Andrew Marr’s History of the World, not ours

Given the Wikipedia-lite nature of its content, Marr would have been better advised keeping his history to himself.

Emmet Livingstone

Topics Politics

‘To inform, educate and entertain’. Foolishly taking corporations at their word, this is the standard against which I judge the BBC’s output. Andrew Marr’s History of the World (a title so prosaic there’s no need to elaborate) scores a not-too-shabby one out of three. I know I was greatly entertained throughout the first fifteen minutes I sat through; and I was still more entertained when, while cleaning my room and leaving iPlayer running like the TV equivalent of elevator music, I considered that somewhere, this was somebody’s notion of a documentary.

Encompassing the sweeping breadth of human civilisation in eight, hour-long episodes is a difficult task, perhaps almost as difficult to achieve as the Herculean task of watching the final result, so a little sympathy should be afforded on that front. No sympathy though, none, for insulting our intelligence with the pretence that this is even a marginally serious programme. Anyone who has watched any of this series, and endured my disappointment, will agree that it contains little-to-no content. What Marr lacks in time he does not make up for in brevity, so that after the first episode, the only tangible points of information I picked up were that: at some point we left Africa, are mostly descended from one woman, and, oh yeah, we invented farming along the way. Coddling this trenchant analysis is filler, more glaringly bad than even the frantic Wikipedia copy-paste job of Marr’s botched undergraduate essay.

However it’s the filler parts, the lo-fi dramatic reconstructions that relieve the crushing, banal boredom and offer a measure of entertainment value; it’s the moment when you find yourself laughing out loud when you’re not supposed to. This moment, as you watch humanity creep across a needle-thin rock formation spanning a yawning ravine, Indiana Jones-style; it is at this point that you realise the only pleasure you’re taking in the programme is the black, cynical pleasure of watching somebody else’s failure. Someone out there in the vast infinity of myopic arts graduates thought this was a good idea, their good idea. Initially I wondered why the Beeb was airing this at 21:00 on a Sunday, thinking perhaps the schedulers had made an error with this inane kiddies’ after-school bonanza. But no, the answer is clear: Schadenfreude goes down best on a Sunday.

There are other stand-out moments of hilarity which deserve attention. A personal favourite is the scene where man learns how to farm. Tribal new-age hippies shuffle between stalks in ancient Mesopotamia, burdened by the flaxen weave of their hemp clothes. One grubby harridan demands a seed, buries it with exacting precision and then waits watching over it for a season, looking for all the world like a woman devastated by a life of penury and hard drugs. Miracle of miracles: the seed grows into a plant, and mankind has discovered farming. However appealing the idea is of junkie-ravings giving birth to the biggest technological innovation in the history of the species, I find the dramatisation just a tad unrealistic. And, if you’re willing to go down the road of make-believe history, why not at least make it exciting? Am I the only one that enjoys the blood and guts of pseudo-history? The following episodes of course could have indulged the blood-lust, but by and large failed. The audience is shown a sequence of historical events so dumbed-down (Cleopatra’s suicide, Caesar’s murder), that really one has to wonder about the professed intelligence of Andrew Marr.

A nagging suspicion is that so atrocious was the end result of this ‘documentary’ that the BBC was forced to plonk one of its superstars on it to draw the crowd. Obviously big hitters like James May and Ian Hislop have bored us all to tears too many times so it’s Marr up this time. Sometimes, as older brothers are wont to say, you’ve just got to take one for the team. Even the title is irksome – if a plausible documentary were being attempted, it shouldn’t matter who presents it. Only if you’re marketing yourselves towards those whose only friend is the TV does it makes sense to name drop. This is revealing enough: the people inclined to watch Andrew Marr’s History of the World probably feel a kind of emotional attachment to Marr their TV dinner just won’t provide.

But preaching to the converted does no good. Not many people reading this will sit down and waste their Sunday evenings watching comically bad historical dramatisations to the self-important warbling of Andrew Marr. Those that do, rest assured, will be able to enjoy a feast of philistinism.

Emmet Livingstone is an intern at spiked.

David Bowden is away.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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