POV: You log in to Netflix at 2am. You’re either tipsy or post-essay crisis, and need something just uninteresting enough to put you to sleep.
You choose Secrets of Great British Castles.
Whilst this may sound like I’m slating the 2015/2016 programme, hosted by popular historian Dan Jones, this isn’t my intention. Only just intriguing and historical enough to hold your attention, the show has almost ASMR value, providing a quiet balm to an academically heavy day that kept me going back for several nights in a row when first watching. In fact, even now it’s a show I revisit again and again just for its pure ‘soothing’ factor as a mainstream historical documentary.
For those not in on the true secret of Secrets of Great British Castles, the show consists of 12 episodes on different castles across the UK, presented by Dan Jones, who slowly unravels the history of each structure. It can’t be denied that the show definitely falls within the ‘pop history’ category, with the hallmarks of mid-2010s editing and a focus on popular military history. Dan Jones’ style, an intimate retelling of each castle’s history, is not for those who dislike eye contact and a clear focus on the historian himself. The editing and music are particularly overdramatised, and reminiscent of US reality TV. Reenactments abound, and, whilst (thank goodness) they’re usually silent as the show prioritises Dan Jones’ narration, the whole ensemble can be described as nothing short of cheugy.
In addition, the content of the show is somewhat of a British nationalist’s dream, or so it would seem: the focus of the series is British History™, with very little mention of how said British history was affected by external forces, besides the Norman Conquest. The content, whilst fairly well-researched, is rather reminiscent of pre-GCSE history, with a lack of the clear intersectionality and depth that abound in more modern documentaries, recreations and interpretations (think Pride, Pose, and The Ministry of Time, to name but a few).
However, this doesn’t mean that Secrets of Great British Castles is a waste of your time: on the contrary, it has some appealing aspects, such as its focus on regional history stemming from each castle, tying structures to their wider geopolitical significance. I particularly recommend the episode on Lancaster Castle for this, although it’s clear that for every episode, especially those based outside of England, regional sources have been consulted (if not fully integrated). However, for those not raised with British cultural heritage, it’s possible that the show may seem a bit bland and British, with many aspects of castle history repeated in each episode.
Nonetheless, this leads us into one of the show’s greatest advantages: its accessibility. The show is so basic that even a non-history student like me can understand it, and the writers have clearly not assumed any prior knowledge about castles. Whilst it may bore advanced history students (and hence its ASMR/’put you to sleep’ value), the show is undeniably aimed towards beginner or fledgling historians and for a public with a popular interest in British heritage and history. Dan Jones’ marmite-esque delivery style, focused on intimate camera angles and eye contact, allows information to be spoon-fed to the viewer, with wide angle and panning shots of the castle in question allowing you to focus on the actual historical content. The show makes you feel like you have a friend that’s particularly well-versed in castle history, and borders on the wholesome.
After rewatching a couple of episodes for this article, I found myself wondering about a possible next series (not just to cure my insomnia) and what that would look like in 2021. With undeniable cultural changes having taken place in Britain and across the world since 2016, I can’t help but wish that Dan Jones had expanded his exposition of castles to those across the globe, getting rid of the repetitive elements of the show that are simply pertinent to all British castles and showcasing diversity in historical structures. Part of the show’s appeal and downfall is that all the episodes begin to dissolve into one another due to the similarities of British castles as mostly defensive structures rooted in military history.
This then poses the question of whether a future series would incorporate other structures built by ruling classes, such as palaces or religious buildings, as ‘castle’ is such a Eurocentric concept. What makes a castle a castle? The definition the show gives is very narrow and not necessarily representative. It would be interesting to draw parallels to other important structures across the globe and how they played similar or different roles. The approach taken in Secrets of Great British Castles doesn’t even address the palace/castle dichotomy in the UK – a shame, in my opinion, as this would have enriched the show with some diversity whilst still grounding it in British history, showing a progression from militaristic and medieval motivations for grand buildings to those that dominated later architectural designs.
Whether or not you enjoy military history, or even enjoy pop culture treatment of history, I’d still recommend Secrets of Great British Castles. Whilst undeniably cringey with little depth of historical analysis, this is exactly the show to watch to make you feel like you’re learning – even if that’s not the case. At worst, it’s not a bad companion for you and your night out kebab.
Dan Jones via Radio Times.
Rebecca is a third-year studying French and Linguistics, and is currently on her “year abroad”. Fun fact: She lives near the site of a famous witch trial in the UK!