George III: The Genius of the Mad King (BBC2)
First broadcast in 1987, and still undoubtedly very funny, Blackadder’s jokes about mental illness would probably draw fire from some quarters today. Is it right to jeer at bipolar disorder, from which the unfortunate King probably suffered then, and an estimated one-in-20 Brits do today? Perhaps it’s all right to jeer at anything, as long as there are plenty of alternative points of view.
George III: The Genius of the Mad King (BBC2) certainly helped in that regard, exploiting newly-available treasure troves of private papers, letters and ledgers to build a picture of the whole man, with and without his occasional bouts of illness.
Tucked away for centuries in the thick stone walls of Windsor Castle, George III’s archives are being made available to historians and gradually, via the internet, to everyone with an interest. I’ll certainly be having a click myself but in TV viewing terms, few sights can compare with the giddy, trembling excitement of a bunch of academics being let loose on the parchment for the first time. It wasn’t long before someone had struck gold.
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A sad letter, containing a lock of blond hair, from George’s wife, Queen Charlotte, to her children’s nanny, thanking her for the care she’d given to the now-dead Prince Arthur. It wasn’t just the intimate stuff that struck a chord in this collection but the sheer volume of everything.
George III documented every moment, from the fateful day he’d learned he was the new King in 1738 until he lost his sight in 1810.
When he wasn’t micromanaging state affairs and running his own network of spies, he was penning essays on subjects ranging from childrearing to dictatorship, or studying the heavens from his observatory.
It’s possible to wonder if doing so much might have contributed to the King’s illness. It could have been the other way around and a certain type of mania drove George into perpetual activity, as well as sometimes beyond reason. “Mad” in no way sums up the whole of this loving, complex, brilliant personality any more than it ever sums up anyone.
The Art of France (BBC4) inevitably spent quite a bit of time in the mirrored corridors of Louis XIV’s pleasure-palace, Versailles, but it began, unusually, somewhere without a piece of artwork in sight.
On a little hill in the Dordogne, historian and critic Andrew Graham-Dixon showed us the peaceful, rural France, dotted with church spires and farmhouses. So much of the French history that followed was concerned with sufferings and violent upheaval that you wondered when, and where this other, lovely France existed.
The Art of France (BBC4)
Whenever it did, it seemed some famine or pestilence or hostile army or tax-extorting King came along to ruin it. Perhaps that was the meaning behind The Shepherds of Arcadia, a rural scene painted in the 16th century by Nicolas Poussin.
Rather than tending their flocks or playing their flutes Poussin’s shepherds are gazing sorrowfully at an old tomb, upon which are written the words Et In Arcadia Ego (I Am In Paradise, Too.)
So, however lovely the landscape, death is part of it. Small wonder the Sun King hid away in a hall of gold and mirrors.