Fortress Britain with Alice Roberts, review: have we learnt nothing from Philomena Cunk?

·2-min read
Alice Roberts at Walmer Castle - Connor Harris/Channel 4
Alice Roberts at Walmer Castle - Connor Harris/Channel 4

In Cunk on Britain, TV’s peerless spoof of history documentaries, Philomena Cunk tackled Henry VIII. “This is Hampton Court Palace, a building so impressive it has to be accompanied by harpsichord music,” she said solemnly, as the soundtrack started tootling. Inside, gazing at a portrait of Henry, she asked: “But why is he the king we all still remember – unlike, say, Richard V? Well, for one thing, he was fat, so he takes up more room in the memory.”

If you have watched Cunk on Britain, it’s impossible to get it out of your head when watching something like Fortress Britain with Alice Roberts (Channel 4). It sticks rigidly to the format: Roberts or her co-presenters stand outside a castle or beside a cannon, make some sweeping statements about Britain, then ask questions of assorted experts.

Roberts’s opening to a piece about Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was pure Cunk: “We’re very familiar with high-profile divorces – Russell Brand and Katy Perry, Melinda and Bill Gates, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. But imagine a divorce so tumultuous that it puts an entire country against its continental neighbours…”

What followed was a bog standard, uninspired history lesson which didn’t stick to the advertised brief – documenting Britain’s “obsession with invasion” – but instead took us through Henry VIII’s reign minus most of the wives: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Anne Boleyn, the Reformation.

Along the way, Roberts and her deputies, Prof Danielle George and Dr Onyeka Nubia, met experts who had potentially interesting things to say about the Mary Rose and the Battle of the Solent. But these meetings were too brief.

In the blurb for the programme, the producers hailed Roberts for making British history “accessible and relevant for contemporary audiences”, which means keeping things extremely simple. There was no thesis underpinning the episode but we did get a laboured Brexit reference at the end: “While Henry forcefully voted to leave rather than to remain, the country he left behind couldn’t make a clean break from its European neighbours.”

It ended, bafflingly, with Roberts saying of Henry: “He certainly divides opinion but, love him or hate him…” Eh? I’ve never met anyone who loved or hated Henry VIII. Never mind Cunk, this is history as written by a chatbot.