Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The quicksand of reason

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.


Nige said...

Quite agree, Gaw - tho someone's done some very good archive research, and some of Marr's phrase-making is actually pretty good - or would be if he wasn't standing on your toes shouting it into your face (and god he's ugly - a face for radio, if ever there was one). The depressing thing is that this is a series in the classic (i.e. unwatchable) BBC1 style - and it's showing on BBC2! I sometimes wonder what BBC2 is for. These days, by and large, only Ch4 and BBC4 do this kind of thing at all well.

Recusant said...

Thirded, Gaw.

Maybe I'm turning into a caricature of a reactionary old buffer, but it seemed to me that he was also setting up an uber-Whiggian narrative demonstrating how history is progressing towards a left-liberal utopia.

Gaw said...

Nige and Recusant: I agree back, so to speak. Another reason to avoid HD TV, Nige. And I do think Marr's leftish tendencies show through a bit, Recusant. His previous one though was pretty fair to Mrs T.

I don't know if you remember but The Fast Show did a parody of a youth tv presenter. And lo! the style has arrived in the upper reaches of BBC2 documentaries. This is an uncannily good representation of the whole HoMB style.

Brit said...

Marr is very even-handed on Start the Week, I think. Much less overtly left-liberal than... well, than any other news/current affairs broadcaster I can think of.

worm said...

haha so I'm not the only one then! I find his american voice the funniest,with the way he tucks in his chin to sound all gruff and imposing, in the same way that women try and do impressions of men

If I was at school, I would find it probably more interesting than other history programmes. But as an adult it seems all a bit over-produced, and, frankly, strange.

Gaw said...

Brit: On some StW's Marr and his guests totally miss an important perspective on what they're discussing as they all share the same basic liberal assumptions. I can't think of the topics where this has happened but it surely does. Ironically, given he was moved for political reasons following becoming a Labour lord, Melvyn had more of an awareness of what lay outside his own prejudices.

Worm: It seems a bit like a case of Emperor's Clothes...

When I was a youngster I didn't mind listening to straight lectures as long as the content was interesting and the delivery lively. I think the mistake is to liven things up visually in such as way that you detract from the lecture element. I found Marr hugely distracting and, as you suggest, pretty strange. Frankly, he comes across as nuts.

Recusant said...

Iain Martin in the Wall Street Journal, seems to have taken offence as well.


Gaw said...

What with Martin watching it with the sound turned down and me listening to it with the picture turned off (and occasionally remonstrating), Andy's not doing too well. Mind you, he'll probably sell loads of books and DVDs, probably ending up on the school curriculum. What do we know, eh?

I think Charles Moore is absolutely spot-on by the way. I can't stand that condescending attitude to the past. It's not just arrogance, it also betrays a huge lack of imagination.