Friday, 13 March 2009

TV: Ruffians - A History of Elizabethan Bicycle Thieves

"Ruffians" is the latest edition in BBC4's "Historic Heists" documentaries, their series of expensive monthly 2 hour specials on thievery throughout the ages. The series has so far been a huge success with viewers, particularly the last edition, February's "Bunker Bastards", which shed light about the untold story of WWI soldiers stealing each other's teeth for the purchase of elegant French hens.

“Ruffians” centres around Edward Rapscallion, a well-to-do wig-maker who has a penchant for the naughty. We hear how Edward becomes enamoured with stealing, loitering and generally being quite the pain in people's pompadours. Soon his attention turns to bicycles. Seen as new technology, bikes were of high value, often used to pay for slaves and outlandish prostitutes (the kind that readily agree to consume urine, as was the fashion). We are shown footage of Edward careening through expensive villas on a newly acquired BMX, pedalling furiously to escape police, before he discretely fences his stolen wares through the corrupt manager of an apothecary in Fleet Street.

As entertaining and revealing as Edward's escapades are, it has become apparent after careful analysis that there seems to be an element of falseness to his adventures. The main concern with more eagle-eyed critics has been a scene that shows Edward being executed for his crimes. Not an uncommon event for the era, but slightly less common is the electric chair he is treated to. The electric chair has never been used in the UK, and the program-makers have since admitted that they had to embellish this part of the story due to lack of detailed information. Unfortunately for them, this initial query has led to a floodgate of questions and insights. Firstly, careful study of Wikipedia led television critic AA Gill to discover that the BMX had only been available since the early 1970s. Soon it was found by an employee of GMTV that bicycles themselves had been invented over 200 years after the Elizabethan era had ended.

In their defence, the makers of "Ruffians" have insisted that the documentary's footage is clear proof that Elizabethans were the first cyclists. They cited their care in ensuring that all the CCTV and archive footage was of the era guaranteed veracity. This irrefutable argument has quite rightly silenced the critics, their only source of information for countering being Wikipedia, a notoriously lie-filled cyber-rag that simply cannot be trusted.

Ruffians has already been nominated for the history BAFTA at next year's award ceremony. There is no doubt it deserves this accolade.

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