Attila the Hun and some barbaric stereotypes

The rules of casting: decadent imperialists are always played by effete English actors and warrior heroes by Yanks or coarse Celts.

Ed West

Topics Culture

There’s a long-established convention in swords and sandals productions that the baddies (generally Romans) are played by English actors, preferably homosexuals, while the goodies (Israelites, Britons, slaves) are played by Americans.

The BBC’s Attila the Hun (Wednesday, BBC1), despite being funded by the British taxpayer, follows this formula, but with Irish and Scottish actors playing the Hun and limp-wristed, lisping English southerners playing the Empire’s leaders in its pathetic, buggery-obsessed last days.

This is a big risk – it’s almost a basic rule that Irish accents don’t work in the ancient world; the woeful Alexander fell down on this most of all, with not only Colin Farrell speaking in his native accent but Val Kilmer (as the one eyed Philip of Macedon) putting on the sort of ‘brogue’ one hears after the words ‘and the Irishman said’.

So, why Attila the Jock? My theory is that the Beeb have had to spend more on Scottish production or the ubiquitous Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond would have kicked up a fuss – but that’s my conspiracy theory of the week.

Anyway, the Romans are, of course, posh, effete and weasel-like; when negotiating with Attila (played by Rory McCann, who, like so many Scottish actors, seems to be cloned from Sean Connery’s DNA) they immediately play underhand by trying to recruit his right-hand man into betraying him. One thing about the portrayal of the English on screen is that, contrary to the self-image, they never play a ‘straight bat’; they are always perfidious. This is probably quite true in the case of the Foreign Office, but whether they all speak with those Brit pauses, I’m not so sure: ‘All we want is for you… to kill him.’

The Hun, in contrast, are all unkempt Celtic savages on their way up the Metropolitan line to Wembley Park, the archetypal people you don’t want to be stuck on a train with. It’s all cackles and guffaws followed by random and pointless violence and more cackles and guffaws.

Reading between the lines, it’s all an allegory for Thatcher’s Britain, but an alternative reality in which there was an uprising led by ‘casuals’ from Hibernian FC’s Capital City Service. It was like watching Geoffrey Howe negotiating with Begbie from Trainspotting. The film even ends with Attila giving a sort of Braveheart-esque ‘freedom’ speech.

Except, what is he fighting for? We’re not really told – the Hun just seem to wander around like a very large and especially frightening band of tinkers. The BBC is fond of making Roman epics, but apart from a map of Europe with loads of tribal movements marked out like a wind-chart, the bigger picture is never explained.

Modern theory has the barbarian tribes forced from their homes because of rising sea levels, which I’m surprised the BBC didn’t take up. It would be more acceptable than the generally-held theory that the Empire was overwhelmed by asylum seekers escaping from Attila and his men, who were, and I don’t want to get racially pedantic here, central Asian and so unlikely to resemble the modern Scotsman.

Still, it did live up its promise, graphics-wise, and I suspect the script was merely an excuse for the BBC to try out new CGI techniques. I always thought that, despite the supposed technical brilliance of Gladiator, replacing an Oliver Reid who broke his contract for the last time by drinking himself to death with some sailors in Malta, the Coliseum mobs looked no better than the crowds in Kick Off 2. Attila certainly was an improvement – I look forward to the day when history classes are abolished altogether and children are simply shown a series of enormous computer-generated battles.


Back to real life, and a reminder why escapism will always have an audience. Series three of Ladette to Lady continues to fascinate and horrify. This week, the girls were presented at a polo match.

‘What’s polo?’, one of them asks.

‘It’s like croquet on horses’, another one of the lumpenproletariat explains. For an instant I thought she might be a ringer – surely croquet is as elitist as polo?

Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the series, the name is fairly explanatory. A group of ASBO-fodder from the more depressing and soulless suburbs and dormitory towns of Great Britain are taken away from their meaningless lives of drinking cocktails named after sexual positions, and brought to the very posh Eggleston Hall where they not only cross class boundaries but the space/time continuum.

Eggleston Hall is a relic from an age where the map was painted pink and the children could actually identify places on said map. Mrs Brewer, the etiquette teacher, could charge American tourists just to gawp at her, being one of only half-a-dozen people as posh-sounding as Brian Sewell. She and her kind are as quaint a throwback as the Mennonites in Ohio or Manx speakers.

Up against this shrinking minority are members of the dominant culture. There’s Holly from Essex, who looks and talks like a Dickensian urchin but behaves like, well, someone appearing on an ITV docusoap; we see her flashing her underwear in a nightclub and on another occasion trying to pull a man’s pants off. Her main interests seem to be getting drunk and ‘having a good time’.

Then there’s Louise from Liverpool, who takes offence at Mrs Brewer’s suggestion that she might not be entirely chaste. The origin of this little aside is Louise appearing in Nuts magazine. Louise erupts with the self-righteousness of a burglar who’s robbed 300 houses and refuses to understand why the police are arresting him for the 301st. She cannot possibly see why polite society might look down on someone posing topless: ‘People like sex and that’s my job’, she explains. Of course, it’s her right to show her body and anybody who disagrees is discriminating and elitist.

I’m so glad I no longer work for Nuts. I’d probably have to interview Louise and listen to her explain how exposing her breasts to masturbating teens and jailbirds was empowering to women. She’s not alone – a 2005 survey found that two-thirds of girls aged 15-19 chose ‘glamour model’ as their chosen career.

Then there’s Nicole, who has an ASBO and appeared at first to be one of the worst, until you see (maybe this is editing, who knows) traces of humanity. She rather went off the rails after her two brothers died and it’s clear she’s basically a good person caught up in the current cultural tide of shit; she’s the Albert Speer of the gang. She’s also a liberal’s wet dream, proof that if only we could pay for Britain’s six million ‘underclass’ to appear on a finishing show, then crime would become a curious thing we read in the history books that no one is reading.

Still, Mrs Brewer has her work cut out. All her teachings – ‘you have to learn not to challenge, but to accept’ – go against everything these girls are told from day one. I know this is an entertainment show, so they have to produce conflict, but it shouldn’t even be about class, just basic standards of humanity, such as tolerance towards others, self-control and empathy. That’s what’s lacking in their lives, not the ability to ride a horse.

Poor Mrs Brewer: she must know how the Romans felt when 30,000 Huns turned up.

Ed West is features editor at the Catholic Herald. He is standing in for his brother, spiked’s TV columnist Patrick West.

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