Television review: A nation is reborn

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain
Tuesdays, 9pm


Just occasionally, television produces a series that really is worth making time to watch.

Andrew Marr’s excellent five-part History of Modern Britain is one. Starting with the end of the second world war and moving to the present day, Marr provides an authoritative – if quirky and at times amusing – examination of the period of history with which we are most familiar.

It’s familiar because most of us have lived through at least half of a period which included the creation and fall of what Winston Churchill first dubbed “the Iron Curtain”, the end of rationing, the development of the welfare state and an accompanying social care system, and the demise of the old establishment. Then there were the Labour governments of Wilson and Callaghan, Thatcherism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and New Labour’s election success.

Marr harnesses his considerable journalistic skills with black and white, and then colour film and TV footage, to offer a personal rollercoaster account of a time when Britain lost its empire, joined the Common Market as the EU was known then, and made an impact on the world with its fashion, theatre, literature, arts, architecture and popular culture.

Although Marr titles this a history of modern Britain, his tentacles stretch much further to show the impact of developments elsewhere on a country that was, even in post-war days, the second richest in the world.

In the first of the programmes, screened on 22 May, Marr considered how the British people threw out Churchill to replace him with Labour and Clement Attlee. Marr argues that Attlee was one of two really reforming post-war prime ministers, the other being Thatcher.

Attlee and Labour were to be replaced in the early 1950s by another term of office for Churchill and the Conservatives, which Marr describes as the government of national nostalgia. In the second programme on 29 May, Marr highlights how the establishment began to lose its grip, first with Anthony Eden’s ill-fated incursion into Egypt (which Marr presents in a way which allows us to draw parallel with Blair’s folly in Iraq) and then the John Profumo scandal, which saw a pillar of the establishment walk into a honey trap.

TV history series don’t come more highly rated than this.

Keith Popple is professor of social work at London South Bank University

Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain



Tuesdays, 9pm

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