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History in a day and all that

"THE FIRST date in English history is 55BC." So opens that model of scholarship, 1066 and All That. And so, give or take some rough verbiage, opens This Sceptr'd Isle (R4), a series that will fill the sacred 15 minutes after the Morning Service throughout the next year, offering us Memorable Dates and Bad Things aplenty. The rounded, nay spherical, tones of Anna Massey give spurious orotundity to Christopher Lee's bumpy script, filled out, so far, with solemn readings from Winston Churchill and extracts from a remarkably bad translation of Tacitus.

The title presages doom, suggesting a weighty burden of gravitas, but Lee has lightened it by writing in the anxious jocular style of a history teacher trying to keep the attention of an easily distracted 4C. At least twice this week we have heard that "the Romans had a problem", rapidly followed by Massey intoning "Oh dear", as if she had just discovered a pool of puppy pee on the Wilton. When we also hear of Druid Women, "their hair let down and screaming", we were scarcely surprised that "wounds were received while they stood frozen". It is too soon to condemn the series, the Romans having scarcely got started and Boadicea not cold in her grave, but, unless Lee trusts us to settle down a bit at the back there, history is in danger of coming to a Full Stop.

The architect Sir Christopher Wren was revived more successfully in Noah Richler's beguiling production of Harrison's Bigwigs - Last Thoughts Upon St Paul's (R3). Outdoing Massey - well, let's face it, outdoing every living soul - in roundness of tone, the monumental voice of Sir John Gielgud took on the character of Wren in old age, remembering the trouble he had in designing his master- piece. This was a glorious play, featuring the author, Carey Harrison, as an extravagantly sexy Bernini, talking about cathedral domes in outrageous mammary terms ("a boosom rraised to nurrse the vairy heavens") and John Moffat, who seems to be making a speciality of old kings, as the unreliable, irresistible Charles II. It was strengthened not only by Harrison's excellent pastiche dialogue but also by pastiche music for theorbo and recorders, composed for the event by the well-named Stephen Faux.

A new little bigwig did a brave thing on Thursday. Tony Blair agreed to be grilled for half an hour, live, by the most vilified griller since the heyday of Sir Robin, for the first in a series of The John Humphrys Interview (R4). Political inter- viewers face a peculiarly sharp Morton's fork. If they come on too strong, they are condemned as aggressive and rude; but polite behaviour is perceived to be obsequious, biased or gul- lible. Humphrys is seldom accused of fawning and, indeed, he rattled Blair by reminding him of early, contradictory speeches. Yet the arguments Blair offered were so plausible, his reasoning so reasonable, that Humphrys began to seem more ally than adversary.

Blair sounded like a perfectly possible prime minister: whether or not he is a convincing Labour leader is less clear. History will decide, but, as he said at the end, it all depends who writes the history.

Finally, that great new series Private Passions (R3) has stumbled on one of mine. I hereby confess to a long-cherished passion for John Nettles, who was yesterday's guest. He proved to be more charming even than Bergerac, and a lot more so than Caligula, the role I first saw him play as a student. Caligula: now there is a character who would add spice to British history, but he seems rather to have ignored this sceptr'd isle. How could we drag him in? When answering this question, do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.