To me the phrase “new Elizabethans” can’t help but bring to mind the immortal Nigel Molesworth, genius creation of satirist Geoffrey Willans and cartoonist Ronald Searle. Their fictional 1950s schoolboy, whose spelling was as wayward as his mind was incisive, ardently felt himself to be the avatar of a new Elizabethan era of “atomms” and rockets. We’re far from the playing fields of St Custard’s with this new three-part series about the key figures of the second Elizabethan age. Before we get to “the heroes, the visionaries, the risk-takers, the frauds”, as presenter Andrew Marr puts it, we have to wade through the clichés. “It was the end of an era,” he opines of the death of King George VI; “Britain stood at a turning point”; Winston Churchill “didn’t mince his words”. So far, if not “uterly wet and a weed”, Marr isn’t exactly “Brill! Wizz! Super!” either.
There is an especial poignancy to the first choice, Jan Morris, who died last week. As the dashing James, Morris covered Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s conquest of Everest in Coronation week for the Times. “An old-fashioned macho knockout” of a scoop only gained in piquancy when James became Jan, thereby heralding “a more fluid Britain”.
Next up is novelist Nancy Mitford, representing but also sending up a classbound society: “old, loveable posh Britain”. Marr focuses on her famous 1955 article about “U and non-U” vocabulary; saying “toilet paper” was apparently common, whereas “lavatory paper” was “U” (upper class). “Made people crawss, didn’t it,” says an unrepentant Mitford.
Marr, bouncing around in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce, now switches to a Cadillac convertible in homage to Swindon’s answer to Marilyn Monroe: blonde bombshell Diana Dors, who “challenged the somewhat puritanical attitudes of the early 1950s”. I won’t spoil the unexpected segue from Dors to Marr’s next game-changer, but the switch in tone is disconcerting.
The underlying thesis seems to be a sunny belief in constant human progress from backward social norms to liberal enlightenment. He’s not sympathetic to Christine De Ville, who in 1999 travelled from south Wales to the Tate Gallery with a bottle of stain remover, intent on cleaning up Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”. As a protest, this seems as witty and provocative as the rumpled artwork itself, but poor De Ville was not on the side of change, you see, unlike Emin, whose dirty sheets are magically more meaningful than anyone else’s. Then there’s Mary Whitehouse, activist for traditional values, who was anti-gay, but who also campaigned against paedophilia and violent porn. Marr doesn’t dwell on these nuances. Of course, his style of presentation will come to seem just as quaint in future years as the baggy loons, beehives and moptops of this archive footage.
On BBC2 on December 3 at 9pm
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