“Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World” is the title of Dan Snow’s four-part documentary series currently setting sail on Friday evenings on BBC2, and jolly bracing it is too.
Dan is the son of Peter Snow, through-the-night BBC anchorman for many parliamentary elections, and I half expected Dan to roll out his dad’s famous Swingometer to illustrate the shifts in the balance of sea power between Spain, France and Blighty.
As a former Boat Race man himself, Dan loses no opportunity to climb rigging, stand Winslet-like at the prow and man the wheel of various expensive-looking craft that the BBC has managed to borrow.
He also helps the modern Royal Navy to show off several of its more modern vessels, including a simulated raid by a large state-of-the-art fisheries protection vessel on a tiny defenceless fishing boat which the RN boat could easily squash by accident. Maybe there were no Somali pirates around to teach a lesson to…
The series charts the progress of the Royal Navy from the defeat of the Armada to the First World War, and therein lies one of the criticisms that have been aimed at the BBC. Why ignore the contribution of Henry VIII (and earlier regimes) in establishing the early Navy? Daly History Blog argues a similar point.
Cardinal Wolsey suspects that with such high production values (lots of helicopter flypasts as Dan sways on the topmast) the budget would only stretch to four episodes, so the early days had to be cut. See this previous post on Henry VIII’s dockyards if you are interested in this period.
Another criticism is the sometimes slapdash treatment of the background politics (as opposed to the naval stuff proper). James Russell points out that the Armada was not simply a revenge mission for Drake’s attack on Cadiz (as claimed in episode 1), but in fact it’s key objective was to reverse the Protestant reformation and restore the Catholic church.
But Empire of the Seas is very good on how the expansion of the Navy was masterminded by men such as Sam Pepys . I agree with Molly Joyful’s blog that the series isn’t too gung-ho and highlights some of the less savoury episodes on the seas. These include the sad story of Admiral John Byng, also the subject of a previous post in this blog.
There is also a lavishly illustrated book to go with the series, written by expert naval historian Brian Lavery. Amazon UK are currently offering it at half price which at £10 is incredible value. That leaves a tenner spare for a bottle of rum to go with it.