Did we like it?
A documentary that explores the influence of philosophy and poetry on contemporary politics would be worth watching simply for novelty value in the same way that a simple whale can get thousands of Londoners away from Oxford Street even if was a indulgent mish-mash. But thankfully, this was worth watching largely because it was so expertly written and wrought.
What was good about it?
• Peter Ackroyd’s mouth is like forever open wound that gushes knowledge and erudite exposition on the history of literature and its place in modern culture. While he is a little rigid, the antithesis of the windmill arms of Peter Snow, and sometimes appears so stationary as to be a rotund human traffic light, his near-polemic narrative explains how words and ideas indelibly shaped European politics in the 18th century.
• The painstaking, lurid description of Louis XVI’s execution at ‘the machine’, invented by a man called Guillotine, which needed two ‘drops’ to decapitate his fat-necked head. And then further illustrated with the gratuitous blood staining the blade and flooding the cobbles.
• A brilliant cast, surprising only because of the brevity of their roles, which included David Tennant as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Threlfall as William Wordsworth.
• Ackroyd explained that while Rousseau and Denis Diderot’s philosophies contrasted, they both vilified the oppressive rule of the French monarchy that sought to crush both human reason and imagination. And how each ideology laid the foundations for the Revolution 40 years later.
• And how Rousseau’s belief that culture and government placed mankind in a prison that nullified the imagination was extrapolated by Thomas Paine in America, a country which at the time was free of religious and political suppression, and provoked the Declaration of Independence.
• As Ackroyd visited the once-dilapidated former residence of the pioneering, but poverty-stricken poet William Blake he lamented that it was “now a hairdressing salon”.
• The harsh, silvery light that was cast on the faces of all the poets and philosophers as they expounded their words captured every nascent wrinkle in their faces and accentuated every muscle as they spoke.
What was bad about it?
• While the lighting scheme was mostly a triumph, the two occasions when Ackroyd opened a book of poetry only to be consumed in the white light of literary revelation were a little too derivative of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the three baddies peer into the Ark (but Ackroyd’s face didn’t melt).
• Ackroyd’s passion was admirable, but through this rigorous passion he did spread a little disinformation about what caused the seismic alterations in the late 18th century. While literature and ideas played a significant role, so did greed, jealousy and poverty. Although Ackroyd partly conceded the flaws as he outlined how the new rulers in France imposed a regime just as belligerent and intolerant as its predecessors.