I should preface this review with an up-front disclaimer, which is that I am not a citizen of Britain - I am an American citizen who has never been to the British Isles, and my ancestors haven't lived in Britain for more than a hundred years - although I do have ancestors from various parts of the British Isles, I should note here, who emigrated to the United States over a period of centuries (with some branches arriving at one time, and some branches at another). Thus, I have often felt rather British in my heritage; and this feeling is shared by many Americans of all ethnic origins, because of the cultural similarity between our two countries. (And I'm not just talking about our speaking the same language, although that does help - as George Bernard Shaw once joked, we are two countries "separated by a common language.")
Before watching this series for the first time, I had seen some other television histories about Britain, which included David Starkey's "Monarchy" and Simon Schama's "A History of Britain." Each of these is a world-class documentary in its own right, which covers more than a thousand years of British history; and they're probably among the best general overviews of the country's history that you're likely to find on television. Nonetheless, they both seem to have the same problem, which is that they dedicate very little time to the events of the last century or so. This might be a necessary problem when you try to cover as much ground as they do, but it can nonetheless make things feel somewhat rushed at times - particularly when one knows how much is being skipped over here.
British trench at the Somme, 1916 (during World War One)
When I thus searched the Internet for a documentary about "modern" Britain's history, I was happy to find out that such a series had already been made - and by the BBC, no less; the same network that had made the Simon Schama history that I liked so much. This documentary did not disappoint; and it even exceeded my expectations on a number of levels. In a few short phrases, it depicted the political history of twentieth-century Britain, with a focus on prime ministers and political issues - including, most especially, the wars (like World War One and World War Two). Each of these two world wars gets its own episode, in fact, and one even finds some discussion in this series of other conflicts like the Boer War and the Falklands War - wars that are lesser-known to Americans, and even somewhat lost to the British (who, like us, tend to find their interests elsewhere with notable frequency). This series thus focuses on the "traditional" aspects of history (which are politics and the military); and declines to make an attempt to disguise itself as some sort of "people's history" focused on the less powerful.
This is not to say, however, that the series ignores things unrelated to politics directly, since it does spend time on cultural developments that would have an influence on politics - such as the films of Charlie Chaplin (which were pioneering uses of silent film technology), or the James Bond series - an iconic example of Cold War culture, and how it was viewed at the time (and since). Media developments from the advent of radio to the rise of the Internet are also mentioned here (at least in passing), since they can have a powerful influence on how political battles are carried out in a democracy - as any politician in the Facebook age well knows. The lessons of mass media continue to be relevant today, it would seem, inside and outside countries with a freedom of the press. The presenter Andrew Marr's experience as a journalist seems to be particularly helpful here, since he covered politics for the BBC long before he started making history films. This journalistic approach tends to lend itself well to a discussion of "modern" politics that were caught on film (or any other kind of modern technology, such as printing presses and websites).
Andrew Marr, the presenter of this series
It might surprise a few of my longtime readers to hear me say this, but Mr. Marr's liberal politics aren't as much of a problem here as I would have expected them to be - although his politics definitely disagree with mine, he is one of the few journalists who actually manages to remain as objective in his coverage as he proudly (and justifiably) claims to be; and manages to keep his own politics out of the story most of the time (in my opinion). Mr. Marr is one of the few who can actually be at all truthful when he is making a claim of objectivity; and he thus seems to be (at least somewhat) fair to conservative ideas in his coverage of the Margaret Thatcher era, giving a surprisingly good coverage of the "Iron Lady" herself - even though she is typically vilified by anyone that shares his politics. It is a testament to his even-handedness, I think, that Mr. Marr can mange to be fair even with a conservative icon like her - someone whose views seem to run counter to his, on a number of important issues. Mrs. Thatcher still inspires great admiration amongst conservatives in the English-speaking world, even across the Atlantic Ocean; and Ronald Reagan, in particular, was a great admirer of Thatcher - with the two world leaders working unusually well together during the critical period of the 1980's - an underrated period of prosperity for both nations that Andrew Marr acknowledges here.
American president Ronald Reagan meeting with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher
The closest thing to actual bias in this series comes in his coverage of the War on Terror, which was still going on at the time this series was aired (and which still continues at the time I write this today). Even this bias is fairly mild, I should acknowledge here, and I don't plan to dish out too many complaints in this regard; since it must be hard for him to be objective when this war is still going on, and the outcome of the war is still not known for certain (or known at all, for that matter). The best episodes, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the period before 1945 - a period that contained two world wars, as well as voting rights for women making its debut. Obviously, this continues to be important in many countries throughout the globe, including my own; and it is clearly not something to be "dismissed" in a true history of the 20th century. All of these episodes benefit from real footage of their respective periods, I should note here, which allow a series like this to be made cheaply and economically - not a small consideration, when re-enactments can sometimes be so expensive as to make these documentaries impossible to produce in the first place. In addition to all this, Marr has an excellent sense of humor in his delivery, which makes you laugh at unexpected times.
Aftermath of German bombing raid on London, 1941 (during the Blitz)
The "Modern Britain" series that I have been reviewing here is actually two series, which aired at different times with a couple of years in between. The first series to be made was the one entitled "A History of Modern Britain," which covered the period from 1945 to 2007 - which is the year when this first series was made (and thus the "present day" at the time of its broadcast). The second series was (somewhat unfortunately) called "The Making of Modern Britain" (a strange title that doesn't do it justice), and it covered the prior period from 1901 to 1945 - something which makes it a sort of "prequel" to the other series, and a good one at that. (I suspect, though, that a more accurate title - which would be something like "The prequel to Andrew Marr's 'A History of Modern Britain' " - wouldn't have sold as well, so "The Making of Modern Britain" may have been the best title that the BBC could come up with here. Thus, this regrettable lack of excitement in its advertising may have been inevitable in this situation.) As I mentioned earlier, though, the series that interests me more is this one about the earlier period before 1945; although I acknowledge that both of these series were exceptionally good in their own right. (The original series even exceeded my expectations in more than one way.) I was, quite frankly, not really expecting this latter series to be very good at all; and was actually expecting this series to be compromised and even "marred" (pun intended) by political bias in the later episodes. This is the unfortunate norm of epic histories, it seems - ending on a less-than-satisfying note as one reaches more modern periods. Fortunately, this common pattern in epic histories was happily avoided here, so this series is among the best of epic documentaries.
The "Andrew Marr Collection", which contains the entire series (before and after 1945)
Bottom line, this series is a fascinating ten-hour depiction of 20th-century British history; which belongs on the shelf of any true student of British history.
"The Andrew Marr Collection" DVD at Amazon (only available in European format)
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Simon Schama's "A History of Britain"
Michael Wood's "Story of England"
Neil Oliver's "A History of Scotland"
Fergal Keane's "The Story of Ireland"
David Starkey's "Monarchy" (U. K.)