Category Archives: TV & radio

Living history: Downton and Talking Statues

The last week or so has seen several news stories on the theme of heritage and tourism in the news that I found intriguing from the work I’ve been doing on “locating the Victorians” recently.

The first was this story about the opportunity to “live like the Crawleys” by bidding for a Downton Abbey experience involving an overnight stay and dinner at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed; alternatively, guests could enjoy some of the “downstairs” experience with lessons on table-laying from a butler. In light of a recent resurgence of tourism oriented around the idea of ‘re-living history’ the Downton experience is doubly interesting, both taking the idea of ‘re-living history’ one step further than the usual historical tours and trails, but also re-figuring what is ‘historical’ about the history that is being re-lived: Downton is of course a fictionalised history that both plays on and departs from the popularity for adaptation of Victorian and early 20th century, so the idea of “living like the Crawleys” takes on an interesting inference in its purporting to be a ‘historical’ experience in any sense – and, in turn, raising questions about what’s ‘real’ about ‘re-living history’ anyway.

Another story this week raised a different perspective on engaging with historical spaces. The Talking Statues project has given voice to a selection of statues in London and Manchester, allowing visitors to use their smartphones to access audio recordings of the statue figures talking. It’s an interesting development in digital heritage models which have used similar initiatives to bring heritage or historical sites “to life” through audio tours and trails, which until now have typically used mobile apps or websites (see my locating Dickens post for examples). These apps and podcasts have proved successful in opening up new perspectives on places and engaging people in looking more closely at the urban landscape, but they depend upon the intention of the user to find out about the tour, download the app or audio, and then visit the sight as a planned activity. What’s interesting and different about Talking Statues is that it takes the onus off the user to know in advance about a tour or trail and instead can capture the unintentional passer-by, thereby potentially creating whole new audiences for heritage tourism (even if only on a micro-scale) who may never have thought to engage in such activities before. As with the Downton experience, though, this also raises questions about the ‘history’ that is being accessed through the (fictionalised) first-person narratives written by contemporary writers.

On a quick final note, it was good to see this news of an industrial heritage trail linking five sites across South and West Yorkshire – it’s great to see the working sites of the industrial revolution gradually gain heritage prominence next to the Downton-style houses.

Review: The Invisible Woman

I’ve reviewed the new film of The Invisible Woman for the Journal of Victorian Culture online; I consider some of the issues in turning biographical research into a film, look at how the film handles the mistress figure, and think about Nelly Ternan’s place in Dickens’s history post-bicentenary.

“You are now entering the Big Brother house”: Heritage, houses and the location of cultural value

It was reported on BBC news this morning that the National Trust have temporarily taken over operation of the Big Brother house, and for 2 days only will be running public guided tours of the house that, for 13 years, has been home to rounds of contestants of the reality TV show.

Big Brother House: BBC News image

Inevitably, this has prompted many negative reactions: how could the National Trust, guardians of Britain’s most valuable heritage sites, descend to this? Is the house of a reality TV show of inherent value or meaning worthy of the National Trust stamp of approval? Isn’t it just a shallow PR stunt designed to market the National Trust as trendy and appealing to a younger audience? Well yes, there is clearly a PR exercise at work here, but it’s one that I have little objection to, either as publicity stunt – for that in itself gets people talking about heritage and value systems, which can be no bad thing – or for the grounds on which it markets the house as being of touristic value.

Of course the issue at stake here isn’t the opening up of what is, essentially, a TV set but the fact that the National Trust is behind it. The National Trust’s website states that its core aim is to “protect historic houses, gardens, mills, coastline, forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Then we open them up for ever, for everyone.”

Stoneleigh Abbey; image from

Houses, of course, reach right to the heart of the idea of English identity. From the 18th century to the present day, the country house has been situated as a key national institution and one of the central images associated with “Englishness”: evoking the power of the landed classes through an image of leisured grandeur set within carefully sculpted landscapes, whilst carefully eliding the labour and Empire required to produce and sustain that wealth, the country house neatly symbolises much of England’s history. The country house tourism that we participate in today is no new phenomenon either: the practice of visiting houses began in the late 18th century as one of the first modes of intra-national tourism and, as it grew throughout the 19th century, formed one of the key practices that helped solidify and, literally, locate an emergent sense of national identity. The continued popularity of country house tourism attests to the strength of discourses forged through this practice, the country house remaining a resonant location of cultural value, worthy of its heritage status and the national investment to protect it.

So it’s easy to see why the inclusion of the Big Brother house into this genre might cause some debate. The TV series marked the start of a reality turn in popular culture that is, by definition, both mundane and insidious in its attention to the details of the everyday lives on display. To many, it symbolises much of what is wrong with contemporary popular culture. Such a house also begs the obvious question about the appeal of visiting a house that has been displayed in such minute detail by cameras permeating every space; what is there left to see?

If houses represent the location of national culture, then the Big Brother house is arguably the most resonant site of British culture in the last ten years. When Big Brother first appeared on our TV screens 13 years ago it seemed to signal not just a new era of reality TV, but of privacy and intrusion too: “Big Brother is watching you” hit a cultural nerve, coinciding with, and perhaps at that time pre-empting, debates around an increasing surveillance culture (indeed, “Big Brother culture”) that have become particularly resonant over the last few years. While it was the TV series’ presentation of “reality” that initiated many of these debates, it is the material house itself that stands as the manifestation of these concepts, its physical structure permeated by modes of surveillance and spaces in which self-narratives – the lifeblood of reality TV – are encouraged to emerge (the “diary room”, for example). As the phase “Big Brother is watching you” also reminds us, it’s a space that invokes British cultural tradition; while the show’s derivation from 1984 remains tangential in its final formation and the idea of “Big Brother culture” was widely resonant before the TV show, it is arguably the TV series that has served to re-invoke Orwellian concepts as widely identifiable and understandable to new audiences, reinstating the text as an active part of contemporary cultural memory.

Downton Abbey

It’s worth remembering, too, that we can’t be too precious about the perceived cultural value of country house tourism. Much of the contemporary interest in national house visiting has been invigorated by TV reinterpretations of the nineteenth century that take the country house as a central symbol: from the Austen adaptations of the 1980s and ’90s to Downton Abbey in more recent years, the house has been central in the visual evocation of nineteenth-century England, and this in turn has helped foster the continued interest in National Trust and English Heritage sites. The popularity of heritage houses is as much a collision of different cultural forms and inscriptions of cultural meaning, a meeting-point of popular and traditional, literary and TV culture. So too does the Big Brother house remind us that these sites also market themselves via the commodification of visitor experience: if the Big Brother house makes quite explicit the question of “what would one gain from being in, experiencing the house for oneself?”, this question might just as easily be put to the viewing of country houses, where the idea of being a participant in history is key to the marketable appeal.

I won’t lie, reality TV isn’t my thing and I wasn’t queuing up to get tickets to the Big Brother house. But I am pleased that the National Trust have done this, for if nothing else it serves as a useful site of cultural debate for thinking about the meaning of heritage, national identity and cultural value, and reassessing the sites that remain meaningful locations of heritage today.

“A group of true peasantry?”; Rural Realism and The Village

Peak DistrictI’ve been watching with interest the new BBC series The Village that follows the life of a rural Derbyshire community in the early 20th century. Among the most common response to this seems to be that the series is too depressing and bleak in its portrayal. Now admittedly with at least one death per episode, the background of World War I, and the on-going themes of poverty, domestic violence, criminality and injustice, set against a landscape that is not so much idyllic rolling hills but rather rugged, bleak, and by the looks of things, darned windy… it does not make for cheery Sunday night viewing. But I’m finding it enjoyably refreshing to see a series portray rural life without the twee gloss of rose-tinted nostalgia for an idyllic English past, and instead approaching something closer to the “rural realism” as described by George Eliot.

George Eliot’s early works – Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861) – all focus around rural Midlands locales in the early part of the nineteenth century, and in doing so address a key problem that Eliot had earlier noted as dominating over typical representations of rurality. In 1856, writing in the Westminster Review on Riehl’s Natural History of German Life, Eliot argued that the true condition of the rural classes had been obscured from view:

How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.  Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry?

There are, she notes, certainly many depictions of the rural peasantry, but these show “the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred”, rather than “the truth of rustic life”:

The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checkered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale.

Yet, Eliot counters, “no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry”; if we look more closely, we find that

The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy, slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant.  

The rural scenes of Eliot’s early fiction therefore move away from the idyllic towards a closer observation of the conditions of rural life and people. There are certainly instances where we find nostalgia for the rural past creep in as rebuttal to the forces of modernity, most famously in the “old leisure” passage of Adam Bede which looks fondly back on “those old leisurely times” that have gone, “gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars”, and replaced by the steam-engine that “only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in” (AB chapter LII).

But Eliot also complicates this with the harsh realities of rural life, particularly with regards to the moral codes of the community: as she points out in the essay on Riehl, rural simplicity does not beget intrinsic morality, for “to make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass”. Accordingly, her fiction repeatedly shows up the problems of the moral codes of rural communities, from the suspicion with which “settlers from distant parts” are regarded by a community for whom “the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery” (Silas Marner, chapter 1), to the stringent gendered codes that operate to exclude sexually transgressive women whilst giving slight punishment to the men who are responsible for their wrongdoing (as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss).

And I think The Village works in this vein of “rural realism”, offering a portrayal that complicates the idyllic simplicity and the intrinsic morality of the countryside with a rather harsher vision of rural life. Particularly notable I’ve felt is this idea of the complicated moral codes that operate within the community: social relations continually shift from a sense of a closely bounded community within the village, to the familial isolation upon the farm, and there’s a similar sense of unstable social codes operating in the shifts between exclusion and inclusion of individuals based on moral judgements that are at times dubious or wrongly biased. In last week’s episode, Grace Middleton’s internal struggle at the religious salvation of her previously violent drunk husband nicely pulled out the complexity of individual emotional responses vs the wider sense of what is “right” in the community, in a way that nicely captured the moral tensions and individual difficulties faced. Throughout, the harsh realities of rural life continually intersect with these themes, coming back to the basic facts of life and death on the farm, whilst recognising the wider forces that are shaping, and shaped by, the rural landscape.

The Village isn’t without its problems – it’s taking me a while to get on board with the Big House family and the obvious move to the “all is not as grand as it seems” theme that seems to preside over most of their story-lines – and it’s not without the occasional vision of “cheery villagers on the green”. But it’s nonetheless an important shift in the representation of rurality, and a welcome turn away from the simplified idyllic vision of the rural past towards something more closely evoking Eliot’s call for a vision of rural realism.

Mapping the past, today: TV’s trend for treading the historical beaten track

I’ve been catching up on some TV this week, with two historical travel programmes that caught my eye. Firstly, there’s been a new series of BBC2’s Great British Railway Journeys, the show in which Michael Portillo set off on the train with a copy of Bradshaw’s Victorian railway guide under his arm, using the text as a lens through which to explore the railway route then and now and stopping at various sites of Victorian interest along the way. This series has been of particular interest to me as the starting point for this route was High Wycombe, a stop on from my hometown of Beaconsfield (where the station wasn’t built until 1906), and the first episode saw Portillo travel to Leamington Spa and then on to Stratford-upon-Avon, stopping along the way to visit the Leamington Pump Rooms, Tennis Court Club, and Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon (alas, no mention of one eminent Victorian’s visit to the area in 1838!).

There’s also a brand new series on BBC 2 called Map Man – in which as the website blurb says,

Modern explorer Nicholas Crane travels across eight maps that changed the face of Britain in a series of geographical challenges through some of today’s wildest landscapes, telling the story of British mapmaking from the time of Chaucer through to the current generation of cyber-mappers.

In episode 2, Nicholas Crane set off with John Ogilby’s 1675 road map, the first of its kind to trace a route as a linear journey (as it happens, I blogged about this map after seeing it at a V&A exhibition back in 2008).

Ogilby's 1675 road map
Ogilby’s 1675 road map

Crane’s journey of the trans-Pennine pass from York to Lancaster was fascinating in revealing many changes to the landscape that have occured in the intervening years: some of the route is now the course of the major A-road, but substantially diverged for much of the way; we saw how a river had been re-routed as a result of the coming of the railway in later years; and Crane searched for telling traces of the old roads that still remain alongside muddy paths and wooded undergrowth. I’m very much looking forward to subsquent episodes, and can’t wait to see which maps have been chosen.

Watching these programmes back-to-back led me to reflect on the use of maps or guides as a basis for a tv series, which seems to have become a bit of a trend in recent years: Julia Bradbury’s Canal Walks, Wainwright’s Walks, and Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys are a few other examples that come to mind, but I’m sure there have been others in a similar vein. Each of these takes a historical map or guide book and sets out to explore the route in its present form, using the map as a focal point through which to read and interpret the current landscape and open up discussion around points of similarity and change between then and now.

But why the fascination with the guide book? What is it about the old mapped route that is of such interest to us now?

Baedeker's Southern Italy, 1912 ed.
Baedeker’s Southern Italy,1912 ed.

On the surface, the appeal is easy to see: these routes give the perfect structure for a tv series, carving out linear yet episodic paths that develop nicely over a long series and work equally well as stand-alone episodes, bringing in multiple points of interest while maintaining a focused narrative. But there’s also something important here in having the map or guide as a locatable route which can be plotted onto the present landscape, and, vice versa, of using the guide as a means through which to read that landscape for its historical traces; there’s something in being able to directly plot past onto present, and experience space as a site of continuity with the past. And perhaps more importantly, there’s something in the process of following a mapped historical route as a mobile experience, of putting oneself into the shoes of a historical traveller in a way that seemingly validates or authenticates the journey and that seemingly brings one into closer contact with the historical site, following in the footsteps of those that have tread the same path – a point which interestingly resonates with the original use of guidebooks in the nineteenth century as a form of touristic authentification that gave security and satisfaction from the knowledge that you were following the same beaten track that every other tourist before you had trodden, seeing every important site through the interpretative lens of the guidebook.

It’s an act that resonates strongly with literary tourism, yet the guidebook/map offers a slightly different manifestation of this process, with a different set of interpretative possibilities and spatial/historical relations. There seems to be more to be said about how these journeys might allow us to re-read not just the sites described in the guidebooks for their historical resonances, but also of how the guidebooks might be re-read as texts through reference to the sites they depict. It’s a process about which I have more questions than answers at the moment, but fortuitously will have the opportunity to explore further – when I travel to Sardinia in April I’ll almost certainly be taking my 1912 Baedeker’s Southern Italy along to think more about how the guidebook-as-text might be repositioned within this set of spatial-historical-geographical relations that arise from the contemporary re-treading of its tourist tracks.

From year to year: 2012 round-up and 2013 look-ahead

It wouldn’t be the new year without a traditional round-up reflecting on blogging and research activity, so in this post I thought I’d pick out some of my blog highlights of the year (both most-read and personal favourites) and look at how 2013 is starting to shape up.

2012 was of course the year of Dickens, and this blog has seen more than it’s fair share of Dickens posts this year (by March I was considering renaming the blog accordingly!) and as such I’m giving Dickens a round-up of his own:

1. Happy Birthday Dickens! On the day of the bicentenary I spoke on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire radio about Dickens’s connections to the Warwick and Coventry area, which I picked up on in this birthday blog post about Dickens and Leamington Spa.

2. Consequential Ground: Dickens and the Shakespeare birthplaceas a tie-in to Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations we recorded a short film at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust about Dickens’s role in saving the birthplace and Shakespearean influences in his work, which I wrote about in this blog post (and spoke about in the Stratford Observer).

3. Celebrating Dickens – I recorded two further podcasts, on Bleak House and Little Dorrit, for the University of Warwick’s Celebrating Dickens project and wrote a piece about Dickens’s enduring appeal. The app had 10,000 downloads in the first month of release and is still going strong with extra features added later in 2012.

4. Walking Dickens’s London – in a post for the Journal of Victorian Culture Online I took a walk around London following The Guardian’s Dickens at 200 audio walks, and reflected in this post about the value of retracing literary places.

5. Dickens Day 2012: Dickens and Popular Culture – there were many Dickens conferences this year but Dickens Day 2012 was undoubtedly my highlight (I also attended Dickens and the Visual Imagination, Dickens’s World, Dickens and the mid-Victorian Press, and I blogged about the strong Dickens presence at this year’s BAVS conference)

6. Mobility, Space and the Nation in Bleak House – I ended the year with the first of my Dickens publications in print in the winter volume of English, which is packed full of fabulous articles on Dickens and travel.


I also managed the occasional post on other aspects of my research, of which my top picks are:

1. “‘What connection can there be?’: Objects, People and Place c.1851” – in a new direction for my research I explored mobility and material culture in Henry Mayhew’s 1851: or the Adventures of Mr and Mrs Sandboys, a follow-up of a paper I gave at the Midlands Victorian studies seminar.

2. Baedeker’s Southern Italy – a few thoughts on this 1912 edition of the popular travel guide.

3. Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone – in another travel-related post I reflected on the resonances of 19th century imperialism in Attenborough’s early work.

4. Locating the Local in William Cobbett’s Rural Rides slightly earlier than my usual research focus but this reading fit nicely with my current work on Gender and Space in Rural Britain in the long Victorian period.

5. Spitalfields Music – I went to events at both the summer and winter Spitalfields’ Music Festivals and thoroughly enjoyed these explorations of urban history through walking tours. I am a Stranger Here: An East End Exploration toured the Spitalfields streets, while In the House took us into the drawing rooms of Spitalfields Houses for an evening of musical performances.


2012 was also a good year for guest blogging. I joined the Journal of Victorian Culture online blogging team as a regular contributor – all of my posts are collected here. I also recorded a further piece for the Knowledge Centre on the Victorian Books that TV Forgot, and wrote a piece on Leah Price’s How to do Things with Books in Victorian Britain for Open Letters Monthly. In my work role in early career researcher support I guest-blogged about “Getting out there with your research” for the Religious Studies Network, and joined the Guardian Higher Education Network as a panellist for a Live Chat on Academic Blogging. I was also very pleased to be featured in this article on “Early Career Victorianists and Social Media” by Amber Regis, in the Journal of Victorian Culture 17.3, and invited to join the panel on a roundtable about academic blogging at the Transforming Objects Conference in May 2012.


Looking ahead to 2013 there are lots of exciting projects in the works. First up, I’ve been invited as guest editor for the next issue of Victorian Network on “Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture” which will be out in March. Two big publications deadlines are looming: I’m hoping to submit the manuscript of my monograph Journeys in the Victorian Novel: Gendered Mobilities and the Place of the Nation for review in April, and Gender and Space in Rural Britain, 1840-1920 will be submitted to Pickering and Chatto in August, ready for publication in March 2014. I’m writing up a paper on gender and rural mobility in George Eliot’s early works for this, and also planning to write up work on Henry Mayhew’s 1851 in the near future.

And there’s still more Dickens to come! I’m redrafting my paper on Dickens and literary tourism, and working this into a collaborative piece with Dr Peter Kirwan titled “A Tale of Two Londons: Shakespeare and Dickens in 2012” which will reflect on issues of canonicity and the politics of place employed in the parallel celebrations of Dickens and Shakespeare in 2012, exploring how these shaped and located the nation’s cultural capital in the Olympic year. In April I’m heading to the University of Cagliari in Sardinia as a visiting lecturer to teach classes on Dickens and travel, and later in the year there’s a potential Brussels trip which will enable me to get started on some work in preparation for (yes, really) the 2016 bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.

Thank you to everyone who has read, commented and tweeted me about the blog this year, and all the best for 2013!

Great African Travellers: Attenborough on Livingstone

In celebration of David Attenborough’s 60 years in broadcasting, the BBC have been showcasing some of Attenborough’s early works. This wouldn’t ordinarily have been my go-to subject for TV watching, but it caught my eye because of this 1965 documentary retracing the journey of David Livingstone along the Zambezi river. It’s an intriguing watch for thinking about the afterlives of Livingstone’s legacy into the twentieth century, and for considering the shift from travel writing to travel film documentary.

Livingstone’s African travels began with his Missionary work in the 1840s, which this film briefly details before focusing in on his expeditions of the 1850s onwards in which Livingstone set out to explore the inner regions of Africa. Travelling in the company of local guides, Livingstone travelled from Sesheke up the Zambezi river, striking out to the West, and back again towards the Indian Ocean; following a visit back to Britain in the late 50s, he travelled back heading a larger group expedition and later continued to explore central Africa for his final years.

Map of Livingstone's travels
Map of Livingstone’s travels

Although undertaken some 100 years later, Attenborough’s expedition was still quite  a feat to accomplish – as the BBC website records,

“It took us four months to trace the 2,000-mile length of the Zambezi. Sometimes, we walked along its banks; sometimes we sailed down it. Twice we flew. Most of the way we went by truck will all our stores and equipment on board. But all the time, our actions and our thoughts were governed by the great river beside us, and it is the river which dominates the three films we made about the journey.”

Yet in this documentary, it isn’t so much the river which dominates but rather the ghost of Livingstone that looms large over Attenborough’s journey, resonant both in action and in thought. As we might expect, the young Attenborough’s adoration and reverence for his “astonishingly bold” predecessor shines throughout this documentary, especially in the seriousness and sobriety with which Attenborough often reflects on Livingstone’s greatest of feats or most testing of trials. Yet as a result of this the problematic elements of Livingstone’s narrative, imbued as it is with late-nineteenth century colonial discourse, go largely unchallenged in Attenborough’s retelling. As he treads in the footsteps of his great hero we find Attenborough repeatedly attempt to construct a literal re-treading of the same space, casting the Africa of 1965 as a space unchanged and untouched in the 100-odd years since Livingstone’s journey.

This is most obvious in the landscapes which indeed seem little changed from Livingstone’s accounts: the 1965 film is set against textual descriptions and illustrations that form a coherent picture between then and now, and the Victoria Falls, the unpassable Zambezi rapids, and the Piri hills standing as impressive monuments in a vast landscape. Interesting in the narration of this landscape, though, is the unquestioning use of language familiar to nineteenth-century travel narratives to describe these sights: Attenborough talks of Livingstone “penetrating inland”, filling in “huge spaces of the map”, and later “returning to civilization”, reiterating the idea of Africa as the empty, feminised wilderness to be claimed and conquered by the explorer.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

More problematic, though, is Attenborough’s handling of Livingstone’s encounters with African people, for here again we find a narrative at pains to draw on the similarities between Livingstone’s visit and his own. Visiting some of the same tribes that Livingstone describes, Attenborough reflects on Livingstone’s depictions of their behaviours and customs: “their people to this day pay homage in the way just that Livingstone described” we are told; reading out Livingstone’s horrified description of the  “barbarians” and their “inconceivably vile” customs Attenborough follows with the words, “the practices that so appalled [Livingstone] are still carried on today.”

In doing so, Attenborough reiterates a nineteenth-century imperial discourse which sought to temporalise other lands as unchanging spaces off the axis of modernity, representative of older form of civilization; Attenborough’s point of comparison is 100 years or so and works specifically to reclaim the space through which he moves as specifically Livingstone’s Africa, but in doing so his narrative reiterates and intersects with an older, much more prolonged and deep-set discourse of temporalisation, within which Livingstone was writing and which is more widely found throughout nineteenth-century travel narratives.

Illustration of Livingstone's adventures
Illustration of Livingstone’s adventures

If Attenborough’s narrative reiterates this, however, visual images tell another story: in one instance, just as Attenborough is detailing the unchanged customs of the tribe, the film shows men dressed in modern-looking clothing – crisp-cut suits and shirts – quite clearly not untouched by the “civilized” world; Attenborough’s reiteration of “then as now” continues regardless without a hint of irony at the competing narrative that the film presents.

In many ways, then, this film is reminiscent of much earlier hero-narratives of great explorers – such as W.H.G. Kingston’s Great African Travellers of 1874 (from which the above illustrations are taken). Watching this today, what comes through most clearly is not, as Attenborough hopes, the unchanging nature of Livingstone’s Africa, but rather the unchanging discourse of the white British male imperial explorer as the most stagnant legacy of the late-nineteenth century. So too is it clear that many unspoken stories around the great Livingstone are deserving of further attention – the stories of his wife and children, for example, of whom we find a tantalizingly small amount of information tucked in here. For these criticisms, though, it is all the more intriguing to watch and disentangle the intersecting narratives of Livingstone and Attenborough.