I’ve been watching this series over the past few weeks, and with the final instalment due this week I thought I would give my views on it so far. And, with the benefit of iplayer, you can go back and watch the previous episodes too.
Andrew Marr was until 2005 the BBC’s political Editor, so it is perhaps not surprising that this series takes a strong emphasis on politics, and especially the high politics of ‘great men’ and statesmen. It broadly looks at how Britain has developed as a nation in the first half of the twentieth century. While the title of the series does seem to suggest that Marr believes the Britain we know today was shaped by events circa 1900 to 1950, personally I see this as a very simplistic view. While those turbulent 50 years were perhaps the most pivotal in the nations development, what marks them out is the sheer amount of change and climactic events that took place. It is wrong to suggest that nothing prior to 1900 really mattered. British roots go back hundreds of years. It does, however, make great use of archive footage, and some interesting – but also expensive looking – location shooting. And Marr is a dynamic and engaging presenter.
In a New Dawn Marr argues that following the death of Queen Victoria, the short Edwardian era was akin to a late summer heatwave, but with tensions under the surface, and stormclouds gathering far on the horizon. With the difficult Boer War, signs were already appearing that Britain was struggling to maintain her Empire.
Road to War focusses on the years immediately prior to the first world war. Tensions over Ireland and calls for votes for women. The Chancellor, David Lloyd George, faced a choice between funding warships or extending welfare. The politics, culture and popular opinion of Europe seems to have made war inevitable.
In the Great War Marr looks at the story of Kitchener’s Army – the largest force that Britain has ever fielded in war. This episode is perhaps the best in the series. An honest focus on real, ordinary people, using the politics and the high command as a framework. The resignation of the First Sea Lord, the shell scandal, little known stories of German warships shelling the east coast, the great social cost of millions of men dead or mained, and the upheaval caused by the changing of so many social roles. This, Marr argues, was the start of ‘Big Government’.
Having a Ball witnesses a stark contrast with the Great War. It focusses on art, society, culture, writing, sex and drugs. And while this might be story of the landed classes and the artistic circles in the 1920’s, it does rather put the working people in the shade. As if what happens on a bohemian country pile has much effect on the millions of working people in Britain, many of whom were taking part in the General Strike and suffering under the effects of the Wall Stree Crash. I think Marr got the emphasis wrong here, almost ‘bolting-on’ the social history of the decade to story of decadence and art.
Little Britain sees Britain in the early 1930’s, on the road once again to a world war. Marr makes the interesting, and I have to say, accurate metaphor between British society and hats. Bowlers, trilbies, top hats and flat caps, all marking a strata of society. This is more focussed on people, rather than high society, with a look at Gracie Fields and Billy Butlin. We see how the Blackshirts of Oswald Mosley failed to take hold in Britain – dammed un-British, we are led to feel – and the little known group called the Greenshirts – who? – offered a solution to the national crisis. By Little Britain, Marr argues that Britain had shrunk back into itself, almost pulling up the Drawbridge, and it is hard to argue otherwise.
All in all, it is a fascinating series. Perhaps the overall tone, and the limited scope offered by the title does lead Marr to simplifications. Is this a social history or a political history, a ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ view? I dont think Marr would know either, its not really a combination but a bi-polar portrayal. Never the less, it is very well written and presented, with some good research evident. There arent enough History programmes on TV, and the ones that are are usually bland and uninspiring. Hopefully this series encourages people to think.