Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, BBC2

by | May 22, 2007 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

A marvellously thorough and enlightening chronicle of that period of history that is often overshadowed by what went before it, sullied only by a simmering arrogance of its own erudition.

What was good about it?

• The scenes of Winston Churchill speaking to a crowd of seditious citizens, some still in their army uniforms, and being heckled despite just leading the nation to salvation from Nazi Germany.

• Clement Atlee, who defeated Churchill in the election, sounding as if he was on helium.

• The timely revelation that Atlee was on the receiving end of a dastardly plan by his party to do away with him once the election had been won; but Atlee had kept one step ahead and had already gained the king’s royal assent.

• The brilliant, deceptively jaunty music hall tune that, on closer listening, sounded as though it was being sung by Morrissey’s ancestor with its sardonically pessimistic lyrics. “Hoorah! Hoorah! Hoorah!/ The enemy is on the way/ There are bad times just around the corner/ There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky.” And a line near the end that sounded like: “Prepare for depression, doom and rape.”

• Andrew Marr was an engaging guide, and in the inevitably boring bits he snatched us in his sharp jaws and shook us about a bit to make sure we didn’t turn over to something less-intellectually stimulating. His oratory often had the melodic structure of a pop song, as the first part of a sentence would take you up to the emotional peaks with its hope and optimism, while the second half would drag you down with any number of gloomy clauses.

• The newsreel footage that was frequently so apt that you suspected that it had been especially been produced and filmed six months ago. Adventurous children played in bombsites or sat pensively on hillsides

• The subtle satire of the Ealing Comedies that mocked Stafford Cripps, the minister who had installed a policy of austerity to offset Britain’s post-World War Two bankrupt state, through such gems as Passport To Pimlico, in which a new state was set up where the people could enjoy the luxuries currently forbidden in the rest of the country.

• The war had evidently left thousands of people homeless, but there were also thousands of unclaimed properties and the inspiration for Passport To Pimlico was a near-revolt when hundreds of people simply occupied empty houses in Kensington High Street.

• The clip of a woman addressing a meeting that flawlessly captured the quaint politeness of 40s Britain, but which also had an undercurrent of seething frustration. “We feel,” she began primly, “that the prime minister has led us up the garden path.”

• Just how close the British government had come to enforcing famine laws in the big freeze of 1947 during which power stations closed down when the coal couldn’t be transported to them. And the film of the little boy collecting coal from the roadside before slinging his bag of coal over his shoulder and almost toppling over because of the weight.

What was bad about it?

• The occasional flinging around of statements with little effort to justify or analyse them. “We are far wealthier now, but people in 1946 were more optimistic.” Their optimism was rooted in the end of World War Two, and we imagine that when our generation emerged from a similar period of oppression and misery in 1997 with the fall of the Tory government there was as much optimism in the country as in 1946 (minus, obviously, the accrued media-savvy cynicism and Oasis’s Be Here Now).

• While other statements were absolute nonsense. “Our inner fears often take place mysteriously, waiting to pounce when we awake.” This was malaproposly used as a prelude to explain Winston Churchill’s alleged sense of dread as the 1945 general election approached.

• Churchill had claimed to have felt “an almost physical stab of pain”, which told him he’d lost the election. But had this been reported before the election took place? Or was it, more likely, the first instance of loathsome Big Brother contestants who self-pityingly crow “I knew it would be me” or “I’m delighted to be going” moments after Davina has heralded their eviction to alleviate the pain of crushing rejection through their dubious foresight?

• And Andrew didn’t clearly explain exactly why Churchill was beaten in the election.

• Andrew’s arbitrary impressions that occasionally had an air of an out-of-work soap actor trying too hard in an audition for Jackanory. Churchill was booming, Bevan was snide and conniving; but did they really sound anything like this?

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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