I was transfixed by this excellent programme with its interweaving voices of historians and philosophers (Simon Schama and Slavoj Zizek offer very different interpretations of the Jacobin Revolutionary mindset), other commentators and the prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel – whose novel A Place of Greater Safety is set in Revolutionary France. For once, the “drama” in this docu-drama was very convincing and is set against scenes from classic films on the Revolution, and excerpts from Robespierre’s own speeches.
Robespierre was an idealist and a lover of humanity. But during the 365 days that he sat on the Committee of Public Safety the French Republic descended into a bloodbath. ‘The Terror’ only came to end when Robespierre himself was devoured by the repressive machinery he’d created.
Mantel’s novel is focused on precisely these events and the characters caught up in them: Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins whose role in history was to make the speech that inflamed the mob to storm the Bastille. I have to confess that I haven’t read her book but it’s going on the list straight away!
Mantel’s concluding remarks on Robespierre’s dramatic end ring so true: “Speech had always been his weapon. His jaw was shot away and he could no longer utter a coherent word. We come to the end of speech and the end of being listened to.”
The programme is showing on I-player until Saturday 18th July, so don’t miss it. Even better, watch it on 14 July and weigh up the importance – as Schama says – of ensuring “that we can disagree without feeling the obligation to exterminate people who don’t happen to agree with us.”