Alison Rowat's TV previews: Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts; State of the Union; Dubai Hustle

·4-min read
Lucy Worsley reading at a table in Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, in Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts
Lucy Worsley reading at a table in Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, in Lucy Worsley Investigates: The Witch Hunts

Did you know that Scotland was once notorious for killing “witches” at a higher rate than anywhere else in Europe? Afraid to say we were continental champions at the dark art of falsely accusing women of wrongdoing and executing them for their trouble.

When I say “we” I mean mostly men. Just as the vast majority of people executed for witchcraft were women, so it was mostly men doing the finger-pointing. Such knowledge and more can be yours through the simple, everyday magic of turning the telly on and watching Lucy Worsley Investigates (BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm).

In her new four-part series, the historian reviews grim cases from the past, using modern methods of investigation and knowledge not around at the time. Consider Worsley a sort of one woman New Tricks squad with a PhD and a seriously nice handbag.

Her first task is to dial the clock back 400 years and find out the truth behind witch hunts. Who were these women, what is it they were supposed to have done, and why was the state so keen to kill them?

In weeks to come Worsley looks at the Black Death, what happened to the Princes in the Tower, and the madness of King George. For now, though, her starting point is Scotland and the case of Agnes Sampson.

When we meet Agnes in 1591 she is on the way to her execution. “She’s been interrogated, tortured and now she’ll be strangled,” says Worsley. The final punishment will be being burned at the stake.

Sampson, a midwife and folk healer, had been a person of interest to the authorities for some time. Her crime in this instance, it was alleged, was to have been present at a gathering of some 200 women in North Berwick where drink was taken, singing occurred, and a cat was Christened.

Oh, and the witches conjured up a storm at sea that nearly killed the king, and one of them kissed the devil’s backside. As Worsley says with some understatement, “It all sounds absolutely bonkers”.

The persecution that followed, however, was hideous and cruel. In time, the investigations in North Berwick would form the template for a century of witch hunts across Britain.

Worsley’s inquiries take her to the University of Glasgow, the National Portrait Gallery and Forfar, where she meets a historian who uses treasurer records of the time to piece together what happened to women in custody.

The story assembled is a fascinating mix of religion, politics, superstition and plain old misogyny. Worsley is moved to the point of quiet fury at the injustices perpetrated on these women, and no wonder. “They were mothers, sisters, daughters,” she says. The message that went out to women in general was know your place – or else.

Worsley is one of the most accessible historians, her deceptively easy-going style suited to television. All power to her elbow in bringing more scandals to light.

There was once a series of ten minute, two-handed dramas written by Nick Hornby, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike as a warring couple attending therapy. Very moreish it was, so delighted to see that State of the Union (BBC2, Tuesday, 10pm-10.30pm, with all episodes on iPlayer after) is back for another season.

It’s the same set up, except this one takes place in a coffee shop somewhere in suburban America rather than a pub in the UK, and the couple are played by Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson. With a cast of that calibre I’d watch them read out the coffee shop menu, but fortunately Hornby’s wise, funny and moving script offers so much more than that.

The yakking can occasionally verge on the irritating, and the characters, he’s living in the past, she wants a new life, are slightly predictable, but I defy anyone not to stay for the next instalment just to see how it turns out.

Dubai Hustle (BBC3, Monday, 8pm) is another of those BBC3 reality shows set in the world of work.This one features a gaggle of UK twenty-somethings trying to crack the property game. Of course there is a Scot among them. Chris, from Livingston, has been a sales broker for just over three months. After filling viewers in on his background, a far cry from the flash mansions he is selling and renting to clients, he says he is in Dubai to “make money, make a lot of it, and pay no tax”.

With pounding pop music, endless scenes featuring people chatting in the office, or out enjoying a swim in the pool, Dubai Hustle is more Love Island than Netflix’s Selling Sunset, but worth a look if you happen to be planning a stay there yourself.

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