In a wonderful bit of irony, America’s public broadcaster has produced a series of documentaries about beloved British institutions and buildings. Secrets of the Tower of London provides a wide-ranging look at what has become one of London’s biggest tourist attractions. This impressive piece of real estate dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and in the past millennium has served as a royal residence, a treasury, a zoo, and most famously, a prison.
The Tower’s many lives are explored in this fast-paced program. It’s the video equivalent of a one-hour guided tour and takes viewers through the requisite highlights. There’s a degree of visual claustrophobia. Aside from the occasional aerial view, the program relies on a lot of tight shots that don’t give much sense of space or orientation, but you still ed up where you’re meant to be. The camera passes through the entrance where exotic animals would have greeted – and sometimes eaten – visitors, through the courtyards where heads parted company with bodies, and into the chapel where remains of prisoners, including Anne Boleyn, are buried.
This is an enjoyable documentary because it tells stories you won’t find in your average history book and allows access to places you won’t see on the Beefeaters’ tour – including their private residence and members’ only pub. The Yeoman Warders, as they are actually called, live within the Tower walls, and it’s jarring to my American mind that one might take afternoon tea in modern kitchen whilst gazing onto the same green where kings and queens strolled centuries ago. But this is England. A behind-the-scenes dive to the underbelly of Tower Bridge also yields a showcase of Victorian engineering, a reminder that transformative technology is not the reserve of our own era.
Secrets ticks off biographies of the famous, infamous, and not-so-famous prisoners as well. In what might be a bone to the home crowd in PBS-land, we learn more about Henry Laurens, who has the distinction of being the only American imprisoned in the Tower and, more notably, John Laurens’s father. (Yes, Hamilton fans.) There are also filling but bite-sized segments on the Crown Jewels and the Tower ravens. The program closes with the Ceremony of the Keys, which a Yeoman Warder proudly claims is the oldest military ceremony in the world. It also seems the silliest, but again, I side with the folks who threw tea into the sea.
Dir: Vicky Matthews
Narrator: Samuel West
Time: 55 min
Country: United States