A Sense of History by Jim Broadbent

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A Sense of History by Jim Broadbent (1997).  Dir. Eoin O’Callaghan.  Perf. Broadbent, Stephen Bill.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 22 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 21 Feb. 2015.


Originally produced in 1992 as a television drama directed by Mike Leigh, A Sense of History unfolds as a virtual monologue in which the 23rd Earl of Leete (Jim Broadbent) talks about his life and aspirations.


Tonally speaking, the play begins in celebratory mood, reminiscent of Eighties BBC television series such as Aristocracy (1982), where presenter Robert Lacey traced the growth and enduring appeal of a class of people whose values might seem archaic, but still constituted part of the fabric of British society.  It is only as the action unfolds that we discover the Earl’s true purpose; to maintain his position at any cost, even if that means resorting to extreme methods and preserving untenable political positions.  By the time this half-hour drama ends, the tone is more akin to that of Robert Hamer’s immortal film Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Dennis Price moves gradually up the social scale by disposing of most of his family members.


What makes A Sense of History so savagely comic is the matter-of-fact tone in which it is written.  While the Earl is obviously out to justify himself, he also believes that he can pursue no other course, as circumstances always conspire against him.  He doesn’t think of himself as in any way extreme, either in terms of his behavior or his political views, but rather considers himself a representative of his class.  If such is the case, then perhaps the aristocracy are potentially more destructive than we might first have assumed.


Broadbent obviously enjoys himself in the role, speaking confidentially to listeners about his past and his future and taking them into his confidence as he does so.  We have to be on our guard, otherwise we might be persuaded to empathize with him – which is precisely what he wants us to do.  The Earl is a dangerous man, his soft voice and urbane manner concealing a highly destructive personality.