New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr



WATCHING popular history can be a perilous game. The viewer has to keep an eye out for a gimmick-hungry presenter who might suddenly appear in fancy dress (Lucy Worsley), or lurch into creeping Jesus mode (“Whispering Neil” Oliver).

No such worries during New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr. Or so you might have thought.

There he was at the despatch box in the Commons, telling us about Churchill addressing the house on the death of George VI. The PM's voice rang out in audio.

Good old Andy. Class act. You can rely on him not to do anything so cheesy as a Churchill impersonation. And then he did. It was a cautionary reminder that no presenter can resist hamming it up given half a chance.

Marr’s central idea, to be set out over three episodes, was that the ascent to the throne of Queen Elizabeth in 1952 ushered in an era of huge change that led to the UK as we know it today. The transformation was led by individuals he called “change-makers” or “new Elizabethans”.

The first episode, shown last night, was titled “Building a new Society”. Step forward Jan Morris, Nancy Mitford, Diana Dors, Ruth Ellis and others. Marr promised to avoid the usual suspects in favour of “curious and creative characters” and for the most part he made good on that.

But there were still some disappointingly obvious selections, such as Mary Whitehouse (yawn), and there was no-one to alarm even the most skittish of horses.

A swaggering Weegie in the shape of Alan McGee was as rock and roll as the first episode could muster.

McGee left school at 16 with one O’level, Marr told us. But like others during the Thatcher years he knew a good deal in the Enterprise Allowance when he saw it. Under this scheme the Government paid £40 a week to anyone starting their own business. McGee used the money to found Creation Records.

“For me,” said Marr, “Alan McGee is a true Elizabethan, both a product of the time and a powerful influence on the age. [He] tells us a lot about the shifts to class and opportunity that were happening in Scotland and much of the rest of Britain during the 1980s.”

The son of a mechanic and a shop worker, McGee came of working age when the old industries were gone and the new, service and leisure sectors were starting to boom.

“By his early 30s he was a self-made millionaire,” said Marr. After a night in King Tut’s in Glasgow he signed a popular beat combo by the name of Oasis. McGee’s fame grew to the point where he was “warmly embraced” by the new, cool Britannia establishment led by Tony Blair. Cue *that* embarrassing footage of Noel Gallagher and McGee at a Downing Street reception.

Another Scot makes an appearance in the final instalment, airing on December 17. Jimmy Reid is introduced as “the shop steward with Elvis Presley hair”.

Marr recently named him as one of his top six New Elizabethans. He does not hide his admiration, telling viewers: “Jimmy Reid was one of the most compelling, charismatic and well-educated New Elizabethans of them all … He was determined to be a voice for the working classes and to rectify what he saw as the deep injustices of British society.”

There is a clip from Reid’s famous “no bevvying” speech and film of Billy Connolly, welder as was, turning up to show his support, as well as footage of the mass march to Glasgow Green.

There are connections to Scotland elsewhere in the list, including Roy Jenkins, courtesy of his stint as MP for Hillhead, and the architect Zaha Hadid, the architectural visionary behind the Riverside Museum in Glasgow.

Where Marr excelled was in creating a bigger picture, forging links through the ages. Thus a line was traced from Reid to Hadid via the Clyde, and from anti-nuclear campaigner Helen John to the march against the Iraq war.

Surprisingly, given the title, the person least covered was the Queen herself. There were many shots of cheering crowds, though.

Marr insisted there had been change in the monarchy, too. To film of the family on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, he says, “If you look carefully the Buckingham Palace balcony today seems a little less remote”. Really?

Overall, a glitzy zip through seven decades with captivating footage and a poptastic soundtrack. As an alternative to The Crown I daresay Her Majesty will be delighted by it.