History Marred – BBCs History of the World
British TV suffers from a serious, chronic disease; an epidemics of costume dramas. So nostalgic are we as a nation that we are fed an endless stream of big frocks and mannered dialogue. Of course, we’re not that nostalgic, as hardly anything goes back beyond the rise of the 19th century novel. We like our drama but only when the fashion looks interesting. We love the Tudors with all their red finery but most of the first two thousand years of our history is immune to TV drama - Roman, Anglo-saxon, Norman, whole of the Middle Ages and all Royal houses apart from the Tudors - we ain’t that bothered. My theory is that the costume departments got stuck with growing collections in just two eras, Tudor and 19th c, and so that’s what gets commissioned.
We do, however, do history quite well. From Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation to Mary Beard’s Meet The Roman, experts explain, by pointing to real things in real context how and why things happened, through enlightened narration. Within this genre, however, lurks a horrible parasite – the TV journalist as presenter. Whenever I see Angeal Rippoff, Trevor Macdonald, David Dimbleby or any other newsroom cast-off, fronting a history programme, I know I’m getting someone who is ‘pretending’ to know something.
Andrew Marr is a good political journalist. Academic or historian he is not. So when it comes to the History of the World, he’s about as informed, even less informed, than you or me. Step in an army of consultants, scriptwriters, animators and TV folk, who sit in committees and design ‘set pieces’ that eat up enormous budgets but tell us very little.
So in this first episode, that covers 70 thousand years, we ignore the stone axe, cave painting, the Diamond’s (not Anne) geographical reasons for the spread of agriculture, war and disease, in fact all explanation, in favour of infantile TV set pieces. The ‘caveman’ sequences were more Flintstones than stone age. An early tribe trudge, endlessly, through a small gorge then cross a ridiculous CGI rock bridge, clearly inspired by Tolkein until ‘mother’ gives birth. This is a badly executed visual metaphor by lazy TV bods, not an explanation. The role of needle is the only interesting, and for many new, piece of information but it ignores so much more. It was literally a needle in a haystack.
It’s no use sticking Marr in front of a half-baked tableau and hoping for the best. He has no real gravitas in terms of the subject. In fact, his cheeky, chimp expressions and exaggerated gestures work badly here, honed as they were by standing outside parliament and in studios. So what we get is an unconvincing presenter in front of unconvincing teableaus presenting superficial, unconvincing history.