Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I have always had slightly mixed feelings about Andrew Marr. On a personal level, I have no hesitation in saying he is one of the most generous-sprited and courteous men I have met in political journalism. Unlike many of his senior Lobby colleagues, he never adopted a loftier-than-thou approach to those of us on the lower rungs of the profession and would always pass the time of day with anyone who happened to coincide with him in the Press Bar.

On a professional level, though, I always believed he was slightly too close to New Labour for comfort in the job of BBC political editor. Never was this more exemplified than when, on the day of Dr David Kelly's death, he informed us that Alastair Campbell was basically a decent bloke who would be as devastated as anyone by the tragedy, when a more detached and sceptical reporter might have posed some of the key questions that Campbell would now have to answer about how Dr Kelly's name had been leaked.

So I believe Marr made the right call in leaving that particular job to move on to more general presenting, and this was amply borne-out by his History of Modern Britain which concluded on BBC2 last night. It is sometimes said that journalism is merely a rough first draft of history, but this was as authoritative an account of contemporary British life as we are likely to get from any professional historian.

Sure, there were omissions, probably due to the need to condense fifty years into five hours. The Callaghan premiership, which delivered two years of stable and enlightened government from 1976-78 before the chaos of the Winter of Discontent, was virtually ignored. And the impact of New Labour on the countryside, including foot and mouth, the fox-hunting ban and the destruction of the green belt, merited not a mention. But on the whole, this was a tour-de-force which showed that Marr has finally found his niche.

The programme which, in my view, defined the series, was last week's one on Margaret Thatcher, concluding that, for good or ill, "we are all Thatcher's children now." I still can't really forgive Thatcher for the destruction of the deep-mining industry, for desecrating the once-thriving pit villages that formed the backdrop to my early career in journalism around Mansfield, Notts. But from an objective standpoint, I do recognise that, alongside Tim Berners-Lee, she is chiefly responsible for the way we live now.

And this, in turn, demonstrates that Tony Blair, the main subject of last night's final programmme, was not in the first rank of Prime Ministers in the sense that Thatcher was - a fact that Marr, for all his previous closeness to New Labour, seemed to acknowledge when he showed an ironical clip of himself telling the nation that Blair had become "a bigger man" as a result of the Iraq invasion and the toppling of Saddam. In fact he became a much diminshed one - but in his tacit acceptance that even the best reporters sometimes get it wrong, Marr became a "bigger man" himself.

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Anonymous said...

his programme on the david hume and the scottish enlightenmnet was good as well

VFTN said...

Spot on Paul. It was an excellent series. Now, if only he could breathe similar life into that dreadful Sunday morning programme he hosts.

MorrisOx said...

Paul, this was good television, and better than much of the wallpaper that is routinely churned out in the name of culture, but it was no tour de force.

Andy Marr did well on those parts of the last 50 years that a high-profile political editor was likely to be familiar with, but the Callaghan years were far from the only aspect of Post War British history to be glossed over.

This was essentially a London-centric populist political history and it shed very little light at all on the way in which our social and cultural life has evolved since the war.

Trawl through Dominic Sandbrook's two-part opus if you want to get a much more rounded feel for the way life evolved beneath the headlines.

And don't call Sunny Jim enlightened. In the Winter of Discontent he merely reaped what he had sewn when, along with Jenkins and Wilson, he deliberatly pulled the rug from underneath Barbara Castle in 1969, thereby ensuring that wildcat strikes and union dinosaurs were free to last out like an economic wrecking ball for another 10 years.

Paul Linford said...

Agree there should have been more socio-cultural stuff. Another example: absolutely no mention of football, and the huge space it has occupied in the national psyche since Italia '90.

I do think this was mainly down to the tight format though. I would glady have watched 26 episodes of Marr on modern Britain if the BBC still made series' like that.