Sunday, November 15, 2009

Andrew Marr's history of modern Britain

I've been enjoying Andrew Marr's BBC documentary series about the history of 20th century Britain. First The History of Modern Britain (2007), about the second half of the century, and now the ongoing The Making of Modern Britain, about the first half.

Marr focuses on social history. He looks at how people saw the world and their place in it, and how this changed over time. He portrays the rise of mass politics, and shifting power networks. It's not primarily about telling "what happened", cramming as many big events as possible into the story, but about how people perceived things at the time.

The central events of the story are events that changed those perceptions, or illustrates them. I like history that allows the past to speak in its own voice, and Andrew Marr does that well here. He digs up these gems that seem to capture a mood or a turning point. Little facts and events, or just a short piece of footage, that force you to broaden your view of a period.

But he's also opinionated, in the same evenhanded way that I liked in Rick Perlstein's book Nixonland.

It all breaks down as he approaches the present, of course, with platitudes and odd priorities, but all history at that level does. It's hard to understand change you're right in the middle of. But the rest of the series gives an idea of the kind of insights historians will one day provide about our own time. I can't wait.



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