December 3rd, 2011


December Books 1) Interpreting Irish History, edited by Ciaran Brady

This is a collection of essays, including many important manifesto pieces from the key historians themselves, T.W. Moody, Robin Dudley Edwards, F.S.L. Lyons, Roy Foster, Ronan Fanning, etc, on Irish historical revisionism, which is a rather loose and ill-defined shorthand for the notion that the Irish historians of the mid-twentieth century deliberately intended to undermine the received myths of Irish history, and then the debate that ignited in the late 1980s as to whether or not this project was evil and wrong.

I come at it with a natural bias towards the revisionists. To me, the anti-revisionists seemed to be arguing that Irish history is best written as part of a Nationalist agenda, and to wish to close off certain topics from discussion - such as the relations between the Pale and England, or the wider Gaelic allegiances between Ireland and Scotland, or the individual failings of iconic Nationalist figures. It also seems to me that better history is written with an open and enquiring attitude, that one reaches the Truth by considering the Facts, rather than considering the Facts in the light of one's own revealed Truth.

My introduction to this entire question was a public seminar given at UCD in 1987 or possibly early 1988, where the panellists (I cannot now remember who they were) gave a reasoned explication of the so-called revisionist approach, and were heckled from the audience by an American who said, at great and tedious length, that it was disappointing and insulting to the Irish Nationalist tradition among the diaspora if it was now to be undermined by West Brits at home. I cannot remember who he was either; I do remember that he was counter-heckled by another member of the audience, very elderly, barely coherent and very angry, who ended up shouting "How are your hæmorrhoids???" This was Professor Robin Dudley Edwards, who as it turned out had only a few months to live.

Another seminar which I missed was in Cambridge at about the same time, where Brendan Bradshaw gave his detailed and expert critique of Stephen Ellis's take on the Elizabethan era, here published as one of the anti-revisionist pieces. It is by far the best of them as well, which is reassuring as I have tremendously fond memories of Bradshaw as a person (and indeed I asked him to marry me; but he was busy on the day we had chosen); I disagree with him on the central question of the moral obligation of the historian to support the Irish Nationalist project, but he lands some very effective blows on the details of the Elizabethan era, on the wilful disregard of British/English state violence against the Irish people by 'revisionist' historians, and on the true legacy of Herbert Butterfield (a point where he is clearly right and editor Ciaran Brady, in his introduction, clearly wrong). The other pro-Nationalist and anti-revisionist pieces are either petulant or (Seamus Deane's "Wherever Green is Red") incomprehensible. Two of them take my own father to task simply for recording his strong impression that treating the Northern Ireland problem as an issue or relations between two communities, rather than as one of Irish nationalism fighting off British colonialism, had become the academic mainstream.

It has to be said that the anti-revisionists have one killer argument, which is that the revisionist historians, concentrating on documentary (and therefore largely administrative) history ended up producing work that was not very exciting. But it provided the foundations for much else besides, including the expansion of Irish historical research into economics, women's studies, and archaeology. In any case, the book essentially reflects a political argument which has now been resolved, by synthesis as much as anything. In the days when the Troubles were still going, it seemed important to some to assert the primacy of their own Truth, if necessary by shouting in a louder voice. This book was published in 1994, which was the year of the first IRA ceasefire, when the peace process started to open up other possibilities. It feels much more antiquated than a mere seventeen years ago.

December Books 2) Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography

I've spent the last week or so listening to Caroline John's reading of Elisabeth Sladen's autobiography, billed as being unabridged (and at over 13 hours of talk time I can believe it). I liked it very much; Sladen comes across as a modest person, driven by her instinctive desire to be an actor, prepared to tell of her own bad experiences as well as the good - a run of difficult directors in the Pertwee era, health problems while filming both Dimensions in Time and School Reunion - but generally enjoying the process of recounting her career highlights and making the reader/listener enjoy the process as well. I have noted one particular point on Who history which the autobiography illuminates a bit, and no doubt there are others. It's a shame that she doesn't find time to talk about her role in Big Finish's audios more than a couple of passing mentions, and of course it's a bigger shame that she wasn't able to finalise the text and see the book into print herself. There is a moving foreword by David Tennant (which he reads on the audio version) and an afterword by her husband and daughter Brian and Sadie Miller, read with understandable emotion by Brian Miller on the audio. Caroline John isn't of course the right voice for this - we won't hear that voice again - but makes a decent fist of it. Recommended for Who fans.

Moonbase 3

My interest having been piqued by my investigation of the career of Fiona Gaunt, I have been watching the 1973 BBC sf drama Moonbase 3 over the last week - all six episodes are on Youtube, though in fact I have been downloading them and watching them on the infamous Android on the way to work.

Moonbase 3 is very nearly a Doctor Who spinoff. Created by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, with numerous familiar faces and names on the credits, it is set thirty years in the future, a European moonbase in 2003, mainly staffed by Brits with a few comic foreigners, but with headquarters in Brussels, answerable to the Assembly and paid in Eurodollars. Letts and Dicks wanted to make a series with as few counterfactual elements as possible, and unfortunately that really leaves only two plots - crew member puts everyone in danger, or natural forces put everyone in danger. In the first three episodes the crew member who causes problems is a well-known Doctor Who face - Michael Wisher in episode 1, Peter Miles in episode 2 and Edward Brayshaw in episode 3. I am afraid I had stopped concentrating when we had much the same plot again in episode 4, and was mildly wondering how far Doctor Smith, the moonbase psychologist (played by Fiona Gaunt) who seems to have the idea that you cure crazed crew members by snogging them, would be prepared to go for the good of her team.

But the fifth episode, "Castor and Pollux", seemed to me to achieve something rather impressive dramatically. The number three on the base (Barry Lowe, played by Tom Hill - or is that the other way round?), who has functioned as a slightly reticent viewpoint character for most of the series, is in grave personal danger in an incident which combines details of Neil Armstrong's docking problems on his first space flight and the Apollo-Soyuz mission which was then in the early stages of planning; personal and international politics interfere with the Moonbase's planned rescue mission. Because the show had had little compunction about killing off apparently important characters in previous episodes, I was on the edge of my seat yesterday as I watched it on the train. The technical effects are good as well.

Sadly, the sixth and final episode, "View of a Dead Planet", brings out all the series' flaws and more. Michael Gough turns up on the Moon as a venerable scientist predicting imminent doom for the Planet Earth, which indeed appears shortly afterward to have come to pass. I found his character's unpleasantness unattractive and unbelievable, and the reactions of the Moonbase crew to him and then to the awful situation simply implausible and uninteresting; On The Beach it ain't. There is also a nasty sexual assault subplot (analysed in brutal but fair detail here). Writer Arden Winch never did any other sf as far as I know. But it's not all his fault; the whole thing felt frankly under-rehearsed. It is particularly shocking because director Christopher Barry is generally much better (though it should be added that his most recent Who at this point was The Mutants, which is definitely his nadir). I wonder if cast and crew, knowing that the series was cancelled rather than becoming a new grownup Doctor Who, had simply lost their motivation?

Anyway, it's worth watching to get a sense of where BBC sf thought it was going, ten years after the start of Who and five before the start of Blake's 7. (There is one Asian staffer in three episodes, and we see the head of the Chinese moonbase as well; there are a number of women in the team, including one research scientist in episode 3 and Fiona Gaunt's psychologist.) Apart from the fifth episode, I also enjoyed the second, "Behemoth" by John "Colditz/Secret Army" Brason. And you can see them all for free.

Episode 1: Departure and Arrival (9 September 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 2: Behemoth (16 September 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 3: Achilles Heel (23 September 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4
Episode 4: Outsiders (30 September 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4
Episode 5: Castor and Pollux (7 October 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4
Episode 6: View of a Dead Planet (14 October 1973): 1, 2, 3, 4

Edited to add: I happened to watch a contemporaneous episode of M*A*S*H this evening (2.4, "For the Good of the Outfit", first shown 6 October 1973), and was really shocked by how much better it is.