Shiny Shelf

The History of Modern Britain

By Mags L Halliday on 03 June 2007

The history of modern Britain is a tale we think we already know. We live in a nostalgic haze, where the decades are shuffled and displayed as theme nights for our amusement. Except what Andrew Marr does in ‘The History of Modern Britain’, the trick which makes this a good grounding in the recent past, is to contextualize. He takes near-forgotten news stories of the time and scatters them around the central iconic event. So the rise of the National Health Service and the collapse of the British empire is woven in with the communist squatters movement in Kensington and Britain’ss crippling economic indebtedness to the United States. The final payment from Britain to America was, Marr reminds us in episode 1, made in 2006. Understanding of that crucial economic stick is key to understanding much of modern British history.

Some stories are inescapable, so it is inevitable that the 1950s episode revolves the Profumo scandal. Marr doesn’t rattle through it but uses it as a starting point to explain the old power structure of British government and why it was doomed by the new generation. The assumption is that, whilst we may all know of Christine Keeler, the Russian spy and the Minister for War, we do not quite understand why it matters. These are events from decades before many viewers were born, but are still relevant. That Profumo rocked the establishment is a given: why it did seems rather alien now and Marr attempts to demonstrate why.

Thankfully, whilst the programme doubtless does fall into the rough decades, the main structure is based on the rise and fall of governments. The second episode runs until Wilson arrives at Number 10, rather than cutting off mid-Macmillian. This gives the individual episodes more coherence and distances them from the nostalgia fests such as BBC’s recent ‘Children’s Television on Trial’.

The BBC are rather good at producing unexpectedly popular boffins: Marr was once the odd-looking political editor and, realising his popularity, the broadcaster has looked for ways of making him more than just the chap who gesticulated about interest rate growths. He replaced the moribund David Frost on the Sunday morning politics show – amusing given Frost was, as detailed in ‘The History of Modern Britain’, key to the rise of political satire during the Macmillian era – but clearly the BBC wanted something suitable for the more popular evening schedules.

Marr’s ability to explain politics and enthuse about popular culture simultaneously produces a surprisingly coherent history of Britain. ‘Passport for Pimlico’ is used to illustrate the hardships of post-war Britain, whilst James Bond’s exotic taste for avocados illustrates how the new sophistication of the 1950s looks rather quaint to twenty-first century eyes. That rakishly handsome Prime Minister Anthony Eden fled to Ian Fleming’s Goldeneye estate after Suez ties the strands together rather neatly.

There are moments, however, where the programme causes unintended amusement. Marr glares furiously into the middle distance in the title sequence, or stands akimbo by the pool at Clivedon looking like a discomforted school teacher trying to be casually stern on mufti day. Whilst Marr is a gifted popular historian and natural enthusiast for facts and figures, his serious thesis is undercut by these attempts to make him telegenic.

Unintentional outbursts of laughter aside, ‘The History of Modern Britain’ makes up the shortcomings of Simon Schama’s ‘A History of Britain’ and demonstrates that history is not something that stopped on VE Day.

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