Blightyvision: “Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders”

I’ve been asking myself ever since I saw this show if it’s wise to review a flat-out documentary — by which I mean one not helmed by an instantly recognizable actor or “offset,” as it were, by comic interludes.  The number of people State-side who will know Ian Hislop by name is a small one — he’s known best for being a mainstay on “Have I Got News For You” and as a writer of comedy and satire.  Those who do know him, know he’s the man for this sort of job.  And this sort of job is a straight-up observance of one facet of Victorian history: no skits in between, no major celebrities, no gimmicks.  Just an observation of what is, in a large part, a misunderstood historical era.

(Incidentally, as you can see, I decided ultimately that yes, it is wise.)

Right away, “Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders” is obviously not a study in condoning or condemning any particular facet of Victorian life or politics.  Rather, it’s what you don’t get very often in classrooms, books, or any sort of historical study: a sort of fond look at a group of people who had a variety of ups and downs, positive and negative points, all of which are regarded as interesting rather than good or bad.  If he makes any sort of statement about the actions of the variety of people he studies, it’s “understandable.”What Hislop is doing here, couched in a really highly academic framework, is a bit of mythbusting.  The majority of the populace is going to think of Victorians as stuffy, inhibited, and well and truly against most of the things we’re rather fond of (drinking, sex, not abusing children, etc.).  Now, no, he doesn’t nay-say that at all.  But he offers us a far more complete look at the reasons for this strict way of thinking, and the other, positive effects of it — things we take for granted.

Obviously I’m not here to write a thesis on the things he talked about.  I already went to college.  The thing is, I knew when I sat down to watch this that it was an era I’m personally fascinated by, and that this would not necessarily be the case with friends, GOA readers, or anyone else, for that matter.  But a bit after I did sit down to it, I noted that it was actually constructed and presented in such a way that it might draw in people who otherwise wouldn’t give a damn about that era of British history.

Out of necessity, Hislop is not the only person who narrates this show.  He goes to a variety of experts, descendants, and enthusiasts to elaborate on the topics he discusses.  One of the major pities of this is that not all of his experts are quite as interesting to listen to as he is.  For the most part he’s managed to pick people who are enthusiastic about the chance to talk about their area of study, though.

Speaking of enthusiasm, the whole show operates on that sort of mentality.  Hislop loves what he’s talking about, even the questionable points.  He doesn’t pass judgment, but rather talks about his “do-gooders” — influential and/or well-intentioned politicians and social activists who wanted very badly to “fix” society in their own ways — with the affection of a parent who knows his child isn’t perfect but still loves it unconditionally.  And when it comes to major accomplishments, such as George Cruikshank’s “Worship of Bacchus” in the third and final episode, Hislop addresses both how over-the-top some projects were and how cool they are anyway.

This is the sort of history lesson most people are missing from schools anymore: fascination and affection from a distance without up-close judgment and modern-day comparison.  A viewer could easily slide their own political opinions alongside the show as they watch, but why would you want to?  There’s so much of interest to be seen that modernizing any aspect of it just seems wrong.

As for actual production values … well, because you have to, don’t you?  A lot of the in-betweens go the route of other shows lately, such as “Fry and Laurie Reunited,” in that it used Gilliam-esque cutouts to depict the subjects of discussion at given points.  At this point in time I’m not sure if I can call it overused imagery, but filmmakers are certainly in love with it.  In this context, it has a sort of faux historical accuracy to it just by way of the art.  It’s as close as the show is going to get to anything particularly eye-catching or “out there” offsetting the otherwise straightforward series.  For that alone — i.e. giving the audience something shiny occasionally — it’s a bit of all right.

The big question here, though, is still this: could a non-Victorian geek, or even someone who’s not particularly into historical nonfiction at all, get behind this?  I think so.  At the very least, I think a mainstream audience could appreciate the third episode, which is all about sex and booze and how people didn’t want England to have any of either.  The episodes can be watched independently of each other, as each isolates a different set of issues, so a viewer could easily home in on one area of interest.

If you can get your hands on it, at least give it a bit of a try.  If nothing else, it’s a fun way to put a rather accepted notion about history into perspective.

“Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooders” is part of History on BBC Two, and is still available in part to view on iPlayer.  If you’re in the right country for it, and not one a’ them filthy foreign types.

Posted on January 13, 2011 at 00:50 by Kara Dennison · Permalink
In: Columns, Television: British and Canadian · Tagged with: , ,