TV Review: Andrew Marr’s History of the World

We are now over halfway through Andrew Marr’s ambitious eight-part BBC documentary, confidently titled Andrew Marr’s History of the WorldI am always a sucker for television projects of such vast scope and ambition, presenting as they do an opportunity for epic factual storytelling. They don’t get much more ambitious than this – attempting to capture the sweep and grandeur of humanity’s history in a mere eight hours is audacious and gleefully foolhardy.
And why the hell not? The modern approach to teaching history is, generally speaking, thematic, and though it has its advantages one of the great criticisms of this method is that it fails to convey context. To portray human history as a linear sequence of events, their climax virtually inevitable, is of course misleadingly simplistic, but failing to explore events and even themes without the structural scaffolding of dates and periods is to omit something vital: the story. It is the story which is the most powerful and effective tool for grabbing the attention of the student, and which provides a framework for understanding. So series such as Marr’s are a wonderful way of introducing history to those who otherwise lack an interest in the subject, or have never studied it. And even for the (relatively) historically literate, there is pleasure in the telling, in exploring the perspective of another, in revisiting familiar stories and sometimes learning new ones (for example, I learned of the Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great, who ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from around 269 BC to 232 BC – never even heard of him before!).
Marr’s approach is also thematic, it must be said, but the themes are used as windows opening onto major periods of history in sequence, giving a strong sense of cultural and technological progression (itself, some would say, a sin, but a forgivable one for this medium). The power of the theme in this series is that it allows Marr to skip around the world, visiting China, the Middle East, Africa and Europe (thus far) to see how different peoples and cultures have addressed the common challenges of humanity. From the first prehistoric wanderings of early humans out of Africa, to the first stirrings of civilisation, the emergence of empires and of spiritual enquiry, the series deftly skips around the globe with the aid of well-realised dramatic recreations.
Enjoyable the programme certainly is, and it is difficult to think of a better approach to tackling this subject (bearing in mind I am only halfway through it). Marr is an engaging, likeable presenter, his language determinedly straightforward and conversational. As mentioned, the dramatic recreations are expensive, lush and convincing (though to be fair some of them are rather too long and stretch on in the absence of any dialogue or voiceover – which seems inefficient, as the scenes are not engaging enough to justify hogging the stage).
Some might say my quibbles with the series are inevitable, as they reflect choices Marr, the producers and director had to make in order to accommodate the constraints of the form. But though that might be partly true, I suspect a better historian would have skirted the challenges more effectively. While the balance he strives to achieve to avoid too Euro-centric a view of history is necessary, it does result in some extremely odd emphases and omissions. The one that irked me the most by Part 4 – but by no means the only one – is the bizarre treatment given to the Roman Empire. It materialises, fully formed, without the slightest hint of any origin, and vanishes without a single mention of the circumstances of its decline and fall. Indeed, the Roman Empire is mentioned for the sole purpose of telling how Julius Caesar bonked Cleopatra and how Christians were persecuted in arenas. The essence of the republic, the impact of empire, building and engineering marvels, contributions to law and politics – not even mentioned in passing. This is curious when considering the skilful economy with which Marr managed to both introduce and dispatch other empires such as those of the Persians and of Alexander the Great with a few well written, well spoken sentences.
Marr also makes statements which I can imagine would have serious professional historians tensing and muttering in their armchairs. Egypt under the Pharaohs is given the accolade of the first great civilisation, but it had serious rivals for that title – the Mesopotamian cultures of Sumeria, Akkadia, Babylon, Assyria. Over-simplifactions like these serve to remind us that Marr is no historian. A journalist and political commentator of note, this is not his first foray into popular history (both on TV and in the inevitable accompanying book). But there are lots of great proper historians out there, some every bit as telegenic, populist and personable as Marr, and I would have thought projects like this would be better crafted in their hands. Remember, Marr isn’t just the presenter, he wrote this too, and I find it hard to believe that the BBC couldn’t at least have found a better qualified writer, if not presenter.
So overall an engaging and enjoyable series so far, but not a great one. It is too easy to praise it for the way it meets the challenge of history’s scale. Given that it is marketed as a broad, general entry to global history, its choices and devices are too idiosyncratic, too controversial, to ensure any lasting respect or affection.
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