Monday, 13 July 2009


Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution, broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday and available on iPlayer, was the best television history documentary in a very long while. Written and directed by Mark Hayhurst it told the story of the events of 1793 when Maximilian Robespierre and a small coterie of similarly fanatical revolutionaries established the Committee of Public Safety, deciding for themselves what was good for the people of France. Terror was unleashed, the very calendar around which people organised their lives was changed, the Gallic church was replaced by the worship of the ‘Supreme Being’.

Unusually, the dramatic reconstructions of the meeting of the Committee were brilliantly reimagined, set in a single, claustrophobic room, the paranoia and self-delusion tangible. But the most brilliant conceit of this extraordinary programme was to pitch Simon Schama, author of
Citizens and defender of the humanist values of the Enlightenment, against the, shall we say, ‘provocative’ Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zjizek.

When the latter compared a revolution without terror to ‘beer without alcohol or coffee without caffeine’ Schama almost choked with anger and one was relieved that they were filmed separately. Hilary Mantel, author of an interesting novel about Robespierre, was among the other guests, but it was Schama, on terrific form, who stole the show. Having damned St Just as an adolescent who never grew up, he visibly delighted in the demise of Robespierre. The ‘seagreen incorruptible’ was shown with his jaw fractured by a musket wound being led half-dead to the guillotine. ‘I wish I had been there,’ said Schama, with a grin. It was superb television, excellent history, and utterly unmissable.

1 comment:

Gaw said...

I believe Schama wanted to be in the Convention when Robespierre was shouted down rather than in the room when he was shot. Sorry to be a bit pedantic but suggesting Schama would have enjoyed a grisly shooting might give people the impression he's on a similar level to Zizek.

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