Reel Histories

Gerry Northam compares the history we see in films with the real thing.



He looks at the history behind Ridley Scott's Roman epic.

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The Dam Busters raid was an operational success, but what was its overall impact on the course of the war?

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How did the cowboy, who was basically an uneducated labourer, become the symbol of the American Dream?

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Colditz Castle was a high security camp for those allied prisoners considered the greatest escape risk. But what was life like inside? One prisoner wrote a book of his comrades' dreams; another painted portraits; another officer held lectures on Marxism, and a couple of flyers decided to starch some bedclothes, cut some wood and build a glider. Gerry Northam travels to Colditz Castle, interviews ex-prisoners and their guards, and examines the legend of this notorious German POW camp.

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Reluctant messiah Brian Cohen outraged church leaders and the film was banned by local councils across the country. But was there any fact behind the farce? Historians reveal the real Judean Popular Front; classicists explore the fate of a second messianic Jesus, and director Terry Jones explains why the Virgin Mandy sounded like a parrot.

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William Friedkin's cult shocker outraged and disgusted in equal measure, and cinema goers queued up enthusiastically to see if they could last the course.

So what did the film have to do with the reality of exorcisms, and how did its success change the working life of those authorised to cast out demons in God's name?

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Richard Attenborough tells Gerry Northam how the real-life razor-wielding gangsters of Brighton helped him to bring Graham Greene's brutal gangleader Pinkie Brown to life. But why did Brighton prove so attractive to the underworld, and how did the town react to a film depicting the seedier side of life behind the front?


This tale of corruption, greed and double-murder set to music won a clutch of Oscars in 2003, but the original stage comedy opened in New York in 1926, and was based on two real-life cases.

So who were the real Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly? And did the courtroom performances of these natural born killers win the hearts of the jury, and ultimately fame and riches in Chicago's Jazz Age?

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The story of serial killer John Reginald Christie, and one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

Lord Attenborough talks to Gerry Northam about the emotional strain of re-enacting Christie's crimes, and explains how the film was part of a wider campaign to ensure that capital punishment was not re-introduced in Britain.

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Allegedly the most famous propaganda film of all time in which director Leni Riefenstahl captured the monolithic power of the 6th Nazi Party Congress of 1934.

The residents of Nuremberg talk to Gerry Northam about what it was like when the Nazi Party swept into their sleepy town, and what might happen if you didn't fly the swastika from your window.