The Romanovs, Simon Sebag-Montefiore

One of those books that you can’t put down – that force you to eat all meals one-handed and stay up far too late.  And then re-read all over again as soon as you’ve finished.

The Romanovs was a gift from my lovely chum @kelanajo, and while I don’t read much non-fiction, with a blurb that read ‘Game of Thrones meets War and Peace’, I knew I was onto a winner. The book covers the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, who ruled Russia from 1703 – 1917.

Montefiore himself states that this isn’t an attempt to create a definitive account of the Romanovs, but to show how each personality dealt with the challenges of autocracy.  This approach doesn’t shy away from the failures and grotesqueries of autocracy, but also avoids easy judgement and political bias.  The overall impression was that the even the worst of the Romanovs were just very limited people hopelessly out of their depth, and ultimately creators of their own undoing.

In this thread, Montefiore deliberately focusses attention on the demise of each ruler, as ‘the passing over of power is the ultimate test of any regime’.   This very cleverly builds momentum as the book progresses to the last of the Romanovs and the end of the dynasty.   With Nicholas II, there is a real sense that modernity is weighing in – that the Russia of 1917 was too vast and complex for any one person to govern.  Yet this never gives way to fatalism or a dubious sense of destiny.

Instead, there is a growing divide between the reality of the situation and the Romanovs grasp of what is happening around them.   One of the most memorable passages shows this with an almost cruel clarity.  In 1916, revolution spreads through Russia, and president Rodzianko telegrams the Tsar:

“Popular uprisings are taking on uncontrollable and threatening dimensions… Your Majesty, save Russia… Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”

The Tsars response:

“Fatso Rodzianko has again written me a load of nonsense to which I won’t even give a reply,”

By itself, this may seem the reaction of a lunatic, but the book beautifully shows how historical events have hugely complex origins, which are often brought to a head by personalities.   Nicholas II was socially reserved, and hugely invested in his family – his haven from the strain of rule.  So as WWI increased the demands placed upon him, he responded by removing himself ever more from his court and public, relying on increasingly unsuitable people to govern for him, which ultimately  sealed his fate.

A big part of the story’s success is Montefiore’s grasp of the historical material.  I can’t begin to imagine how much research has gone into this book.  The appendices were so long that they weren’t even printed in the paperback version (which itself was over 650 pages long).  Montefiore makes excellent use of primary sources, building the story with first-hand accounts, guided and structured by a historians understanding of wider events.  It feels both immediate and comprehensive.   It also shuts down knee jerk responses, or blithe judgements.  Frankly, being an autocrat sounds an exhausting business…

And one that poisons all relationships.   Romanov parents kill their children, children their parents, spouses are despatched, and lovers bought off.  Catherine the Great’s relationship with her sullen son Paul was almost fantastically awful – after her death, he pulled down the palace she built for him and had her disinterred.  His failure, or perhaps refusal, to learn from her and so live up to her brilliant reign was one of the things that lead to his assassination.   But as Nicholas II shows, happy family life was no guarantee of good rule either.  Even productive, contented relationships have a tension to them as there is the constant awareness that proximity to the monarch means power.  And even slight aspects of personality or good fortune – that would mean very little for an ordinary person – have profound, world-changing impact in a tsar.  While it does make for a cracking story, it’s all very fraught.   Montefiore notes that most of the later Romanovs took the throne reluctantly.

I suppose it’s a role that is ultimately dehumanising.   The Tsar can’t be ridiculous, or tired, or old, or have favourites, or blind spots, or weaknesses.   There are several enduring images in the story: Ivan the Terrible impaling his son through the head with the imperial spear; Paul I reviewing his troops in an outfit that made him resemble a teapot with boots;  the dying Nicholas I raising a fist to his son and heir, telling him ‘Hold everything like this!’.  Yet there is one image that recurs: the decaying corpse of the monarch, dressed in finery and mourned in the splendour of an Orthodox mass.  Monarchy is an attempt to find the divine and eternal in human form.  Yet even the greatest rulers must die.  There will always be distance between what is desired and what is possible.  As this brilliant story of the Romanovs shows, autocracy is equal parts sublime and absurd, bringing both marvels and horrors into the world.  As much as I enjoyed reading about the Romanovs, I’m not sure I’d want to meet many of them…

What did you think?  Have you read any other biographies of the Romanovs? How did they compare?  Did you enjoy Montefiore’s approach?  Were there any bits of history you feel were missed out? Let me know!

SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!

War & Peace (BBC1)

Adapting one of the longest (and least read) Russian novels for a western TV audience was always going to mean cuts and simplifications.  But has too much been lost in the translation?  Or does this 6 part series do the Tolstoy epic justice?  Having never read the book, I had no idea what to expect, but it pulled me in brilliantly.

It is 1805, and Pierre – favourite bastard son of the Count Bezukhov – returns to Russia after being educated abroad.  At the salon of Anna Pavlovna he awkwardly mingles with the highest in the land.  But as he unexpectedly inherits his father’s title and fortune, war with France is looming, and the lives of Russia’s elite look set to change forever.

The first episode did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and numerous characters.  There are a lot of players and the volley of people and names was a little disconcerting at first. But Anna’s salon succinctly displayed the luxury of life as a Russian aristocrat, and the vacuity and corruption it creates.

The show made the most of its stunning locations in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The palaces were vast and opulent, and looked so solid somehow- like they had been there forever.  It quietly hinted at the hauteur of the elite, their concern with appearances and their disconnection from the rest of society.  This contrasted with the beauty and majesty of the natural landscapes, with their vibrancy and constant changing rhythms.  The use of music was excellent too, giving a sense of time and place, as well as giving the characters nuance.

Of course, the story does suffer a bit in being compressed.  I think that the multiple coincidental meetings are supposed to reflect how much fate – rather than free will – controls our lives.  But on the screen, it does feel a bit too neat.  Such as the benign peasant who pops up to share some wisdom with Pierre, only to die when he has served his purpose.   And the pace does mean that details and intentions aren’t always clear.  Did Anatole die from his wounds?  Does Helene mean to kill herself, or is she only desperate to induce a miscarriage?  Did Boris actually marry his rich heiress?

Oddly enough, while the last episode was the longest – 80 minutes, rather than 60 – events felt more compressed than ever.   It seemed that Andrei was barely laid in his grave before Pierre was proposing to Natalia.  Which may be why the cosy bucolic finale left me cold.  After all the suffering and growth of the characters, it seemed they only learned to go have some kids and sit out in the sunshine –  a bit of cop-out, if you ask me.

But in fairness to the series, I think that the things I disliked (and there weren’t that many, honest!) are actually issues with the story itself, rather than choices made by the programme makers.  I found the whole ‘destiny’ thing rather tiresome.  Sure, many things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices and take responsibility for them.  Andrei didn’t die because of fate; he died because he refused to take cover when the shell landed.  Presenting events in this way might be consistent with Tolstoy’s vision, but it did sap tension from the tale. Characters felt like they were floating along, rather than active agents in their lives.  This was especially galling as they were so privileged.  Nikolai balking at his family’s reduced circumstances when he himself gambled away a big chunk of their fortune made me want to throw something at the screen.

But the quality of the performances pulled me back in.  Everyone in this massive cast did well, but Jessie Buckley was outstanding as long-suffering Marya.  Her reaction when her father died, and later when Nikolai ‘proposed’ felt so genuine.  She was glowing with happiness by the end, and it was wonderful to watch.   Paul Dano was also great in a difficult role, making ingenuous, hopeless Pierre believable.

There was also some brilliant story-telling here.  I was never once lost as to who or where or when, which is no mean feat in a story this complex and a cast this big. There were some lovely visual touches, and the costumes were excellent (if a little anachronistic at times).  Helene was pretty irredeemable, but the sight of her pregnant in that wholly-misjudged frock showed both her lack of self-awareness and her vulnerability.   The war scenes were impressive, and strangely beautiful.  Used sparingly, they conveyed the devastation and wastefulness of war, but also the strength of humanity that such horror can throw into relief.  The scene where Pierre goes to retrieve some shot from the munition dump was brilliantly handled.  I also loved the image of the retreating French army; a great line stretched across the landscape, tiny figures dwarfed by the vast, white landscape.

As events drew to a close we got a more philosophical feel, our leads grew and leaned the value of love and forgiveness.  Andrei at peace with the word on his deathbed; Natalia beside him sounding much more grown up, and much more Russian: ‘To suffer with you would be the greatest happiness for me.’  Even Pierre starts to develop, learning to savour life’s simple pleasures, rather than barrelling through looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.  ‘Where there is life, there is happiness.’

All in all, a compelling, brilliantly made series that really brought Tolstoy’s epic to life. I’m even tempted to give the book a go.  Have you read the novel?  How does it compare?  Some have argued that this is the definitive adaptation- do you agree?  What will you watch on your Sunday nights now? Let me know!

Wolf Hall, Three Card Trick (BBC2)

Adapting not one, but two Booker winning novels is no easy task, but judging from this opening episode, the Beeb could well have a classic on their hands.

Things move swiftly in the world of Wolf Hall.  It’s 1529, and Lords Norfolk and Suffolk ride to meet the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to demand he relinquish his position.  A quiet man in black buys the Cardinal a day’s reprieve.  We then learn how the Cardinal came to lose his way, and how Thomas Cromwell came to be the man stood next to him.

Based on the novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, this six part series follows a fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmiths son from Putney who came to be advisor to King Henry VIII himself.   While not told in the first person, the novels closely follow Cromwell’s thoughts and memories.  I loved the books.  They felt immediate and alive, and conveyed Cromwell’s intelligence and humanity very well.  Historical Cromwell has his fair share of critics – one historian referred to him as Alistair Campbell with an axe – and he certainly comes across as a man you wouldn’t like to upset.  But above all else he is clever.  His mind is constantly at work, dissecting the world and people around him, drawing on his diverse experiences.  I wondered how a TV series could convey this successfully.

Dialogue, mostly.  Cromwell is witty, and gives us constant reminders of the fact he is an outsider.  He asks yokels for nutmeg and saffron, makes a subtle dig at Anne to her bustier sister, and asks goodly Thomas Moore if his recent appointment to Lord Chancellor was a ‘fucking accident?’  He even talks down the king with a particularly deft combination of honesty and flattery, ‘Your majesty can form your own opinions.’

Not that it doesn’t look good.  It’s every bit as beautiful you’d expect from a BBC drama.  The costumes and set design were excellent, and with the naturalistic lighting, served to pull you into the world brilliantly.  The dialogue is easy to follow, almost entirely in modern English.  This maybe a fictionalised account of historical events, but it still holds a mirror to our own world.  Nothing changes.  Yet there were beautiful, almost lyrical moments that really add to the emotional punch of the programme- the image of little Grace walking away from us in her angel wings would have touched harder hearts than mine.

Performances were all superb, genuinely no weak links, which is remarkable for a cast this size.  Bernard Hill was perfect as limited and ill-tempered Norfolk, a medieval man in an early Renaissance world.  ‘God damn it, Cromwell.  Why are you such a- person?  It’s not like you can afford to be…’ Class concerns abound here -Boleyn bristles at the reminder that his ancestors were in trade, and Wolsey is delighted to finally meet someone of more humble beginnings than himself.  Jonathan Pryce was great – not a physical match for the well-fed Wolsey, but brilliantly displaying the ingenuity and wits that saw a butchers’ boy rise to Cardinal and Lord Chancellor both.    Not really surprising that he and Cromwell should form such a bond.  Damian Lewis makes an excellent King Henry.  We don’t see much of him, but then we don’t need to.  He looks like a king, and when he finally speaks to Cromwell, he sounds like one as well.  ‘I can.  I will.’ (This reminded me of Henry IV Part 1, ‘I do. I will.’ –  bit of foreshadowing perhaps?)

Also have to mention Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.   Only on screen for about three minutes, but she certainly made her mark.  The character of Anne Boleyn has been represented and reimagined so many times, I worried she might come across as an awkward amalgam of all those earlier versions.  But, it felt fresh.  And it certainly bodes well for further entertaining exchanges with Cromwell.  She likes a fight, does Anne.   And yet you can’t help but worry for her.  Because for all her artifice and controlled rage, you do get the sense that Anne is one of the few characters to explicitly state her intentions.  Wolsey’s destruction was just a fortunate by product- it’s a crown she wants.  And it seems that the only people who do well in this world are the ones that keep their cards close to their chest.

And so we come to Cromwell.  Mark Rylance is too old and too slight to be Cromwell.  And yet, having seen him here, I honestly can’t imagine anyone else in the part.  The slightly awkward way he removes his hat, the way his faces shows everything and nothing, and the voice most of all- perfectly correct English, yet somehow suggestive of low birth and foreign travels, gruff and measured at the same time.  It was flawless.

If I’m honest, the jumps in time could have been more deftly managed. If I hadn’t read the books, I think I would have been confused as to exactly when we were.  Probably a consequence of trying to do so much in so short a time, as well as the nature of the source material, but I can’t help but feel it could have been handled better.  It wasn’t a deal breaker, but I wonder how non-readers got on.

Still, that’s my only grumble.  Cannot praise this highly enough.  I’m just glad the rest of the series goes out the day after Broadchurch, or I really would be torn.

So, what did you think? Interesting to me that, while the series will cover the first two novels, Mantel is still working on the third and final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.  Should the showrunners have waited until this book is finished, and then have done a definitive series?  As a historical drama, we already know (or can easily find out) the eventual fate the real-life characters depicted here.  Does this impact how you react as a viewer, or does it not matter? Do let me know.