Shouting at the Telly

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.



  1. Posted November 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    But documentaries always screw this sort of thing up, don’t they? I don’t like to think of myself of some outraged antiquarian fuming at the use of an anachronistic cap badge or shoulder flash, but when I see Tiger tanks depicted invading Poland in 1939 .. well, you get the idea.

    I think the biggest problem with historical documentaries is their lack of interest in film as a text that needs explicit and careful interpretation, rather than just an unpoblematic window into The Past. When was the last time a documentary narrator actually commented on or even drew attention to the images the viewer was seeing?

  2. Posted November 16, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s right. And a small subtitle – say ‘Tell England: Anthony Asquith,1931’ would hardly be difficult to include.

  3. Posted November 16, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I have meant to watch this, I will have to catch up on iPlayer, however, it is nice to know that documentaries and their use of foootage does not change. Noble Frankland discusses his frustration over the use of footage in the documentaries he was involved in. Quite frustrating.

  4. Posted November 19, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I think what’s strange about this series’ use of film is the inconsistency. The biopic of Lloyd George that was used in the first episode was captioned as a later dramatization. But this practice hasn’t been sustained. Is this because the acting made it very obviously to modern eyes not a piece of actuality? It’s hard to say, but my money would actually be on cock-up/lack of money/lack of time – pretty much exactly what happened on The Great War series in the 1960s that Frankland complained about. The mix of different sorts of visual used in programmes like this is worthy of an extended study in itself – particularly the use of black and white and super-8 footage to suggest ‘the past’ – because we all know that no-one could actually see in anything other than fuzzy monochrome before 1945. Personally, I think that Marr’s a good storyteller, but that this shows signs of being more hastily put together with less expertise than its predecessor.

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