Author's Note: When Monarchy with David Starkey was first released on separate disc sets several years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing one of them. With this release of Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series (and after enjoying the entire series again these past few weeks), I'm going to retrofit that older review with a few new comments and observations, since it seems to sum up nicely my feelings about the show.
Quick, muscular, bold history in a fashion that very probably would have pleased the decisive (and brutal) subjects Dr. Starkey covers here. Acorn Media and 4 International have released Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series, a five-disc, 16-episode collection that does restore the five UK episodes that were missing from the previous release of Set 1 (thanks to a reader for that heads-up!)...although Starkey's 2007 extended episode, The Windsors, which brought the series up to the modern day, is still M.I.A.. Dr. David Starkey, noted historian, author and British TV host (and the man The Daily Mail once labeled the "rudest man in Britain," to Starkey's delight, no doubt) examines the lineage of the British kings and queens through the 1,500 year-long tradition of monarchy in England, providing a terrifically entertaining history lesson that looks at the most stable continuation of governance in European history, an evolved form of government that led to the first truly modern nation-state.
If you remember taking European history in college, you may have had the same experience I had when learning the hundreds of years worth of British monarchy succession: I fell asleep. After the first two or three kings and queens - thanks to pedantic profs who could be barely roused to the occasion of lecturing - I blanked out and hoped I could fake it through the final. It wasn't that the stories or the characters involved were boring (far from it)--it all just seemed too confusing and complex and layered to make much sense of on a hung-over Monday morning (and being a film major didn't help, either, relying on the confused memories of jumbled-up film portrayals, wondering if I was referring to the guy Richard Burton played, or Robert Shaw, or Peter O'Toole as I furiously scribbled away in my Blue Book). But Dr. Starkey effortlessly holds one's attention--but not through any artificially flashy delivery or efforts to be viewer-friendly. On the contrary, Dr. Starkey's owlish, peering intensity creates a humorless focus that's infectious and demanding (I love how he thrusts his head forward, in an indifferent defiance of your possible confusion, as he confidently informs you of a particular king or queen's crafty political maneuver). He's the opposite of the usual TV host fodder, at least here in the States (slight, middle-aged, unprepossessing in looks), but the barely concealed contempt he shows for his assumed acknowledgment of your ignorance is amusing in the extreme.
Don't think, however, by that description of Dr. Starkey that he or Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series is a dull, dreary affair. Using copious amounts of location footage of various palaces, battlefields, government buildings and gorgeous estates, with Dr. Starkey present at many of them, Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series is stunning to look at; it can be enjoyed as travelogue on that level alone. The use of paintings and illustrations, some of them visually processed to give them a fun, 3D Viewmaster® effect, as well as many statues and other works of art, decorate Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series, providing a frequently breathtaking look at the "living" history of Britain. As for our host, Dr. Starkey, in that marvelously dry, arch British manner, he is quite funny (without the slightest trace of a smile), saying things that you'd never hear your college prof say. Describing the libidinous Charles II (who fathered 17 illegitimate children), Dr. Starkey intones with a straight face: "The only thing rigid about Charles II was his male member." Hilarious. And his treatment of the history itself is quite exhilarating, keeping the intertwining stories and complex alignments of religious and political philosophies within easily understandable contexts--no mean feat when you're covering so much ground in so relatively short time. My discussing specifically the kings and political events from a 16-hour series that covers 1,500 years of history would be outside the purpose of this review, but just by way of a small example, the opening episodes in this series finally cemented for me the creation of Anglo-Saxon culture and tradition, with its eventual melding into Norman society. Does that sound right to you? Well, it didn't to me prior to watching Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series. Of course I knew the terms, and could place them roughly in a crude outline, but in no way could I explain--after years of college, history books and countless adventure films where someone, possibly a Norman, was calling someone else a "Saxon dog"--who exactly they were, and how and why they mattered. Now I can. This is history interpreted and told as exciting political thriller, with a brevity and directness that doesn't indicate superficiality, but confidence and clarity.
Most importantly--and what I found the most bracing about Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series--it's history as told from one point of view (which is backed up by decades-long scholarship from innumerable sources). I was reading an overseas review of one of Dr. Starkey's programs, a review which was critical of the show for its perceived lack of "context," which is code, I assume, for today's wishy-washy insistence on getting as many opinions as possible on an historical subject, and then throwing them out at the viewer or reader and non-judgmentally saying, "You decide." The title of the show is Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series. "With" David Starkey. Not With David Starkey and a Lot of Other People Who Want to Throw Their Contrary Two Cents-Worth In to Thoroughly Confuse You and More Importantly, Allow Us the Documentary Makers Not to Take an Intellectual Stand For Fear of Having to Back Up Our Assertions With Actual Scholarship or Worse, Potentially Offending Someone. This is his program, so it's his ball. Of course he's going to run with it. You feel dissatisfied that you're not getting the "whole story?" You don't agree with his take on events, or his theories? Go read a book, then (which is probably exactly what Starkey wants you to do...preferably one of his own). He's a lecturer, after all--it's supposed to be his interpretation of the events. There's an increasing distrust and outright antagonism directed at "authorities" and "experts" in our faux-egalitarian age (dubiously spurred on, in large part, by the so-called democracy of the internet), but what it often translates into, particularly when addressing pop culture and historical issues, is, "Don't voice your opinion if it's strong and insistent, and especially if it doesn't toe the party line of historical revisionism and soft-backed consensus." I love that Dr. Starkey doesn't give a bollocks to that way of presenting an historical documentary.
Here are the 16 episodes included in the five-disc boxed set, Monarchy with David Starkey: The Complete Series, as described on their slimcases (an improvement in space-saving over the old releases' hardshell carriers):
A Nation State
Death of a Dynasty
The Crown Imperial
King and Emperor
The Shadow of the King
The Stuart Succession
Cromwell-The King Killer
Return of the King
The Glorious Revolution
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.