Use Your Laughter Sparingly ; TELEVISION ++ Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain BBC2 ++ Filthy Rich and Homeless BBC3 ++ Ronni Ancona and Co BBC1
Eyre, Hermione, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Was Britain right to choose Attlee over Churchill? Phew, what a question. Let's start with something easier. Was Britain right to choose Andrew Marr over Gordon Ramsay? On Tuesday night at 9pm the two of them went head to head. The slight, unprepossessing man with the big dream - to make a five-part history epic with his name in the title - took on the pug-faced, battle-scarred, er, chef. The result? 3.1 million chose Marr,trouncingRamsay's2.9.Theyvotedforideas, and for televisual change. Unlike Attlee's voters, however, they were immediately rewarded.
The first episode of Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain was a knockout. Direct and simple, it pulled you through the years, hand- over-fist: the Great Freeze of 1946, the birth of Ealing studios, the Marshall Plan... Blink and you'd have missed the conception of the Welfare State. Except you could barely blink, because, ceaselessly across the screen ran a succession of quips, clips, anecdotes and memorable lines. There was the arresting footage of Churchill being heckled by the crowd. There were Churchill's bon mots: "An empty taxi drew up at Number 10 Downing street, and Clement Attlee got out." There were shots of the post-war government's idea of a good meal, the writhing snook, "a fish that hissed like a snake and barked like a dog". And there were make-do- and-mend newsreels of women modelling rag-n-bone couture. "Ladies! If you've got any spare bathmats, cut 'em up and be in the fashion!"
Every image, every line was calculated to captivate. David Hare, reviewing the book of this series, describes Marr's technique as "the Ben Schott approach to history" - an accumulation of vivid, entertaining detail. Yet the show is better than this, because put together, the trivia adds up to a extremely coherent whole, telling the story of the arc of Britain's post-war struggle, tracing the jiggles on the nation's cardiogram.
Sure, sometimes the strain of being entertaining all the time told. When Marr announced "Sir Stafford Cripps - the former Marxist, Christian, vegetarian, President of the Board of Trade and all- round pain in the bum!" it was hard not to think of the demographic this line would most appeal to, sitting there in their school uniforms. "Keynes was the cleverest man in England" also sounded a bit Ladybird book. But other sentences were effortlessly apt. Sitting in front an egg, two pints of milk, a loaf and some assorted scraps - a working man's breakfast? No, a week's rations - he described the piece of red meat as "about the size of an iPod".
Marr is a likeable narrator, though he seems unable to command any vocal register other than the public announcement. When he whispers sweet nothings, crowds race across Victoria station to platform 18. Also he should never, ever be allowed to do reported speech. Watching his impression of Mrs Thatcher's father in episode four was like having a tooth pulled.
The later instalments are less enthralling, as they tell an increasingly familiar story, and as we grow more sensitive to the merest whiff of political bias (there's surely an equation in there somewhere - spin divided by time elapsed equals outrage) but this first episode was cracking. …