Blood of the Clans

BBC1/iPlayer

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THE leader of Clan Graham spent a lot of time doing his hair on this particular morn, much to the bemusement of his guards. Given his head was destined to end the day on a spike you could see why the jailers were puzzled.

“Today, mine head is my own,” said the condemned man, “tomorrow it will be yours. Do what you please with it.”

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: First look at new Neil Oliver documentary. Camley's Cartoon: First look at new Neil Oliver documentary.

One imagines Neil Oliver goes through a similar grooming regime before he goes in front of the camera. A shot of him standing on a hill, long hair blowing in the wind, Black Beauty-style, began his new three part series on BBC1 last night. How has this man escaped the attention of haircare advertisers? Tales of yore with blood and gore, because he’s worth it.

Blood of the Clans found the Yes camp’s favourite historian (I jest; don’t put my head on a spike) up to his oxters in the civil war of the 17th Century. A follow up to 2018’s Rise of the Clans, it is presumably the precursor to Vans of the Clans, taking a look at the work vehicle choices of modern Scots, and Cans of the Clans, a history of soft drink consumption in the 1970s.

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For now, we had to make do with the story of how Charles 1, grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots, managed to annoy the bejeezus out of Archibald of Argyll – or “Squint-Eyed Archibald as some called him – to such an extent that Archie took up arms against him. This was a world of “gunpowder, broadswords and treason,” said Oliver. “Trust me, blood will be spilt.” We should jolly well think so; we’re not here for the scenery, mate.

What exactly are viewers after when they turn on one of Oliver’s documentaries? Maybe it is to experience his distinctive style of storytelling, which involves him inserting himself into the past like some time traveller from the future. While actors recreate key scenes from history, Oliver is to be found in the shadows, commentating on events in a voice a little above a whisper. It reminded me of the fashion for broadcast journalists to live report from press conferences while they were going on. Very distracting for everyone else, and after several near fist fights it stopped.

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Oliver, dressed in the same linen jacket, collarless shirt and long scarf combo he’s been wearing since Adam opened a menswear shop, breezed on without hesitation. “There’s a dark place in Archie’s soul,” he said, walking backwards into the gloom. Geddit?

He also likes to deploy a spot of the old vernacular to show he is down with the kidz. “He’s got balls, you’ve got to give that to Archie,” he said of the challenger to the king’s authority, and “Tell it like it is, Archie, why don’t you?” Ye cannae whack a bit of the Parliamo Oliver.

He can be amusing at times, as when recounting the legend surrounding one infamous warrior who was said to eat toads and have an ability to twist the legs off cows. “That’s quite the cv,” said our man.

Every historian needs a shtick, and you can bet there was not much competition for the one Oliver ended up with. I cannot see Simon Schama or Mary Beard duking it out for the right to be history’s Wee Willie Winkie. How one longed for the actors – most pretty decent, a few furniture chewers – to stop what they were doing and give him an almighty “Shhhhhh!!!!!!” He wouldn’t get away with that caper if Tom Hardy was in the cast.

To give Oliver his due, he knows a juicy tale and a compelling character when he sees them. This was history with the emphasis on story, and the hour rattled along. The production team had assembled a cast of what seemed like thousands of historians as talking heads, every one of them excellent. Some of us may have had Scottish history airbrushed out of our school curriculum, but it was good to see the subject in such rude health today.

Even if Oliver’s style was not to your taste, you were guaranteed to come away having learned something. He made sense of what could have been a guddle of a story, and set the stage nicely for the next instalment, featuring one Rob Roy MacGregor. Another bold boy.