Back in the days when the BBC was good, along came a drama exploring the tragedy of a family torn apart by the English Civil Wars of the mid 17th Century.
This drama is not a biography, although real historical personalities appear throughout as cameos. Nor is it an adaptation of a literary work. It is an original story, created by John Hawksworth, the man behind such classics as ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and ‘The Duchess of Duke Street’.
The story follows the aristocratic Lacey family, living at Arnescote Castle somewhere in the Midlands. The head of the family is the patriarch Sir Martin – Justice of the Peace, Sheriff for the county and reluctant Royalist. The heir Tom is more idealistic, a typical dashing Cavalier, although he has seen the horrors of war up close fighting as a mercenary in the religious wars on the continent. Youngest daughter Lucinda is a spirited tomboy, yearning for adventure and excitement.
But it is elder daughter Anne whom the tale revolves around and it is Anne’s loyalties which will be tested the most. The story opens as the Laceys are preparing for Anne’s marriage to bookish John Fletcher. The son of a wealthy merchant, John is a fledging lawyer and has a promising career in politics ahead of him.
When civil war breaks out in 1642, its time to take sides. Tom rushes off to join King Charles’ army, whilst John naturally sides with Parliament. Poor Anne is stuck in the middle. But like a good, obedient 17th Century wife, she supports her husband’s cause, knowing it may well bring her into conflict with her own family.
The Laceys and Fletchers are ably supported by a full cast of servants, tenants, and other hangers on. These range from capable housekeeper Goodwife Margaret, ‘singing boy’ Hugh, aged scullion Minty (who’s also a ‘wisewoman’), poor relation Susan Prothero - who has no qualms about changing sides when it suits her own interests - and the Saltmarsh family, dealing with their own divisions and betrayals.
The Royalists need someone to fight, and the Fletchers can rely upon Colonel Hannibal Marsh and Captain Leckie to do the dirty work for them. Col. Marsh is a – ruthlessly efficient – officer and a gentleman. He’s pragmatic, has no time for fools, and says things exactly as they are. He also gets the best line in the whole series –
‘I’ve just passed a man who was somewhat troubled with sore hands. Have you been naughty, Corporal?’
Leckie is a dour Scot – a career soldier, dedicated to carrying out orders, no matter how unsavoury.
The first series covers the First Civil War and explores the reasons behind it. We follow both sides as the country descends into hostilities. Both Royalists and Parliamentarians experience setbacks and triumphs, whilst everyday life goes on as usual. There are weddings, births, and petty domestic troubles, interwoven with trials, sieges, sword fights and occupations.
Series 2 picks up straight after the end of the previous one and follows John Fletcher’s rise in the new Republic, taking us through to the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Along the way we encounter witch hunts, executions, fugitives, spies, local unrest and – extra Cromwell!
This drama is in no hurry to tell its tale, which some modern viewers may find a little slow, even boring. But this gives the story space to explore the main themes and key events of the time. It also allows the audience the opportunity to get to know the characters, who are all well rounded – ‘warts and all’. The writing is unbiased, giving both sides of the argument (Cavalier or Roundhead) equal airtime, and making judgement on neither.
The drama is well grounded in the 17th Century, and characters behave in ways 17th Century people would have, something usually missing from today’s historically inspired entertainment. There’s a great sense of one’s place in society. Differences of class, rank and sex are all acknowledged, and how these all interacted with each other is demonstrated.
The portrayal of the female roles is particularly good, showing them as real 17th Century women, in conduct, beliefs and world view. Unlike the current trend, there are no ‘Mary Sues’ (good at everything and putting the rest of the world to rights – especially the male half). Two characters do don men’s clothing, but this is brief, makes sense plot wise, and there is historical evidence that some women ‘denied their sex’ and wore male attire. One male character does wear female clothing for an adventure, but again, we know of several historical characters who did this for real.
Nor does the story shy away from the unpleasant aspects of the time. We are at war, after all. Although there is no graphic violence, it is often implied off screen, or just out of shot, and some people may find this disturbing. And some 20 years before ‘Game of Thrones’ – SPOILERS – some of the major characters are killed off before the final episode.
Unlike today’s TV dramas, where one single episode might cost millions, the publicly funded BBC had relatively small budgets back in the 1980s. This comes across in both series. Many major events happen off screen, leaving characters to relay the action through dialogue. Even so, we still have the siege of Arnescot, using a combination of actors, professional extras and re-enactors as the attacking force. It’s actually done quite well, fairly exciting, and unintentionally funny in places (look out for the bendy muskets and tiny wheelbarrow).
On the whole the production teams do amazing things with the little money they have. One of the main exterior locations was Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire, which really looks the part as Arnescot – seat of the Lacey family. But the interior scenes are all shot in a studio, and although the set design is very good, you can tell it’s a set on a sound stage.
Likewise, the costumes are very good. The general look of the time is right, once again you can tell the designers did their research and looked at portraits and extant garments from the period. But everything just looks a bit floppy. Buff coats crease and flap about (in reality the leather was up to an inch thick), even the ladies gowns lack weight and body – although plenty of yardage is used. Anne and Lucinda’s hair is lovely, with full ringleted side locks, which looks like it is the actresses’ real hair. One issue I do have is with the silly lacy doilies which Anne and Susan wear around their buns. Whose idea was that?! There’s no historical evidence for such headwear. It would have been so much better to have them wearing embroidered, lace trimmed coifs, perhaps something which allowed some dressed hair to be seen.
Overall, I enjoyed the first season a bit more than the second. The returning season covers a longer period of time in the same number of episodes. To me, the 1650s just weren’t as exciting as the 1640s, its all a bit dull, and, well, ‘puritan’. The plot also feels a bit more contrived, shoehorning events into the story because they have to happen.
Despite a few more recent, half hearted efforts to bring the Civil Wars to our screens, none comes close to this BBC drama. It’s showing its age a bit, but ‘By the Sword Divided’ is a must watch for anyone interested in the 17th Century. I’d also suggest its ripe for a remake, if done intelligently and with respect.
What do you think? Have you seen ‘By the Sword Divided’? If so, did you enjoy it? Did you think it did a good job at telling the story of the English Civil Wars? I’d love to hear your thoughts.