I've read a couple of mildly positive reviews of Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain and I'm wondering why no-one else seems to have found it as excruciatingly embarrassing as I did. The first episode was shown last Wednesday, the second is on tomorrow (9pm, BBC2).
What's up? Well, Marr came across as a combination of over-enthusiastic Simon Schama and off-form Rory Bremner. Stalking around on location, he delivered his script in irrelevantly vehement tones whilst periodically quoting historical personages, bizarrely, through the medium of impersonation.
Like most non-actors when called on to do a bit of acting, he overacted: jibbing, gurning and leering. His default impersonation was a sort of declamatory gruff-posh. It was so hammed up, I don't know why they didn't stick on a handlebar moustache, rouge his cheeks, and be done with it - go for full-on so-bad-it's-good caricature.
It's almost superfluous to point out that the programme adopted all the usual visual ticks and clichés: jump cuts, handheld camera work, shots in black-and-white and from oblique angles. Supposedly contemporary and edgy touches gone stale, intended to make the programme relevant and interesting to a new audience. Well why not? - the producers must think - the subject matter is as dull as ditchwater. Thank God we've also got Andy's 'performance' to help things along.
The script had an episodic structure with minimal narrative continuity. The judgements were mostly reasonable but on occasion superficial or eccentric. Apparently one of early-20th century British industry's major problems was not having enough aristocrats in the marketing department: it would be too exhausting to explore the ways in which this is just plain silly.
Comparing the programme to, say, David Starkey's recent series on Henry VIII is instructive. Starkey wove - seamlessly and with an invisibly light touch - serious history into an accessible, fluent script. He even introduced primary sources not as visual trimmings, as is so often the case, but to shed light on important points in the narrative. He also happens to do a terrific and captivating impression - that is, of himself: Dr David Starkey, Historian.
As I say, other reviewers don't seem to have noticed. Has Marr become untouchable, one of TV's household gods? This might also explain how it happened. It was someone's idea, a bad one, but these happen all the time. The significant thing is that no-one stopped it - "No, Andy, you're great, you really are bringing it to life!" - not even Marr. As someone once said, truly is vanity the quicksand of reason.