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Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain

Nicola Mostyn enjoys a history lesson

Published on June 2nd 2008.

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain

I like Andrew Marr. He’s interesting, intelligent and witty and he has that rare skill of being able to talk about politics without making his audience (by which I mean me) want to crack their skulls on their coffee tables and let their brains ooze out all over the carpet. The fact that he looks a bit like Mr Potato Head just makes him all the more endearing.

As you might expect, his award winning BBC Series Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, repeating on UKTV History at the moment, is an engaging, wry and, for a numpty like me, eye-opening take on the political happenings in this country since the end of the Second World War.

Last week’s episode was Paradise Lost and, well, if you think we’ve got it bad right now, what with the credit crunch and the cost of a toastie loaf, a quick squiz at a three-day week should put you right.

In 1974, Britain was a nation whose “democracy itself was said to be on the verge of collapse.” Beginning with Heath’s declaration of the three-day week, the programme goes back to the swinging sixties to explain how we went from a “technicolour psychedelic garden of Eden” filled with hairy men banging on about peace and love to the violence and economic troubles of the seventies.

So we’re introduced to Harold Wilson, who was, it seems, a prototype Tony Blair, a master of spin and self promotion, harnessing the hippie culture of the time to support his cause. (A sort of “Hey, cool!” Britannia.)

As Britain’s story unfolds, we take in the state of the country’s crippling National debt, the illegality of abortions and homosexuality, and the emergence of a permissive, escapist society, as depicted by a group of hippies at the Ally Pally Pothead Rally. Then Vietnam, and Harold Wilson’s reaction to mounting pressure on him to condemn the US: “We cannot kick our creditors in the balls.”

Then there was Bloody Sunday, racism, the miners strikes…That’s quite a lot to cover in one hour long programme, but somehow Marr makes the whole thing accessible. Dressed unexcitingly in a suit and comfy jumper combo (though he does don a fluorescent jacket and hard hat for one scene), his well-written commentary includes vivid imagery, witty wordplay and a touch of scandal to keep things interesting, all interspersed with wonderful footage and music from the period.

Of course, the Tories get in eventually and there’s some film of Edward Heath in which you can just glimpse Margaret Thatcher, wearing a hat like a giant humbug. Now, we’re told, “a mania for change was in the air.” Cue the master of change himself, David Bowie. As ever with archive footage of concerts there are some hysterical girls with profound observations to impart: “He’s smashing,” says one, weeping copiously, whilst another yelps; “He’s got lovely legs!”

Mixing culture with politics to explain how one affects the other is a neat trick, used effectively as Marr explores the impact Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The film, he says, showed a “violent dystopia”, “the opposite of a sixties paradise,” and, suggests, the overwhelming reaction to this fictional gang was perhaps down to fear of the very real “crackling” violence which seemed to permeate the seventies.

And then it was 1974 and the miners turned the screws on Heath, threatening to bring the country to its knees. “The patriotic citizen should brush his teeth in the dark and share a bath,” said the PM, shortly before he was forced to resign, the programme leaving us with an image of a candle-lit Britain, not so great.

Next week old humbug-hat Thatcher enters the frame, in Revolution!, covering 1979-1990. So that’s the Falklands, the money-obsessed eighties, privatisation, Thatcherism and, hopefully, Andrew Marr in a “Frankie Says Relax” T shirt. Ah, one can dream.

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain, UKTV History, Sunday, 9-10pm

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