Blackadder and all that

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.

(Right, bear with me on this post as it could meander all over the place.)

I have been reading about the Michael Gove-Sir Tony Robinson-Blackadder history education hoo-ha. And it’s got me going back in time to my teenage years at school in Devon and as a student at Lancaster.

Me studying back in 1987 at Lancaster University
Me studying back in 1987 at Lancaster University

I was 11 when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. I was 22 when she was usurped by John Major. By then I was married, living in London and doing my PGCE. I went on to teach in what were known as ‘inner city’ schools in Camberwell and Plumstead, with an interest in early years and how we learn to write.

After a few years, I had my own children, three of them, in quick succession (when our daughter was born, her brothers were just 2 and 3 years of age). Those years are a blur, to be honest. But I do remember it was the steepest of learning curves.

Now, in 2014, those infants are teenagers, one on a gap year, one in his final year of sixth form, and one in Year 10. I have not returned to primary school teaching. But I have seen my kids go through the education system. I have taught in pre-schools, been a youth worker, and done a Masters degree. And now I teach adults creative writing. I have experienced more than my fair share of education.

Going back to 1987…

I met my husband at university. He was a history and politics student and active member of the student union and Labour club. I was studying English and Women’s Studies. We had a shared worldview, even though I was a yokel and he was a Londoner. And what made our political development more honed? We had something to rail against. The excesses of Thatcherism.

The ‘alternative comedy’ scene was central to this for me. Spitting Image, Saturday Live, French and Saunders and Blackadder were a huge part of my growing up and instrumental to my development as a writer. But especially Blackadder as it was a ‘sitcom’ and hence had a narrative. Blackadder Goes Forth, aired first in 1989, was the most complex of the four series, comi-tragedy at its Shakespearean best. Who can stay dry-eyed at the final moments as our beloved characters go over the top and the terrifying scene is replaced by poppy fields? (See clip at end of post.)

Fast forward to another Tory government. 2014. And Mr Gove. I am angry but not in the least bit surprised that the Education Minister is attacking the way WW1 is taught in schools. Sir Tony Robinson aka Baldrick has retaliated with his support for teachers, teachers who know how young people learn best: through dynamic and multi-media means (a little bit of alliteration there). How amazing that we can learn about the past through poetry, letters, memoirs, ‘official’ documents, academic books, comic strips, art, music, photographs, field trips, film footage … and, yes, satire.

BGF is satire. It flags up the absurdity of war, the senselessness and futility of sending millions of men to their untimely, tragic deaths. Declining empire pitched against rising empire. And the result? The Nazis. WW2. The Holocaust. Miilions of civilian deaths. All in the name of power.

Doesn’t mankind (and here I really do mean mankind) ever learn?

What have we learned one hundred years on, as empires once again shift and pose and strut. What can we learn?

We’ve tried to bring our kids up to be progressive, anti-racist, feminist, to ask questions, to argue. And boy have there been some arguments. The most momentous was at the dinner table a few years ago when DS1 and DS2 (forgive Mumsnet-type acronyms) conflicted over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It still bubbles to the surface even now.

It is hard being a teenager. It is very hard being a teenager in 2014 as they have to navigate their way through a minefield of social media and sexualised images and celebrity non-culture. Yes, they have their own generation of comedy too but the ‘alternative’ is now mainstream. (Jack Whitehall is lovely but he isn’t Ben Elton.) So I am glad my boys were shown Blackadder Goes Forth at school as part of their learning experience of the Great War. I am saddened that our daughter chose not to take history as an option. But she has seen Blackadder Goes Forth at home. And she has had to endure listening to her brothers battle it out over the Treaty of Versailles (if you’ll pardon the pun).

But imagine being a teenager in 1914?

My hope is for all three of them to go through the rest of their teenage years and into adulthood always questioning, never settling for the status quo. And to remember that most of their worries and problems are ‘first world’ worries and problems.

I hope they put their experiences into the bigger picture and ask what it is to be a good human being.

I hope my daughter can take on her brothers over the outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles.

And I hope that teachers continue to show Blackadder Goes Forth to their students and that Michael Gove doesn’t win in his elitist attempt to rewrite history.

And I thank God that this is not 1914 and that I do not have to wave my boys off to war. Do consider entering the Words for the Wounded writing prize. Closing date March 11th 2014.

We will remember them.


14 thoughts on “Blackadder and all that

  1. Surely anybody watching Blackadder or OWLW cannot fail to be moved and appreciate the bravery of the young soldiers. Yes, Satire so often knocks down but then it rebuilds on a new and often better foundation. OWLW is based entirely on the songs the soldiers sang, which were wry, sarky and bitterly ironic. Empirical evidence?

  2. What an excellent post, Sophie. I’m with you all the way on this one. Have to say I’m also an avid fan of Horrible Histories, from which I’ve learnt many historical facts and it’s funny too. Wish the ‘Education’ departs would wake up to realise children and particular teens learn so much from YouTube etc and it’s not all music videos. They are genuinely interested in history and want to talk about it and other pertinent topics. I love books but understand they are now so many varied ways to impart information and the teachers I’ve met know this too. Let them do their jobs!

  3. Gove is a total a… As for lefty academics, Gove is clearly unaware that the historian who did the most to spread the “lions led by donkeys” narrative was Tory minister Alan Clark in his 1961 book “The Donkeys”. However the claim that he has confused the Great War with the Second World War, with his “ruthless social Darwinism” comment are misplaced. In 1904 Imperial Germany committed genocide on the Herero and Namaqua peoples three decades before National Socialist Germany came into being. In a chilling warning of things to come, the survivors of the genocide were herded in to concentration camps. Professor Eugen Fischer (who latter become a Nazi eugenicist) conducted “anthropologic medical experiments” in these camps. He advocated genocide of alleged “inferior races” stating that “whoever thinks thoroughly the notion of race, can not arrive at a different conclusion”.

  4. What a fantastic blog entry, Sophie. You had me at the “torch” reference. I too used it in a short story I wrote in the 90s. I’m proud to be a torch-bearer for those lost. Loved all your perceptive details about education in this piece and couldn’t agree more about the way comedy and satire are fantastic educational tools. If I remember rightly Great War historians and societies praised the final Blackadder episode to the hilt saying it captured the horror, sadness and lunacy of the war perfectly.

    • Thanks, Liz. I hope this year, as we reflect on the 100 years that have passed, that politicians don’t use this as an opportunity for pushing forward their own agendas. The torch reference rings true. What did you do with your short story? X

  5. The story was runner up in a competition 🙂 I won a voucher for a stationary supermarket. Can’t remember how much it was now. I got to read it to an audience at the ancient Leicester Guildhall, where the Richard III exhibition was recently located. 🙂

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