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The Tower

(Channel 4; US DVD: 8 May 2007)

It’s hard to visit London and not get caught in all the tourist traps. It could be argued that London itself is one giant tourist trap . But to visit that great city and to ignore all of it’s wonderful history, even via the tourist experience, would make the trip pointless. It’s a wonderful city that haunts itself around every corner.


When I first visited London almost 17 years ago, I decided to skip the Tower of London tour to avoid the massive lines and go to the London Dungeon wax museum instead, where I could indulge in my darker fascination for the gory glory of England’s past. You’ll definitely find it there amid room after room featuring great re-creations of torture devices, plagues, fires, and of course, Jack the Ripper.


The Tower’s famous death scenes were on display, as well; wax depictions of the murder of the two Princes, Lady Jane Grey, and the most notorious Tower guest of all, Ann Boleyn.  I enjoyed the Dungeon and actually recommend it to anyone who visits London.  Even though it’s lurid, it does capture a certain romance of the city’s violent legacy and will paint a more interesting picture in your imagination as you go about the old streets from your hotel to the Thames.


But it will not and should not replace a visit to the Tower itself. The Tower is truly awe-inspiring.


When I finally went to the Tower, I was amazed at the mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere of the place. Here was a massive structure that functioned as a home for the Royal family, a prison, an armory, treasury, mint, and even a zoo. Of course, since 1303, it’s been home to the Crown Jewels. Architecturally it’s a grand work-in-progress, a complex that was added to and
adapted throughout the centuries for each new purpose.


Starting with the White Tower built by William the Conqueror in 1078 as a fortress on the Thames, the Tower would end up as a mini-village of buildings completely surrounded by two massive walls and a moat. It has features that demonstrate upgrades made to deal with the ever changing technology of war as well as the ever changing needs of a monarchy. What remains fascinating is how these upgrades sit side-by-side with the original construction. The original was never scrapped, just redesigned like modern software, The Tower of London 2.0 if you will.


Today it’s still the home of the crown jewels protected by the Yeoman Warders as they’ve always been. But it’s no longer a prison, or a place of execution, or even home to the royal family. It’s a historic site that attracts tourists from around the world, most of whom are drawn there much as I was to the London Dungeon wax museum, to walk among the ghosts of a gory past that has been, in many cases, romanticized.


Channel Four has taken it upon itself to try to separate the romance from the truth with an eight-part documentary called The Tower. The program breaks the tower down to be examined from every relevant physical and historical angle. Each of the eight episodes focus on one specific aspect of the construct. At nearly eight hours in total, it would seem to be thorough, but in many ways the series just touches the tip of the iceberg.


“Fortress” examines the Tower’s origins as a stronghold. We are shown the defensive logic behind the engineering and design of hidden cannon holds, moats and pits. Computer animation is used to recreate sections of the buildings long gone and to demonstrate the maze like construction created as traps for invaders. The Tower is presented as a truly impenetrable fortress which was actually penetrated once, in a very amusing story involving corruption and the public’s outrage over taxation.


“Prisoners” focuses on the Tower as a prison for high profile “celebrity” enemies of the Monarch. People such as Sir Walter Raleigh who spent 13 years there in relative comfort. These prisoners often found themselves and their families becoming close friends with their Yeoman warders. The Tower was actually still used as a prison in WWII when Rudolf Hess was held there. The last prisoners to be held were the infamous Kray brothers in 1952.


“Treasure House” looks at the many different jewels and priceless artifacts held under the defense of the Tower. The crown jewels are at the center of this episode but it’s the charming man whose job it is to polish the jewels regularly who steals the segment. His job may seem simple, but his real passion for his work is infectious. We should all feel as much pride in our work as this man.


“The Tower at War” is just that, demonstrating the life within the Tower during the many wars that kept the sun from setting on the British empire.


“The Lost Palace” is where more computer animation is employed. History is debunked as the room in which many tourists were shown to be Ann Boleyn’s bedchamber is revealed to be a sham. It seems that Oliver Cromwell made great changes to the Tower which included the removal of the very building in which Ann lived. Computer animation and the use of old documents are used to bring these buildings back to life.


“Who Goes There?” examines the life of the Yeoman Warders who live and work at the Tower year round. “The Ceremony of the Keys” is presented, a very dramatic tradition that has gone on virtually every night for over 900 years. The warders are all military veterans for whom the day to day protection and upkeep of the Tower is their primary role. They do, also, act as tour guides and for me, one of the highlights of this program was seeing one of my own tour guides featured. He was shown in his nicely furnished and spacious quarters, relaxing by putting on the Tower green, and going about his daily duties. This segment may sound dull but it’s actually one of the best in the series.


“The Bloody Tower” is what will sell this DVD to most people. Stories of torture, poisonings, the murders of the young princes, and beheadings on Tower Hill—it’s all here.


“Tower Top Brass” is the last and the least of the series. It focuses on the new management of the Tower and the ceremonies that are conducted to inaugurate him. Nothing particularly bad, here, just not very gripping.


Koch Vision Entertainment is releasing this 2001 production in a two DVD set that is well presented visually but with a below average sound mix. The narration by Sean Pertwee is fine but some of the interviews are mixed low next to music tracks that suddenly boom.  A few extras would’ve been welcome as this subject is the kind of historical series that would be very useful for schools. Perhaps some documents as a PDF download or a map of the Tower grounds would help.


Other than such technical nitpicking, The Tower is a very entertaining primer on the history of this English landmark. But it’s unfortunate that it remains merely a primer. There is a certain tabloid style of production here with some lame recreations of famous moments such as Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament, presented in that strobe-light-like style that shouts: DRAMATIC RECREATION.


Some of the eight hours are wonderful while lots of time is wasted on shaggy dog investigations without a real payoff. But the subject is a great one, and The Tower may inspire younger viewers to seek out more information themselves.  Perhaps even a tourist-type visit to this historical landmark.  Until one can get to London, this is an eight hours well spent.


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