do I want to write longer tweets?

What’s Twitter changed?

Everyone seems to have a view about the recent change in Twitter’s limit on the number of characters you can use from 140 to 280. Up to now, I have just accepted the 140 rule and worked within it. Now I need to think whether I want to write longer tweets. I have written before about the kinds of words people think I should use and not use, when writing my books. More recently I have written about the kind of language people expect.   Is any of that relevant to my tweets? Or my blogs?

A quill pen - the forerunner of Twitter
A quill pen – the forerunner of Twitter
What is Twitter for?

I use Twitter in a different way from my blog, and my writing is different again in my books. I hope you have noticed, but I also hope something constant is there in everything I write. Writers call it their voice.

I consider different media to be appropriate for different types of messages, just as there are different types of conversation in the real world.

  • If I see someone I know in the street when one of us is going somewhere and we don’t want to stop, I might say ‘hello’ or ‘all right?’ or just wave, or I might make a quick comment on the weather or something that doesn’t require a reply. That’s like a 140 character tweet.
  • If we want a longer chat, we’ll stop for a few minutes. That’s like an e-mail.
  • If we want a more in-depth discussion, we’ll go into a cafe, or if it’s a nice day sit on a bench, and talk things over. That’s like a blog.
  • If we want to go into something in real depth, we might have a proper business meeting, or get together for an evening. That’s like the start of a book.

What will longer tweets do for me except allow me to be more verbose?

Before Twitter we wrote as much as we wanted, like this monk
Before Twitter we wrote as much as we wanted, like this monk
Is Twitter trying to address one of today’s social problems?

Some people say that the Internet has contributed to intolerance and polarisation of views. One reason for that may be the anonymity it provides, making it easier to say offensive things than when meeting face to face, on the phone or writing letters. Internet trolls have a lot in common with anonymous phonecallers or poison-pen writers.

It has also been said that the need for brevity on Twitter discourages expressing yourself in a balanced way, explaining ideas fully, showing you appreciate the other side of the argument. It makes for soundbites. Glib opinions. Oversimplification. Taking sides.

Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is never pure and seldom simple.”

Will people be more polite and thoughtful when using 289 characters than they were when confined to 140? Will ideas be better examined? Time will tell. Let’s wish them luck.

Should we celebrate the Russian Revolution?

Is this the season of revolutions?

I have recently written something about that failed revolution, the Gunpowder Plot.  I will say something more about it soon. There are at least two more revolutions to commemorate at this time of year. I mean, the end of October. Sorry I’m a bit late! You might think of the Reformation as a revolution in many ways. Its 500th anniversary was on the 31st October this year, in case you missed it, as I did. I will write about that before long. Better late than never, I hope.

What about the other revolution?

Yes. I’m talking about the October Revolution, when the Communists took over Russia in 1917 by “storming” the Winter Palace. Communists still regard this as a great achievement. There are others who see it as a disaster. Before expressing a view on that, I must point out that the fall of the Winter Palace was far less dramatic than you might believe. It was not well defended and it fell with little bloodshed when a handful of Lenin’s supporters broke in. Fake news is not new. The real bloodbaths came later.

Am I booing or cheering for the Russian Revolution?

For a long time, I thought the anti-communist rhetoric poured out by a lot of British and American politicians was a bit unfair. They tended to compare the Soviet Union with western democracies. They rightly pointed out that the standard of living was higher in the West than in the Communist bloc of Eastern Europe and Russia. That was after they stopped going on about democracy and human rights, but usually before opposing the Human Rights Act as “political correctness gone mad”.

A speaker promoting revolution?
A speaker promoting revolution?
What was unfair about that comparison?

In 1917 Russia was not a liberal democracy. Neither was it a capitalist country. It was a feudal autocracy. The tsars ruled through the nobility, who were implacably opposed to any move towards democracy or equality. As for the economy, it was similar to Britain in the Middle Ages only less efficient. Therefore, the vast majority of Russians probably were better off as a result of the Revolution. At least in material terms. As for democracy and human rights: most of them really did have “nothing to lose but their chains”.

How many revolutions did they have?

The thing I overlooked for a long time was that the October Revolution was the second one in Russia in 1917!   The earlier one had removed the Tsar and had been relatively bloodless. It had resulted in a moderate socialist government led by Alexander Kerensky. He had tried to lead the country towards a political and economic system similar to those of most West European countries. We will never know if it would have succeeded. That government, not the tsarist one, fell as a result of the October Revolution.

Which Russian Revolution will you celebrate?

Who thought the executions of Guy Fawkes’ comrades were not horrific?

Executions cause controversy – shock!

The executions enacted in the first episode of the new BBC series Gunpowder have attracted a good deal of adverse criticism. This comes despite warnings that the episode contained scenes that some people would find upsetting. They were too realistic and shocking. In case you don’t know, they showed a man being hanged, drawn and quartered and a woman being crushed under a door on which the executioner laid a series of heavy weights.

Were executions like that in those days?

Yes! The usual punishment for various crimes, including treason, was hanging, drawing and quartering. However, if you were an aristocrat you would be entitled to a beheading, or ‘decapitation’, as they now say. The punishment of being pressed under a door applied to those who refused to enter a plea and thus could not be tried. For centuries, both types of execution had been in use: they were not innovations in the reign of King James I. They really were horrific. They were meant to be.

Why did we use such forms of execution?

People at the time probably regarded hanging, drawing and quartering as a deterrent and an appropriate response to the seriousness of the crime.  Pressing under a door took effect slowly. That way the victim had a chance to opt to enter a plea at any stage and submit to a trial. Those in charge would then stop the proceedings.

Why invite such an execution rather than go to trial?

If you were found guilty of certain crimes, including treason,  the Crown would confiscate all your property. Your family might then have no source of income. In those days, there was no social security. You relied on your accumulated wealth or the generosity of friends and family. If you did not plead, you could not be tried. Therefore, your relatives would inherit your property, as if you had died in any other way. If you were a wealthy person with a lot of dependents, you would probably opt for a trial only if you were pretty confident you would be found Not Guilty.

Were the executions relevant to the story?

Yes! It is easy to condemn the plotters, but we need to see their actions in context. That is what this series is about. It shows Catesby as a hothead from the start, but these executions were the last straw for him. We had to see the full horror to understand his reaction. You may not condone his actions, but you might empathise better. If we just heard someone announce the executions, we would not have been able to relate to Catesby to the same extent. You might still say that two wrongs do not make a right. That’s your choice.

I commented on the relevance of Guy Fawkes to Highwaypersons previously.

I may write again about Gunpowder, before 5th November.