Magazine article The Spectator

Hectic Desperation

Magazine article The Spectator

Hectic Desperation

Article excerpt

Television

I went to a party given by the BBC this week to launch its Great Britons series. It was an excellent thrash, attended by lots of celebrities who are, after all, the great Britons of today, the ones we are supposed to admire and wish to emulate. Take Michael Crawford, the comic actor. He was voted in as 17th greatest Briton of all time, ahead of Queen Victoria, Alexander Fleming, William Wilberforce, Jane Austen, Henry V and 81 places above David Livingstone.

This looks like the result of an organised write-in, which may be also why David Bowie makes it to number 29, and Cliff Richard, Robbie Williams plus various lesser Beatles get in at all. I also spotted at least three Irishmen in the list including, for some bizarre reason, James Connolly. This is as if I lived in the States and nominated, say, Keir Hardie as a great American.

There is no mention for Attlee, Wordsworth, Milton, Turner or Constable. Boy George gets in and so does John Peel, but there's no sign of Kipling or Gladstone. During the party the state of voting for the top ten was being shown on giant screens. At the time, Princess Diana was leading. That poor, benighted, bewildered, self-- obsessed misfit could soon be deemed the greatest person our nation has ever produced.

All of which invalidates the whole exercise. What is it? History or just a bit of fun? BBC 2 can't make up its own mind. Take the first of the series of documentaries about the top Brits in the top ten. This was about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It had a fascinating story to tell, and for the most part told it, though you had to realise that it was only partly about Brunel and just as much about Jeremy Clarkson, a man who makes programmes about cars and who is presently much more famous than his subject. Bored with some dead engineer? Here's Jeremy, comically hanging in a workman's basket above the Clifton gorge, shouting, `Stop it, stop now!', while at home a million viewers are muttering, `Drop him, drop him now!'

How did engineers fit into Victorian society? `Engineers were like rock 'n' roll gods.' No wonder: `There was only one thing capable of dragging Brunei away from work - SEX!' Is your poor, overworked brain incapable of working out the significance of a phrase describing a smooth railway line, `Brunei's billiard table'? We've made it easy for you with a shot of Jeremy playing billiards! …

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