Recently I watched a programme on Channel Four which moved me to write to you all to say that it was one of the most outstanding cases I have ever seen of television bending the historical facts to fit the purposes of their story. It is called City of Vice, and it purports to be about the Fielding brothers, Henry and John. Since John Fielding plays a major rôle in my own books, and is an old friend of my readers, I hope you will allow me to point out the historical errors made in the content of this television series.
It was set in 1750 when John Fielding was twenty-nine years old and Henry forty-three. The actors chosen for the leading roles were more than somewhat past that age. Henry, indeed, looked to be about seventy, while his younger brother was in his late forties, probably fifty years old.
First of all let me deal with the errors regarding Henry. Other than his totally incorrect age, a great deal was made of him having debauched and subsequently married a serving girl. What the producer failed to point out was that it was Henry's second marriage and that the servant in question, Mary Daniel, had nursed the first Mrs. Fielding with love and devotion until her death. Hardly a case of servant seduction one would have thought. Finally let me just tell you that Henry died at the age of forty-seven having recently arrived in Lisbon, where he had retired for the good of his health. He is buried in the British cemetery there. A far cry from the elderly actor I saw, I believe.
Let me move on to John who is, as all of you know, one of the heroes of my series of books. First of all a minor point. There is absolutely no pictorial record of him wearing little round dark glasses and as a result looking like the eighteenth century's answer to George Michael. Secondly, he sometimes pushed up the black bandage or ribbon which he wore over his eyes when having his portrait painted but I doubt very much that he would have ventured into the street like that. (And while I am on that subject let me just say that the actor concerned utterly failed to convince me he was blind. He nipped down the stairs of The Shakespeare Head pretty smartly with no one to help him and not using a cane or a switch. Yet it is a matter of written fact that he came into court carrying a switch to help him find his way. This begs the question as to how he could manage one and not the other.) However back to more serious things.
It is barely conceivable that John and Henry worked together at any time in 1750. In 1749 the Universal Register Office was started by Henry Fielding, John, and Saunders Welch, High Constable of Holborn. Its offices were in The Strand and John lived there until he eventually moved into Bow Street following Henry's death. The Register appears to have been an early form of travel agency and Bradshaw, and John, as Resident Proprietor, was available in The Strand office from nine until seven at night, hardly leaving him any time to go detecting with Henry, who, I imagine was too busy writing his novels in the evenings to spend much time looking for villains.
Let us turn to John's marriage. It is true he was single in 1750 but in 1751 he married Elizabeth Whittingham of Lichfield. Neither of them had been married before but as my regular readers will know Miss Whittingham brought with her an adopted niece. I have always had my suspicions about that child and suspect that Elizabeth was actually her mother, but there is no firm evidence to confirm this and the thought is all that I have to go on. However, it is possible that John Fielding had met Miss Whittingham around 1750 and would presumably have been pursuing this courtship. Incidentally he was thirty at the time of his marriage and a far cry from the middle-aged man that we were informed was John Fielding.
Four more points:
- One is that the term 'Bow Street Runners' - a body of court officials who assisted Henry Fielding and continued to assist John; the forerunners of our modern police force - did not come into common parlance until 1785, five years after John's death. If it was in use earlier it did not enter the language until the early nineteenth century. Yet in the television presentation Henry Fielding referred to his Bow Street Runners.
- It is highly unlikely that a black man would have been employed by Henry Fielding. In 1750 the black population of England were slaves and it would have been most unusual to have seen one working as a court official or whatever he was supposed to be.
- The house in Bow Street where Henry Fielding lived was tall and thin and resembled Henry Fielding's house as portrayed not one whit having, as it did on our screens, long suites of rooms leading one from the other.
- Finally, Jack Harris of The Shakespeare Head was merely a waiter in that establishment, not the proprietor. His list of Covent Garden ladies is famous but I believe that most of them had pseudonyms like Miss Bigbreast and Mrs. Snakebite.
And can any of you imagine a large map of London being pinned to the wall in eighteenth century Bow Street, with pins in that John Fielding felt his way round? The answer is an emphatic no.
That is all, my friends. Should any of you wish to phone Channel Four and register your incredulity the number is (020) 7396 4444
Channel Four have a mini-web site about their series City of Vice.