Finding a Lost King in the Reality TV and Social Media Age

Yesterday (4th Feb 2013) a team from the University of Leicester announced that a skeleton exhumed from beneath a Leicester car park was the long lost body of Richard III. It was exciting news for history nerds and archaeology enthusiasts everywhere.

I won’t go into the archaeology methods used or the history of Richard himself here, the blogosphere is already filled with excellent posts regarding both. Needless to say, the discovery caught the imagination. Some have even called it ‘the Mary Rose of our generation.’

What caught my attention was the reaction to the news from social media sites. When the Mary Rose was salvaged in 1982 the internet was in its infancy. There was no immediate global reaction poured out from countless smartphones, no websites streaming footage of press conferences in real time.

I watched the announcement yesterday in front of a 24 hour news channel, clutching my iPhone tightly and refreshing my twitter feed every ten seconds. I love big events shared with twitter. For instance, watching the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was made infinitely more entertaining when keeping one eye on the extravaganza and one eye on my laptop. All of a sudden I wasn’t just at my in-law’s house, I was at a global party attended by hundreds of my wittiest friends. Various tweets that night made me laugh until it hurt, made me incredibly proud to be British and gave a community feel to the night, despite being spent in the middle of rural Leicestershire.

Following the kind of people that I do, I knew that an event such as the Richard III announcement would make for an exciting and emotional twitter feed. I wasn’t wrong. After being dismissed a nerd all through school and my animated ramblings being tolerated by friends and family since, it was gratifying to see that my excitement was shared by so many people I’ve come to know and like. Despite my twitter friends being spread liberally across the country, we were all on the edge of a shared seat as the archaeologists and academics at the press conference took an age to get to the actual confirmation.

What interested me was that my twitter friends soon divided themselves into distinct camps.

A) Thrilled to find out that Dickie has been found at last. These tweeps were rightly impressed with the hard work that had gone into the identification and were happily predicting a tourism boom for Leicestershire and a new interest in an era unjustly ignored by many in favour of showboating Tudors or a deathly dull widowed recluse named Victoria. Could this be the discovery that finally brings the Plantagenet dynasty back into vogue? Could the news be the catalyst for a whole new group of people to take an interest in history? Tour guides and teachers fell into this category, you could almost see them rubbing their hands in glee.

B) There was a sizable contingent of tweeters who jammed on the capslock to remind the rest of us that Richard III was a homicidal, ruthless bastard. Baffled at the unbridled joy shown, they just couldn’t understand why the nation could be happy to have dug up a murderer. I’m surprised none of them suggested putting the skeleton on a posthumous show trial. My tolerance level of this was and is low. Firstly, it has never been a secret that saintly monarchs with a watertight set of morals have never captured the imagination like a good old villain or naughty boy can. No-one is fascinated by Henry VIII because he liked cuddling puppies, no-one devours books about Charles II because he routinely prayed every 30 minutes. The interest exists because of Henry’s monstrous ego and his marital soap opera and because Charles was a charismatic party animal with a mistress for each day of the year. Richard III won’t be winning any Uncle of the Year awards perhaps, and he may not have been the huggy type, but he is wonderfully interesting.  Bleating that he was a bit of a meanie is pointless.


Within seconds of the announcement the cry went up that we should test the suspected remains of the dead nephews and solve the murder mystery IMMEDIATELY. NOW. IT’S IMPERATIVE.

Calm down, love, one thing at a time. Let’s just appreciate this discovery for five minutes before we move on to the next project, shall we? It was time consuming enough to ID THESE remains, let alone start on more than one set of remains suspected of being the princes. Not to mention that at least one set of bones is contaminated.

Murder mysteries are indeed intoxicating, personally I’m not in a rush for this one to be solved. The frantic and maniacal calls for the case to be reopened reminded me of this:

D) The high and mightys. It did dampen my spirits to see so many prominent historians attempt to pour cold water on the whole discovery. On a day where archaeology and British history made headlines across the world it seemed petty and bitter to send out snarky remarks that the discovery wouldn’t really ‘change’ anything. I don’t think it is necessary for the discovery to change anything to be noteworthy. Your colleagues have had significant success in finding a frickin’ monarch and the whole world is talking about it. Say congratulations and then shut up. Group A got understandably annoyed with Group D. Group D sneered at Group A from their academic pedestals. Some interesting and usually lovely people fell into Group D, hopefully normal service will resume soon.

E) The comedians. When debate rears its ugly head, tweeters can always rely on the witty banterers to break the tension. Here are some of my favourites from people I follow or simply tweets that were so brilliant that they got retweeted for hours.

Larry the Cat (@Number10cat) “Archaeologists say they were instantly able to distinguish remains of Richard III from Clegg family owing to presence of a spine”

Elizabeth Windsor (@Queen_UK) “Just had 600 years of parking fines through for Richard III. Might see if one can persuade Chris Huhne’s wife to pay them.”

Richard III (@HMRichardIII) “I bloody told you it was me”

Gemma (‏@gemgemgembird)
“Which historical figure do we dig up next, then? I say we go to Stratford, because SOMEONE has got some explaining to do.”

Jen (@MsGibbster) “Richard III ‘fit for work’ says ATOS”

Stuart Heritage (@StuHeritage) “Next news: berserk Richard III clone breaks out of cage and eats a man off a toilet”


So that was in the morning.

I suspect that I was not alone in spending the afternoon in a rather exuberant mood. History was the most popular subject of the day, therefore we were popular by association. History nerds were sexy, charismatic types for the day, even if it was only in our own imaginations. The feeling was brief, because the evening brought us, the nerds, crashing back down to reality. Why? ‘Richard III: The King in the Car Park’ on Channel 4 (quickly dubbed CSI:Plantagenet by twitter wits.)

We were all hoping for the documentary to be informative, whilst also showing history lovers in a positive light. A shame then, that Channel 4 wasted this opportunity and instead relied on that other monster of the modern age; reality TV.

When producers are too lazy to conduct research or too devoid of moral fibre to actually care about their subject, they now rely on the default template for reality TV. Find the most eccentric person on screen and make them look batshit crazy, then sit back and watch the ratings rise. Shame on Channel 4 for racing through informative segments with experts to focus on Philippa Langley.

Ms Langley was responsible for gathering evidence of the location, finding the funding for a full scale archaeological dig and then actually convincing someone to conduct the entire procedure. It can’t have been easy and obviously took dedication and perseverance. To be generous she is a determined amateur who pointed actual archaeologists and scientists in the right direction. On screen however, she came off as a cringingly batty woman obsessed with a single person to the point of fixation.

Maybe Channel 4 did her a disservice, perhaps she’s lovely and a little socially awkward. Maybe Channel 4 did the nation a favour and warned us in advance not to invite her to dinner if we make her acquaintance, lest she compare the roast chicken carcass to Richard’s ribcage and run out of the dining room sobbing.

Twitter was predictably quick to condemn or defend. Philippa fans were eager to remind us that after long periods of research it is easy to form an emotional attachment with a subject. I agree, I always feel close to my research subjects, as a tour guide it is essential. Without an emotional attachment, good or bad, I can’t tell their story in an engaging way. However, I (and most historians, Philippa defenders included!) am able to step back and see personality flaws and mistakes. No historical figure is perfect, but listening to Philippa you’d have thought that old Dickie was the only person on the planet who ever truly deserved to live.

Philippa and other cantankerous members of the infamous Richard III society (not all are stubbornly hero worshipping, a few vocal and militant members have earned them a bad reputation) are too fanatical for comfort. The Society as a whole maintains that Richard III has had a raw deal in the history stakes, and he has. He’s been depicted by propagandists and later moralists as a complete git. I’m inclined to say that he WAS  a git but for pragmatic and justifiable reasons considering his rank and the era in which he lived. Philippa and fellow fans will merely stick metaphorical fingers in ears whilst loudly denying that Richard ever did anything more violent then accidentally tread on a woodlouse.

THAT is what annoys me about Philippa. Due to her crush on Richard she ignores his history itself. She tries to mould him into the angel that she wants him to be. She is bashing a square peg into a round hole with a huge mallet made of desperate obsession. Richard III is not as bad as the Tudors and their arse licking Shakespeare said he was, but he’s not a saint either. A balance must be struck, and they don’t come more imbalanced than Philippa.

So the previously ebullient nerds in the audience were deflated when this uber nerd took to our screens and let the side down by being melodramatic and fanatical.

Watching Philippa drape the (not yet identified!!!!) remains in a cheap flag under the uncomfortable eyes of actual experts, run around constantly crying, and stare at the skeleton with uncontrollable fervour was uncomfortable viewing. I honestly thought at one point that she was going to pick up the skull and hug it, running her fingers erotically around the eye sockets.

With one fell swoop history nerds ceased to be rock stars (oh how short lived that turned out to be) and reverted back to being awkward oddities that no-one wants to sit next to on the bus. Instead of strutting around, proud of our knowledge and passion, we’ll go back to hiding in our libraries and museums, safe from the laughing masses.

The actual experts on the show were talented, coherent and mercifully practical. Such a shame then, that television producers assume that they will bore or confuse us with techie speak. I could happily have listened to them talk for the entire 90 minutes instead of being subjected to the obligatory ’emotional journey’ of Philippa. How patronising that Channel 4 should put the emphasis on that instead of the incredible scientists, or indeed, Richard himself. His undeserved rep was constantly alluded to and yet nobody thought to dig a little deeper.

It will fascinate me to see how television and the internet has evolved when the next big discovery rolls along. Will science win the day or will emotions run so high they drown it out again? Time and twitter will tell.


Filed under musings

6 responses to “Finding a Lost King in the Reality TV and Social Media Age

  1. Reblogged this on History Space and commented:

  2. Reblogged this on Something about Kathryn… and commented:
    I was thinking about writing something about yesterday’s discovery but didn’t know where to start. This is the stuff that’s been in my head all day but someone else has already written it!

  3. Servetus

    This is fantastic.

    Speaking as an academic historian (of an allied period — but not English history) who has a lot of experience with museum / historical representations / public presentations of a major historical figure from another country in said period, but who’s also a Richard Armitage fan and blogger and thus perforce writing way more about this topic than I might have wanted to lately —

    well, maybe I should just blog about it myself. I have so many thoughts in response to your post. But I found myself nodding through a lot of it. Before I write a whole disquisition — I don’t know that the historians I observed commenting were all *that* quick to pour water on the whole thing, or at least not more so than they would have been anyway. I was happy they found the body, not least because it will shut some people up. However, from my perspective, what I’m constantly hearing from Ricardians and the media about “what historians think about Richard III” is actually more or less completely divorced from what we do think about him and what modern textbooks say and have said for over a generation now (and possibly longer — I just don’t feel like digging through all that old paper). Nothing we could *ever* say would make it good enough for some of these people — unless we were to deny some of the facts actually in evidence. You see it again and again on amazon — responsible scholars who write new works that try to bring fair academic assessments to the question get comment mobbed by loons. And it’s a simple fact that a skeleton doesn’t really address the burning questions of the Ricardians, aside from the “hunchback” one, which was at least explained, if not confirmed, by these results — even if historians were actually in the business of making moral judgments about events five centuries in the past as their first order of business. Good ones aren’t. What we do is excavate the sources of all kinds and then give people our professional judgments about them in regard to various questions as a means of helping them out with their moral judgments. I find again and again that when I note the terms of the parliamentary settlements that transferred Anne Neville’s property out of her own hands as part of her marriage to Richard, I am accused of villifying him. For me, noting that a source proves that an event happened in a particular way with a greater or lesser degree of certainty is not the same as either celebrating or criticizing the event. Not so the Ricardians. And it gets tedious — especially because many of them just ignore the material in sources they don’t like. Big bad historians, who actually order volumes of parliamentary rolls and read through what they say, are on the short end of the stick here and social media have made this worse, not better, for us.

    re: Langley — yes, I find myself torn between wanting to congratulate her for her persistence and wanting to tear her hair out. I disliked the documentary as well. I’m all in favor of making *good* history marketable and I benefit from the fact that the current fad for sexy, historical soap operas draws students to my courses. Public history definitely has to be tailored to the needs of the audience. That said, it doesn’t have to be sensationalist — and the point is that what got Langley her results was her actual historical research and sifting of evidence. Not her fixation on Richard III. I can imagine she was overjoyed to have been right — but I can’ timagine she was overjoyed with this picture of herself.

    In the end, I think a lot of this comes down to the media, just as you say. They are invested in the notion of “the crazy fan” and ignore anything that doesn’t support that picture. As a consequence people who really care about something more than the average person does — a category to which Langley belongs — get … condescended to? Perhaps she was willing to pay the price of being seen as crazy to get her project accomplished. She wouldn’t have been the first — one thinks of someone like Heinrich Schliemann, although I’m reasonably confident she’s more responsible than that.

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  5. LostinaGoodbook

    I watched the documentary and became fascinated with Philippa’s reactions. The two points at which she became emotionally upset and had to sit down or leave the room were when she was confronted with the reality of his scoliosis of the spine. She was fascinated but dry-eyed as they were recounting the details of his battle and post-mortem wounds. I suspect she had become very emotionally invested in her own version of RIII as a good but misjudged ruler, and evidence that at least some of what was said about him was true, upset her world-view. But if he did have a disability, it could make him even more interesting and brave as a character because he would have had to overcome so much more pain and adversity to use a sword, wear armour, ride a horse and fight in battles. That could be interesting ground to explore in a film. And perhaps it took a character like Philippa’s, who wouldn’t be told it couldn’t be done, to drive through the project of finding him.

  6. Pingback: Richard Armitage / Richard III rumble, Week 17! « Me + Richard Armitage

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