The Dr Who history of Britain
Roy Strong has a cliche for every occasion. By Felipe Fernandez- Armesto
Saturday 28 September 1996
In the next remake of Doctor Who, Sir Roy Strong should get the star role. The Story of Britain is a trailer for his talents. Beamed down against a back-drop of Stonehenge, he strikes a robotic pose for the back- cover photo, kitted out in the pillage of inter-galactic conflict from the old BBC wardrobe: the Carnaby-cut coat and coiffure, the death-ray glint of the spectacles, Darth Vader's gloves, the Doctor's own paisley neckwear, and flying-saucer buttons recycled from Dalek armour. Inside the book, Sir Roy attempts a feat of compression worthy of the Tardis - a journey through 23 centuries in 600 glossy pages.
His treatment of the past is in the finest Time Lord tradition: infantile, episodic and starry-eyed. Like his predecessors in the role, the new Who addresses an audience of children in a squirmingly childish style. Though he calls the book "an introduction for anyone of any age", its kitsch cover and embarrassing patriotism are obviously aimed at godparents and maiden aunts in search of a safe Christmas present. Secure in the knowledge that recipients will leave it unread, Sir Roy has not bothered to write well.
"Britain is an island," he proclaims in the first four words, and the same level of originality and interest is sustained throughout. "One thing is certain," we are told in the final dazzling platitude, the present "too will pass away as yet another chapter unfolds in the unending story of Britain". There is a cliche for every crisis. "Dotted with gracious villas ... Roman Britain was to be seen hanging by a thread ... Not Angli but Angeli ... So it was that by the eighth century a new society, deeply Christian, had come into being ... Nothing was quite the same after 1066 ... The earth was flat ... A new era dawned ... There then followed a tumultuous period ... The gauntlet was thrown down to the Pope...Gloriana's England ... Sands of time running out ... New middle classes ... The Industrial Revolution lay ahead ... Lady with the Lamp ... An empire on which the sun never set ... The clock could not be put back ... Their finest hour ... The tide was flowing". In the end, "Britain's declining industrial heritage came home to roost with a vengeance." Er, that's it.
There are some better moments. The banalities are interspersed with crisply reproduced pictures and some competent vignettes. The pen-portraits of Strong's heroes show how enthusiasm can dispel indolence to produce shrewd and concise accounts of Capability Brown, for instance, and William Wilberforce. But even when the author manages to get his facts right and his prose pithy, his judgements seem weirdly warped. The chapter on the Victorian era is subtitled "The Classless Society" and we never get far, in the past as Strong sees it, from apple-cheeked arcady.
Despite the title, this book is emphatically about English history. The Welsh and Scots appear only to be conquered, or otherwise to defer to the greatness of the Union. We need good histories of England. To other peoples, the English are a fearful crowd who have been dangerously effective in spreading their empires, their institutions, their language and their games. This gives them an irresistible claim on the world's attention; but, between "British Studies" and "European Studies", English history is being squeezed from syllabuses and shelves.
I had hoped Roy Strong would have the talent and energy to restore it to its rightful place. He is, in his own gawky characterisation, "a lower- middle-class boy who made his way upwards through hard work and scholarships to join the ranks of the professional classes who now control the destiny of this country". Years ago, he made genuinely important and insightful contributions to the rehabilitation of court history. He still has wonderful bursts of constructive espieglerie - seizing a pair of shears, for instance, to wrest Platonic forms from the Prince of Wales's topiary, or titillating readers of Country Life with well-observed evocations of Maine Coone cats. My revulsion for his book is the product of outraged expectations. The Story of Britain is a self-inflicted offence which no admirer will easily forgive. Let us hope, for his sake, that it will be quickly forgotten, or, at worst, lightly adapted into future scripts for Doctor Who.
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