Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Review of More4's “A Very British Witchcraft"

Earlier this month, I posted here at Albion Calling in regards to a documentary that was scheduled to be screened on British channel More4 on Saturday 17th August: "A Very British Witchcraft". As a scholar of Pagan studies with a particular research specialism in the historical development of Pagan Witchcraft in Britain, I was really excited at the prospect, as this documentary was the first time that the history of Wicca has been presented to the British public in such an accessible manner. Well, that day has been and gone, and the documentary has been screened on schedule. Thankfully, I was not disappointed. Naturally, my own perspective as a specialist in the subject would differ from that of the "average" or intended viewer, and as such I was fortunate enough to watch the subject with two family members who had no background knowledge in Wiccan history. It was interesting to observe and discuss their reactions to the film, and they subsequently suggested that, given my expertise in the subject, I put together a review of the documentary. Well, I agreed that that was a good idea, so here it is!

As a disclaimer, it is worth mentioning that I have met or otherwise communicated with pretty much everyone who appears in the film, bar a couple of exceptions. Therefore, my observations of it are not wholly objective and on a subconscious level I was no doubt influenced by my personal feelings and relationships with them. That being said, I have endeavored to provide an honest opinion, highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of the documentary.

"A Very British Witchcraft" was presented by Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, a man who is arguably the world's foremost authority on the history of Wicca, having authored The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999), still the most authoritative study on the subject almost 15 years after its initial publication. Hutton is a wonderful presenter, a skill that he has no doubt honed with Ronald Hutton's Curiosities, his recent twelve-part series on obscure museums for Yesterday TV. Despite his prodigious knowledge and background in the subject, he does an excellent job at guiding the average reader through the twists and turns of the subject matter, and never assumes that they know anything about Wicca to start with. To quote just one example, one of those practicing Wiccans who appears in the documentary, John Belham-Payne, shows Hutton his collection of Gardner's memorabilia. When Belham-Payne picks up Gardner's ritual knife, or "athame", Hutton instantly asks him what exactly an athame is, knowing full well that most of his viewers will never have heard of such an item before. It is this attention to detail that is the mark of a great documentary presenter, and it is surprising just how many British television presenters just don't exhibit these same skills.

In exploring Wicca's early history, Hutton offers a brief overview of the beliefs and practices of this fascinating new religious movement, meeting with a coven in Highgate Cemetery led by Dr. Christina Oakley-Harrington, a former academic historian who is well-known in London occult circles as the proprietor of Treadwell's bookstore in Bloomsbury. Although Hutton was keen to explain that Wicca is a peaceful, nature-venerating religion quite distinct from the dark and sinister image of Satanism that it has often been mischaracterised as, one of those whom I was watching the film with expressed the feeling that the beliefs and practices were not explored in sufficient detail, a criticism with which I admittedly agree. In order to understand the faith's early history, a deeper understanding of its core tenets would have been valuable.

Hutton devotes the rest of the documentary to exploring the life of Gerald Gardner, the man widely known as the "Father of Wicca" who had founded the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca and propagated his magico-religious tradition through many initiations and the publication of several books on the subject. Hutton travels to Highcliffe in Dorset, the place where Gardner claimed to have first discovered Wicca in 1939. There, Hutton meets with Philip Heselton, an independent researcher who has authored numerous books on Gardner, including a recent two-volume biography (which I reviewed for The Pomegranate here), as well as with local historian Ian Stevenson, who remembers Gardner from his own childhood. Contributions are also provided by Geraldine Beskin and her daughter Bali Beskin, owners of Bloomsbury's Atlantis Bookshop, a place that Gardner himself used to frequent, as well as from John Belham-Payne, a founder of the Centre for Pagan Studies who was a very close friend to Gardner's most influential High Priestess, Doreen Valiente.

The documentary treats the existence of the New Forest coven as a fact of history, depicting it in much the same way that it is presented in Heselton's books. However, although I agree with Heselton that the coven most likely existed, this is not the only view. American Pagan studies scholars Aidan A. Kelly and Chas S. Clifton (the latter of whom was interviewed here back in December 2012) have argued that the New Forest coven and Operation Cone of Power were fictional inventions of Gardner's to hide the fact that he himself invented Wicca in the late 1940s/early 1950s. I don't personally agree with this argument, but I think that it should have been put forward in the documentary, even at the risk of complicating things for its viewers.

Those familiar with my own research publications will be aware that I have looked largely at those proponents of Pagan Witchcraft who were separate and distinct from Gardner and his Gardnerian tradition, such as Charles Cardell, Sybil Leek, and Robert Cochrane. Unfortunately, this documentary almost completely neglects them, in favour of focusing entirely on Gardner. The implication is that Wicca is largely the creation of Gardner, whereas a wider exploration of the subject would have highlighted that Pagan Witchcraft was, even at the beginning, a wider movement of associated different covens and individuals inspired by much the same source material.

As one might expect, I am not alone in reviewing "A Very British Witchcraft." The Daily Mail, a highly popular conservative tabloid here in the UK, offered a surprisingly glowing review here; they praised Hutton's presenting style for the "wonderful way" that he dealt with "eccentrics", believing that he radiated "a terribly English respect for them." The Mail's reviewer proceeded to praise the Wiccans who allegedly took power in Operation Cone of Power, believing them "gently heroic in their own way." More than a tad ironic considering the Mail's historic support for Nazism, Oswald Mosley, and all things fascist. Over at The Spooky Isles website, journalist Katie Doherty offered us another positive review, while the pseudonymous "Peregrin" posted an insightful critique over at the Magic of the Ordinary blog, which I would certainly recommend.

Although I am unaware of any plans to screen the film in North America or elsewhere in the world, the entire documentary has recently been uploaded to YouTube, making it easily accessible for anyone with a good internet connection to watch it. I think that its a definite must see for anyone with an interest in the history of Wicca and contemporary Paganism, whether you're an academic specialist in the subject or not. Hutton does a great job at presenting it, and there's some fascinating archive footage on show that is otherwise hard to find. It might not be perfect, but it is certainly very good, and a lot better than I feared it might have been!


  1. Wasn't the documentary supposed to be a biography of Gardner before the name change? That was the impression I got from reports on it while "Britain's Wicca Man" was in production. It seems like it makes sense that it would be very Gardner-centric in that case. Loved it either way!

    1. I agree that the original production title of "Britain's Wicca Man" would have indicated that it was primarily a biography of Gardner (which, in the end it was). However, as far as my memory serves me, I don't think that it was explicitly introduced as a biography of Gardner; rather, in the introduction, Hutton talked about the origins of Wicca more widely, and the title of "A Very British Witchcraft" would again indicate that it was to offer a wider discussion of Wiccan history than simply a biography of Gardner. Nevertheless, this is a rather minor and moot point; on the whole I did enjoy it and thought it was very good.