BOB HART OUT OF THE BOX
FOR those of us who had tedious tales of Britain’s naval dominance beaten into our skulls, this series is a breath of fresh sea air. It began last week with a splendid debunking of mythology: The Royal Navy was founded, we learnt, in infamy — by brigands such as Francis Drake, whose first noble enterprise was as a slavetrader. The swine.
And apart from Drake’s famous victory against the Spanish Armada, Britain’s navy achieved little of note before the end of the 17th century. But then, as tonight’s episode of this rip-roaring, four-part series presented by rugged British historian Dan Snow demonstrates, things began to look up. And from that point on, Snow explains, it is hard to overestimate the impact of Britain’s soaring naval stocks as the nation — on the ships’ backs, so to speak — achieved global supremacy.
However, the importance of naval dominance was not confined to the seas. Or even to the beaches. The success of the Royal Navy, according to Snow, ‘‘ revolutionised agriculture and economics, and laid the foundations for the introduction of industry’’.
Snow’s approach is to tell this tale, with some assistance from archival maps and other illustrations, in a thoroughly modern setting and without cheesy recreations. This works admirably and convincingly.
In the first episode, it was Samuel Pepys, a devout voluptuary who happily confessed to enthusiastic involvement in the occasional orgy, who emerges as the hero of the day, rather than Drake.
In tonight’s episode it is naval hero George Anson, who introduced uniforms, a formal system of rank and rewrote the sailors’ book of rules, who carries the day.
By 1759, not all that long after the nation had been caned at sea — embarrassingly, by the confounded Dutch— Britannia really did rule the waves. And may even have sung about it. Empire of the Seas SBS One, 7.30pm
Sea legs: Dan Snow