The Celts on Amazon Prime

It used to be the case that there was never anything worth watching on TV over the holidays. That’s no longer true, because now we have a ton of streaming services all groaning under the weight of content more varied and potentially interesting than any Christmas dinner table. Even someone of my relatively limited tastes in TV can be guaranteed to find something worth checking out.

Scrolling through documentaries on Amazon Prime, I found a short series of history programmes titled, The Celts. My initial reaction was to expect nonsense, and that was dialed up to the max when the first episode opened with a view of Stonehenge. But then the commentary started talking about mythbusting, and things got better for a while.

It turns out that the series was made in 2000, so long before it was decided that every history documentary on mainstream TV should look and sound like it was made by The Hitler Channel. Also it was made by S4C, so actual Celtic people were involved in the show, not just English or Americans.

The first two episodes focused on what we mean by “Celts”, the origins of Celtic culture, and the wars of the Celtic-speaking peoples against the Romans. The third looked at Celtic religious beliefs. All three were better than I expected. They included interviews with the likes of Barry Cunliffe, Colin Renfrew and Miranda Aldhouse-Green, all of whom mostly said variations on “we don’t know”. There was also quite a bit of focus on sites in central Europe that we don’t normally hear much about on these islands. Despite being 20+ years old, most of the material seemed fairly up to date.

Sadly that didn’t continue. Probably the weakest episode was the one that focused on the early mediaeval period. It was badly out of date with respect to Viking culture, and contained some obvious errors. What we now know as Whitby Abbey is not the ruins of the place where Hild held her famous synod. That abbey was sacked by the Danes in the mid-9th century and the site remained abandoned for 200 years until the present, and very obviously Norman, abbey was built. Also Alfred the Great was not a contemporary of Hywel Dda.

Episode 5 looked at the fate of the Celtic nations during the early modern period when nation states were on the rise, and episode 6 looked at the at where things are now, or at least were at the turn of the millennium. These seemed OK, but are probably best viewed in conjunction with David Olusoga’s recent series, Union.

As far as TV history goes, I thought this was pretty good, especially the first three episodes. It was certainly good to see Celtic history being covered by actual Celtic people. I was pleased at the inclusion of Brittany, which you would probably not get from an English- or American-made show. There could have been more about Kernow, but hey, can’t have it all. If you fancy checking the show out, I advise doing so before Jan. 29th when Amazon is going to start interrupting all of their content with advertisements after the manner of YouTube.