As I sit here this evening, beside my candle, memories from my youth come to mind. These have been prompted partly by my time of life and partly by our current situation. Inevitably, retirement is a time for thinking back on our lives. Our minds are no longer filled up with the busyness of work, so they are freer to roam and inevitably we find ourselves revisiting paths already trod. Sometimes these moments of recall will arouse a smile or a laugh, sometimes feelings of pride, sometimes regret or even embarrassment! For myself the lockdown has created even more time and space for this, as the active retirement I envisaged has been put on hold along with everything else. But then, I have been active. After all, I have continued writing these meditations if nothing else.
I am aware that watching television has prompted memories of my youth. This is not to say that I have been glued to the nostalgia channels on cable to avert lockdown blues. It is possible to live in the 1970’s or 80’s or 90’s by watching them all day, I am sure. I discovered this quite a while ago when my aunt from Canada came to stay with me and loved watching old 1970’s series on my cable TV in the afternoons. Every afternoon we were back in the 1970’s as if the world outside was in the 70’s too. She still watches the old detective series ‘Murder She Wrote’ every weekday afternoon in her apartment on Vancouver Island. She has confessed to me that she must have seen every episode by now (all 264 of them!) and is now working her way through them all again. At least she has now moved on to the 80’s and 90’s! In her honour, I filmed a spoof version of the show (actually of the cheesy title sequence) for my retirement cabaret. I called it, ‘Murder He Taught’. Some of my lessons have been murder at times: either for myself or my students or both!
No, I haven’t been gorging myself on nostalgia TV. Like everyone else, I have been streaming away and sampling new Netflix and Amazon series. So I have been very much keeping up to date with my viewing. Well, inevitably these days conversations with family and friends end up with ‘What have you been watching on Netflix?’ so it is best to have something to share! The conversation usually continues with regurgitations of the labyrinthine plot of whatever series. I am being hypercritical. I tend to watch (and share with others) the shorter series as they tend to be more credible and entertaining than the longer ones, which drag out the plot like a piece of chewing gum until the holes can be seen in the middle.
I think watching and sharing TV series has kept us all going over the last year (as we have had little else to share). I include in that programmes from the terrestrial channels. This reminds me of when I was a schoolboy and sharing ‘last night’s TV’ with my friends in the classroom or playground. Of course, in those days nothing was streamed and nothing could be recorded either so if you didn’t see a programme when it was scheduled on one of the two or three terrestrial channels available you missed it. You would have to wait in hope for a repeat months later – or even longer! I remember at age 15, watching the first ever episode of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and being really enthusiastic about it to my friends at school the next day. By the end of the series, six weeks later, most of the class were watching it and sharing the funny lines of dialogue. With all the channels now available and with streaming, I suppose that communal aspect of viewing is receeding now.
I have made a serious effort, living alone in lockdown, to watch series on the terrestrial channels on the right day and at the right time as scheduled, just as I would all those years ago when I was at school. This would give some structure to my viewing (and the week) and also something to look forward to in the evening. I have generally found that I have been more focused on the programmes and have enjoyed them more as a result. I have started to adopt the same regime with streamed programmes, by making my own schedule in the evenings.
From talking to my friends, I am not the only one who dips into streamed programmes and half watches them or records programmes which never get watched at all. I think it is symptomatic of the malaise we have all been suffering: that inability to settle because of the unease caused by the situation we have been living through. To be honest, I haven’t indulged in ‘binge-watching’ on streamed channels over the last year as others have. I’ve taken in two consecutive episodes of a series at most. I guess I’ve been quite disciplined!
Recently the BBC has been showing past TV series to fill up the schedules, because the various lockdowns over the last year have to some extent affected the filming of current or future ones. Some of the series are old, dare I say it, venerable, such as ‘Fawlty Towers’ and ‘All Creatures Great and Small’.
Every Wednesday evening over six weeks at 9 p.m. I have recently been watching the re-run of the classic historical drama, ‘Elizabeth R’ starring Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I, a role that made her a star. The first episode of the series was screened on the exact date it had first been transmitted fifty years ago in 1971. I remember watching the series then. It was really useful as I was studying the Tudors in A level History at the time. I am unsure whether we had a colour TV at home by then. Or the correct television set. If you didn’t have a 625 line set you couldn’t watch BBC2 and would have to wait until the series was repeated on BBC1 (which it was). And of course, if you didn’t have a colour TV you would be watching in black and white, which would have been a great shame as, from my recent viewing, the costumes and sets were outstanding. It is odd but I do not remember watching the series in black and white or colour, though I did remember some of the scenes vaguely.
Of course the presentation was very different from today: scenes were mainly filmed on videotape in the studio with inserted outdoor scenes shot on film. Also scenes were longer and heavier on dialogue than today. In fact, ‘Elizabeth R’ is a series of six separate 90 minute historical plays each with a different scriptwriter, focusing on key moments in her long reign. The formula had been a huge success with ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ a year or so earlier, with each of the six plays focusing on a different wife and with a different writer. I have a suspicion that this formula has influenced the structure of Peter Morgan’s recent series ‘The Crown’ about our own Queen Elizabeth.
Despite what now looks like an archaic technical presentation, the series holds up well because of the well-written scripts and the excellent acting, particularly from Glenda Jackson herself, who has to age from a young teenage girl to a very old woman (for those times) of 69. The scripts do capture the dramatic events and crises of her reign really well and therefore were most useful at that time in bringing my dry A level History notes to life!
Revisiting the series in 2021, I enjoyed picking out the actors and actresses who were regularly on the TV in my youth and whom I wanted to emulate. At that time in my life, I wanted to be on that screen with them, in a costume drama. I wanted to be an actor or perhaps a TV scriptwriter. That has come about in a different way of course. I became a teacher of drama instead and wrote plays for my students. I didn’t become a classical actor like Robert Hardy (who played the Earl of Leicester in the series), though I would have liked to. But then I can’t image Robert Hardy directing a school play or pushing pupils (talented or not so talented) through a GCSE Drama course. He has played Winston Churchill on various occasions so perhaps that would have helped!
The final scenes of the series depict Elizabeth’s death and closely reflect true events. In her final days, knowing that she was close to death, Elizabeth refused to lie down on her bed, let alone sleep. Instead she spent hours sitting up, on an cushion. The dramatisation has her sitting there in full regalia on a large high-backed chair, gradually going silent and refusing to indicate by even a nod to show her agreement that James VI of Scotland should succeed her to the throne. The scene includes the actual words of Elizabeth. Robert Cecil, one of her ministers, politely tells her she must go to bed; to which she replies angrily, ‘Must is not a word to use to Princes, little man.’ Eventually, sitting on the chair, with a finger in her mouth like a child, she passes away. It is a remarkable scene, watching her using all her strength (ebbing away though it was) to resist death.
Elizabeth reigned for 45 years until her death in 1603 and was the longest reigning monarch up to that point in our history and for many years afterwards: until the 18th Century and George III (60 years) then Queen Victoria (64 years) and our own Queen Elizabeth who has currently reigned for almost 69 years (as long as the first Elizabeth’s lifespan).
Elizabeth I had spent the 45 years of her reign holding onto the crown despite initial political and religious upheaval, several rebellions, numerous plots against her life (and numerous attempts to get her to marry, which she refused) and even an attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. So perhaps she can be excused for using the last dregs of her formidable willpower to hang onto her crown even against death. All her energies since she was a teenager had been spent in survival, to the extent that it was ingrained in her. So why change now, in old age, even at the point of death? Or was she scared of the after life, having a religious faith, of meeting her Maker with the blood of those she ordered to be executed on her hands?
The scene conveys how difficult it can be to let go of power. We have been made very much aware of this in recent times with the scenes that played out in the White House last winter. Sometimes it is difficult to accept the inevitable, or more precisely, to accept that there is and will be a future without you. So, just as Elizabeth I refused to lie down on her bed, so Donald Trump refused to concede electoral defeat. Eventually, both had to give in to the inevitable.
Strangely I sympathise with these two powerful but disparate figures.
It is difficult to let go of the career that has defined you, especially, in Elizabeth I’s case, when it has defined you for a length of time.
It is difficult to let go.
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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