Britannia: The Great Elizabethan Journey (DVD)

Christina Hardyment finds this quest to rediscover Elizabethan 'Britannia' in the modern landscape is inspired yet flawed

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Reviewed by: Christina Hardyment
Author: Nick Crane
Publisher: Acorn Media
Price (RRP): £16.99

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In Britannia: The Great Elizabethan Journey, Nicholas Crane sets out on a quest which takes him from the Scilly Isles via Snowdon and the Shetlands to the Isle of Arran, across some of the most spectacular scenery Britain can boast. His guide is William Camden’s Britannia, a survey of the British Isles first published in Latin in 1586, which combined personal exploration with historical, social and economic research. Camden wrote it to “restore antiquity to Britaine, and Britaine to its antiquity”; it also had a very topical interest in presenting the British Isles as one united country.

Crane charges along cheerfully in Camden’s footsteps, finding out how subjectively he wrote, examining the accuracy of his observations and nosing out anomalies. Besides telling us much about Elizabethan England, he also talks to a variety of locals (a panner for gold, a modern witch, a compositor, a Celtic tale-teller), to discover what still links us to Camden’s times. He emotes over the atmospheric ruins of monasteries and castles, trudges indefatigably up Snowdon in pouring rain and camps there overnight, sails across the Irish Sea in a very pretty double-ender, and almost tumbles into the limestone chasm that marks the source of the Shannon.

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It’s a tall order for three one-hour episodes, especially as history goes missing for too long in the repetitive shots showing nothing but Crane on the move, pedalling, paddling and tramping, against a grand soundtrack. If only the excellent cameraman (Stephen Robinson) had been allowed to film the magnificent landscapes against slower narration and more of Camden’s own marvellous prose, this imaginatively conceived series would have been less breathless and more breathtaking.