I rather like Andrew Marr’s Making of Modern Britain series on BBC2. It’s punchy tabloid history, simplified here and there (especially about social class, I think) but conveying sound basic historical information in a clear and engaging way.
Or at least, Marr’s script does that. The use of archive film, though, in this week’s episode, had me shouting at the telly, like the nerd I am.
It was all over the place.
Bits were actual documentary, though often they didn’t fit in with what they were supposed to show. The programme made the classic mistake, for example, of using film of soldiers in tin hats to illustrate events in 1914. I think it was a bit of the 1916 Somme film that was used at the end to add a picture to Marr’s account of the last Hundred days.
Bits were from much fiction later films, but not labelled as such. I think I spotted sequences from Tell England and Westfront 1918, and maybe J’Accuse. You can generally tell a fictional reconstruction by the camera angle. In a real battle, the high angle of some of these shots could only have been achieved by a cameraman who was positively suicidal.
Then other bits were modern reconstructions, like the blindfolded general choosing the ‘unknown soldier’ coffin.
Well, maybe it’s nerdish to complain about the mixing of fact and fiction, but I think I’ve got a real complaint about the section describing official British propaganda. The illustration used for it was this
Now that is an American poster. British official ones were never so sensational; most of them were rather dignified letterpress-only efforts.
Some years ago Nicholas Hiley wrote a rather good article about the most famous British poster of the War, Leete’s design of Kitchener’s pointing finger. This is often assumed to be typical government propaganda, but it began unofficially as an illustration in the small-circulation topical magazine London Opinion, and when it became a poster, this was not under the auspices of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, but as a private venture. Hiley concludes that: ‘There is… no evidence that this design played any part in the official campaign, or was even regarded by contemporaries as an official poster.’
So Marr’s programme contributed to the myth that British soldiers were hustled into the War by falsifying propaganda, which is a half-truth at best.
A pity, because, as I say, I rather like Marr’s style. But I shall watch future programmes in the series with increased scepticism.