The Tower (2001) (DVD)

Britain’s most notorious landmark.

The Tower is an eight-part documentary made for British television that…Wait, come back! It’s not boring, I promise.

The Tower of London was constructed shortly after William the Conqueror named himself the king of England, roughly 900 years ago. Although today it is well-known as a prison, the tower was initially a fortress with a palace in its center, designed to keep troublemakers out, not in.

The tower’s history is as varied and as full of stories as the history of England itself. This documentary series chronicles some of the most famous names and incidents associated with the tower over the centuries, as well as some of the lesser-known but still intriguing adventures that went on inside its walls. The tower’s seen it all, from bloody executions to swanky royal parties to daring escapes to talking animals.

Perhaps in another 900 years, people will wonder at how the tower was ever a tourist attraction. So the filmmakers have spent half the time detailing life at the tower today. This includes the curators, a team of witty and adventuresome historians still discovering new pieces of the tower’s past. And then there are the yeoman warders and yeoman gaolers (American translation: “jailers”), military men who serve as the tower’s tour guides and guards. Not only do they live inside the tower walls, but they maintain traditions that go back centuries.

Anyone who thinks history is boring will find that thought put to the test by watching The Tower. This type of history isn’t about what year what law was passed and the subtle ways that law influenced the economy. No, this history is about epic battles, gory beheadings, high society romantic shenanigans, death-defying heroism, and torture, torture, torture. Although there are some reenactments here and there throughout the series, most of these tales are presented through the simple art of storytelling, helped along with even-mannered narration by Sean Pertwee (Goal!, son of the third Doctor). Although they’re not told in a flashy way, these stories are thrilling just because they’re great stories.

Take, for example, the peasant revolt of 1381, discussed in detail in the first episode. We learn that in order to get inside the first of two tower walls, one had to pass through nine gates, three drawbridges, and three portcullises. Plus, each gate has its own set of guards, and one was protected by a pride of lions. But a swarm of ticked off peasants, with no military training and armed only with farming equipment and household sharp objects, managed to fight all the way to the chapel within the inner wall, breaking down the defenses and overpowering the guards — one historian hypothesizes that they had an inside man. The angry mob captured the king’s advisor, Simon Sudbury, whom they blamed for what they felt was an unfair tax. With the revolt successful, Sudbury was publicly executed by beheading. As if this wasn’t enough of an exciting story, there’s an unusual capper to it. We learn that Sudbury’s naturally-mummified head is still on display in a church in his hometown. One historian, holding Sudbury’s head in his hands, says, “I always think he’s smiling at me.”

As one of the most fortified buildings in the world, the tower is also home to the Queen’s crown jewels, which are on display, but still under heavy guard, for the tourists. An entire episode of The Tower is devoted to the jewels and their history, as well as a never-before-seen look at how they are cleaned and restored. But the craziest story about the crown jewels has to do with the only man daring enough to attempt stealing them, a notorious trickster named — are you ready for this? — Colonel Blood. See? You can’t make this stuff up. In 1671, after a lot of planning, Blood and his men got the jewels out of the palace at the center of the tower grounds. Over the years, the ensuing chase has become known as something of a wind-up (American translation: a “joke”). The Tower describes Blood and his men fleeing from guards while dropping priceless jewels left and right. Blood fired a single shot, only to have a tower guard dodge the bullet, like someone from The Matrix. After Blood was captured, this story has another unusual capper — Blood was pardoned, and even given some land to spend the rest of his days.

The tower has also been a temporary — and sometimes final — home for several historic names. Queen Elizabeth I, back when she was just Princess Elizabeth, was jailed in the tower for a time, accused of treason. This documentary pays much attention to the means by which Elizabeth first entered the tower. Common belief has it that she entered via the River Thames through the tower’s infamous “Traitor’s Gate.” However, one episode says records from that time reveal that Elizabeth actually entered through a small drawbridge farther down the river, and into what is essentially a “back door” to the structure facing the water. Why is so much time spent on this small detail? Seeing as how everyone interviewed speaks of the famous queen in reverential and almost worshipful tones, it seems that no fact is too small when talking about Elizabeth. There’s more to her story as well. Although she was shown to be terrified and troubled when initially locked up in the tower, she later found true love there with another prisoner, as they both had access to the tower garden. And later, when she became queen, Elizabeth had no problem sentencing her own enemies to imprisonment inside the tower.

The Tower thrills viewers with tales of escape attempts from the famous landmark. One escapee snuck out of the tower disguised as a woman — his wife came up with the idea. This guy’s “woman’s gown” is still owned by his modern-day descendants, who have it on display inside their gigantic mansion. Another very clever prisoner managed to pass secret messages to friends on the outside by writing to them with invisible ink. Let me repeat that for emphasis: invisible ink. I had no idea such a thing actually existed. Where can I buy some? This escape eventually had him scaling a wall with a rope to reach his friends on the other side, who had a horse waiting for him, ready for the getaway. Another would-be Scofield tried a similar rope climb, but fell to his death. This is depicted in a quaint antique woodcut illustration, with the tower in background, and the poor guy’s mangled dead body splattered all over the foreground.

The tower was usually reserved for prisoners of high political importance, and, surprisingly enough, that holds true even in the present day. In the 20th century, during times of war, the tourists were locked out, and the tower once again became a working prison. There were even a handful of executions during the first and second world wars. The Brits don’t pretend that these modern-day executions never happened, but they’re not emphasized in front of the tourists like the old school beheadings are. In World War II a group of German U-boat survivors were rescued at sea by the British fleet, only to learn they would be imprisoned in the famous tower. For this documentary, two of the surviving German sailors pay a return visit, stepping into their old rooms, marveling at how little has changed.

One phrase that gets thrown around a lot in The Tower is “living history.” Specifically, this refers to the reenactors who dress in period costumes and ham it up for the tourists. But, in a more general sense, “living history” could refer to all the work done by the curators and historians who live and breathe all things Tower of London. With 900 years of activity to research, they’re never at a loss for something new to research and explore. This research doesn’t just take the form of dusty old books and crinkly manuscripts. These historians are a globe-trotting bunch, traveling throughout Europe and overseas on a regular basis, always in search of that one elusive piece of evidence that will bring the past to life with a little more clarity. Also, assistant curator Anna Keay gets my vote for hottest female historian ever:

She’s dinky! (American translation: “She’s cute!”)

Even within the tower walls, new discoveries are made every day. This is most evident when, in one episode, the historians decide to lower an ancient portcullis, in order to learn more about it. Because it spent all of its time raised, hidden away inside a massive stone wall, little was known about its construction. For the first time in almost 100 years, the portcullis is lowered, and the historians instantly start putting the pieces together, surmising that part of it dates back to William the Conqueror’s day, while part of it was rebuilt centuries later to protect guards from rifle and cannon fire. The portcullis even has a 16th-century cannon port at knee level, which no doubt blew the legs off of more than one invading horde. It’s not all serious business, though, as the historians jokingly refer to the cannon port as a cat flap (American translation: “doggie door”).

While the historians study the tower’s history, another group inside its walls makes history every day. The yeoman warders are the human face of the tower, dressed in traditional uniforms, the style of which dates back hundreds of years. The warders might be seen as little more than tour guides, but they all come from distinguished military backgrounds, and they are famous throughout the British military for being the most disciplined of all soldiers. This is appropriate, because the yeoman warders’ duties are more about ceremony and tradition than they are about yakking it up for tourists. The warders, we learn, live within the tower walls, where they have their own apartments, their own curfew, and, naturally, their own pub.

One of the best looks we get inside the yeoman warders’ world is the ceremony of the keys. This is the longest-running military ceremony in the world, which has been performed every single day, without interruption, for more than 600 years. The ceremony takes place after the tower has closed for the night, in which the warders’ leader marches through the entire tower grounds, locking every one of the outer doors. He then presents the antique keys to a guard, just as a nearby clock tower chimes, as if on cue. This is normally a private ceremony done just for the warders, but for this documentary, they’ve allowed it to be filmed for the first time in history. A lot of documentaries claim to have “unprecedented access,” but The Tower achieves it by capturing this ancient ceremony for the entire world to see.

As noted above, not just anyone can become a yeoman warder. One episode follows a would-be warder through the entire audition process, showing just how rigorous it is. He struggles with memorizing a book filled with historic anecdotes, which he must recite, word-for-word, in front of a single judge armed with a clipboard. Even worse, his wife continually heckles him while he rehearses in their small back yard. These bits are all very charming, but they gradually build suspense, so that we’re never quite sure if he’ll pass the audition, especially given how many obvious errors he makes. The audition process reveals how the warders strive for perfection in all they do, whether it’s giving tours or taking part in historic ceremonies.

All of this is just skimming the surface. There are so many interesting facts and stories here that you’ll be knackered (American translation: “wiped out”) by the time it’s all over. A few other quick highlights:

* One visitor to the tower brings with him a family heirloom, a letter allegedly written by an ancestor once imprisoned there. It doesn’t take long, though, for experts to determine that it’s a fake. This shows just how much re-writing of history has occurred over the years, and how the curators and historians have their work cut out for them as to what really happened versus what the public is told what happened.

* An old superstition says that as long as there are ravens in the tower, the monarchy will never fall. Therefore, one yeoman warder has the job of taking care of a bunch of flightless ravens. In what is possibly the most bizarre moment (out of many) in this series, the warder reveals that he’s taught one of the ravens to talk. Every day, the bird greets him by saying, “Good morning.” Even though Poe was an American, couldn’t the bird have been taught to say “Nevermore” instead?

* It turns out Richard III was an even nastier guy than Shakespeare made him out to be. In one episode, he is accused of killing two adolescent heirs to the throne, so he could ascend in their place. The evidence of this, however, is still only circumstantial, and the murder investigation continues to this day.

* One historian has in his collection a mummified cat found during an excavation deep beneath the tower. He’s only too happy to show off this deformed-looking dead cat to the camera. The next time people from England tell you, “No, we’re not eccentric,” show them this guy.

* Once a year, during low tide on the Thames River, tower officials invite London children to scour the riverbed in search of long-lost tower artifacts. Shockingly, hundreds of years’ worth of the tower’s old junk lines bottom of the river. Priceless artifacts are everywhere down there. One kid finds a sword. Another finds a piece of construction equipment that dates back to William the Conqueror’s day. Amazing.

* One interview is with a “food historian,” whose specialty is preparing meals the exact same way they did back in King Henry VIII’s day. So, is this his job or his hobby? And which of those two would make him scarier?

One big problem I had with this documentary is that at no time did I get a sense of the tower’s geography. I understand that there are two outer walls, surrounding the tower grounds and the palace in the center. But when it comes to specifics, I’m lost. Anytime someone mentions “The Queen’s Lodgings” or “The Jewel House” or “The Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula,” I have no idea where these buildings are in relation to one another. Perhaps this is no big deal for Londoners who used to take field trips there every year when they were kids, but it gets confusing for the rest of us. I would have appreciated a basic “walk-through” at the beginning of the series to get my bearings. Or, even better, something like this could have been included as a bonus feature. Speaking of which…

The widescreen picture here is nice, with no obvious flaws, but it isn’t quite reference quality. Similarly, the 2.0 sound does its job adequately, but doesn’t provide a genuine immersive experience. The real downer, though, is the lack of any bonus material. There’s got to be hundreds of other great stories from the tower’s history, and I’ll bet all sorts of material was shot but not used. Where’s that footage? As noted above, a “tower history for beginners” feature would have been beneficial, and a look at the production from any of the five directors would have been heavy (American translation: “would have been cool”).

In the last couple of years, documentaries have become more popular than ever. The Tower is just as good as any of the other big docs that have taken the world by storm. Except that this documentary doesn’t make powerful political statements, and it’s not out to change the way people think. Instead, it’s just plain fun. The minute one episode ends, you’ll want to watch the next one right away — and once you’ve watched the entire series, you’ll be ready to book the next flight to London to see the tower yourself.

And just for the heck of it, here’s another shot of Anna Keay:

What can I say? Smart is sexy.

The Verdict

Much to the disappointment of the people, there will be no public execution today. The Tower is free to go.

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