James Walton

Watch Andrew Marr stare at places where stuff happened: New Elizabethans reviewed

Plus: a touching tribute to TV theme tunes and their forgotten composers

Watch Andrew Marr stare at places where stuff happened: New Elizabethans reviewed
Marr demonstrated his ability to stare meaningfully at places where something important once happened and gave us his Winston Churchill impression whenever possible. Credit: BBC
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New Elizabethans by Andrew Marr

BBC2, Thursday

Congratulations, everyone! It turns out we’re much better than those bigoted old Brits of the 1950s. After all, they were ‘class-obsessed, overwhelmingly white and Christian, and deeply conservative about the role of women’ — whereas we ‘accept difference and diversity in a way that would have been almost unthinkable in 1953’.

This was the reassuring message in the first episode of New Elizabethans by Andrew Marr, where Marr surveyed Britain’s changing social attitudes since the Queen came to the throne, and liked what he saw. These days, needless to say, the ‘great man theory’ of history has rather fallen out of fashion — so instead Marr brought us a sort of ‘great activist’ version. Over the course of the programme, he identified a number of people who ‘made us all New Elizabethans’: from Darcus Howe to Tracey Emin by way of Monty Python’s unapologetically gay Graham Chapman. Not that all the chosen ones might have considered themselves activists. Nancy Mitford, for example, was honoured for helping to overthrow the class system. Diana Dors got the nod for services to feminism, by being ‘in control’ after she ‘created the template for a certain kind of female star’ (the blonde and curvy kind).

But, you may be thinking, did Dors really create that template — or did she simply import it from the States? My own money would be on importation, yet the programme left America’s huge cultural influence on post-war Britain unmentioned, presumably because it didn’t fit Marr’s resolutely insular hymn of praise to the British for having come so far.

Another inconvenient aspect of the story left aside was the central role of grammar schools in liberating non-posh talent. While Marr’s individual biographies of his nominated ‘game-changers’ didn’t hide the fact that many of them went to grammars, he never drew any wider conclusions — by, say, noting that between 1964 and 1997 Britain didn’t have a single privately educated prime minister.

Marr remains as deft as ever at making connections. In one particularly good spot on Thursday, he showed us a filmed 1951 beauty contest featuring both Dors and Ruth Ellis, who four years later would become the last woman to be hanged in the UK (partly for murder but mainly, by Marr’s reckoning, for reasons of typical 1950s misogyny). He also demonstrated his usual eye for telling illustrative details, ability to stare meaningfully at places where something important once happened and endearing willingness to give us his Winston Churchill impression whenever possible.

Nonetheless, the feeling persisted that, for all the programme’s incidental pleasures and revelations, this was yet another outing for a story that by now is not so much approved, as carved in stone. Nobody, I don’t think, would argue that life in Britain isn’t better for black people, gay people and most women than 68 years ago, or that this isn’t a good thing. Even so, our apparent craving to be told it again and again doesn’t just lead to predictability. It’s also beginning to smack of a strange neediness. In this case, too, it made Andrew Marr seem like Young Mr Grace in Are You Being Served? — who, you may remember, would regularly gather his staff together and tell them: ‘You’re all doing very well.’

And now a quiz question. What’s being referred to here: ‘The best of them are simultaneously haikus and epic narratives, defining who we are and who we once were. They are personal and powerful in a way that no other music can be’?

Well, a highly commendable two points if you got the answer — which was television theme tunes, as described by Neil Brand in the opening episode of The Sound of TV with Neil Brand.

At first, in fact, Brand’s rhapsodic approach threatened to overshadow the programme, as his repeated assertions about the Proustian potency of theme tunes piled up. Fortunately, he then settled down into doing what he does so well: combining enthusiasm with a thoughtful and illuminating analysis of how a genre works — which here meant unpicking how a short burst of music can ‘sonically explain what the show is’. Especially impressive was his full deconstruction of the theme to The Simpsons which, by referencing various 1950s and ’60s television themes, expertly prepares us for a programme that will take us ‘deep into TV culture’.

He also paid touching tribute to some of the people whose work is a lot more familiar than their names are. You could, for instance, make a strong case that more British people have heard the music of Eric Spear than almost any other composer’s. It was Spear who wrote the Coronation Street theme, as played several times a week in the nation’s living rooms for the past 60 years: an achievement that has earned him, in all, his original fee of £6.