Last Night's Television: Natural World, BBC2<br />Andrew Marr's the Making of Modern Britain, BBC2

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 29 October 2009 01:00

To Andrew Marr, the history of Britain in the turbulent first half of the 20th century is "dark, funny, and surprising". So, you might add, was Marr's frisky performance in The Making of Modern Britain, bounding around on screen, arms and ears akimbo, giving full vent to an hitherto unseen talent for mimicry (including what must have been first ever televised impression of Joseph Chamberlain). He also focused an unflinching eye on the darker achievements of the Edwardians.

The Empire, for example. Marr troubled himself to remind us that, when the British did rule a quarter of the world they could be exceptionally cruel, especially down on the veldt. When 60,000 Boer farmers in their little South African republics stood up to the greatest empire the world had ever seen, the empire tottered. In what would nowadays be termed "an illegal war", the British failed miserably in battle, and resorted to a strategy that would be repeated with still greater barbarity on the Eastern Front in the Second World War – scorched earth. The British went about the systematic destruction of livestock, crops, 30,000 homesteads and rounded up 160,000 women and children in new "concentration camps". Marr's statistics of shame hit home like a bullet from a Lee-Enfield rifle. Through further military incompetence, some 26,000 Boer women and children died in those camps, of typhus and other diseases, 80 per cent under the age of 16. Surviving photographs of victims are Belsen-like. Dark, indeed.

Dark, also, was the Edwardian "science" of eugenics, a perversion of Darwinism that fermented in the mind of Francis Galton, who got the idea from studying the breeding standards and stud books of the Basset Hound Society. To Galton, human stock was no different to that of mutts; inheritance, rather than upbringing or education, was all. Therefore, the best route to imperial greatness was to discourage criminals and the feckless poor from breeding more of the same. Like the concentration camps, this doubtful British gift to the world offered inspiration to others, such as the German Racial Purity Society. Indeed, it is hard not to avoid the conclusion that the British Empire was simply a dummy run for the Third Reich, and that, had they known what was coming, many of our grandparents might merely have concluded that "Adolf went a bit too far".

As for fun, well, as Marr pointed out, life for the workers in Edwardian Britain was not just about pubs and poverty. Then, as now, there was also The Daily Mail, founded by Alfred Harmsworth, who coined the term "tabloid", and bequeathed to my trade the "man bites dog" guide to news values. As a former newspaper editor himself, Marr was visibly energised by the achievements of a man who produced "newspapers people actually wanted to read", that is to say to pay for. Still, the Mail's mix of sensational gossip, laughter and, above all, controversy is still doing good business for them today. Jan Moir, one suspects, would have done well under Harmsworth, probably slagging off Oscar Wilde or Lytton Strachey.

We no longer have the Edwardian music hall, but the British love affair with smut was also firmly entrenched a century ago, when comics and singers had to grab the attention of the audience before they were booed off the stage under a storm of steel rivets (traditional in Glasgow and Newcastle), rotten veg (the East End) or dead cats and dogs (everywhere). Music hall's most famous star, Marie Lloyd, possessed a facility for filthy suggestiveness that exceeds anything that can be found in alternative comedy or Channel 4 a century on. Attending a committee of the London County Council, who had become concerned about her licentious act, she baffled them by singing three of her most innuendo-laden numbers straight-faced, and then, with just the right intonation and a few wiggles and winks rendering the chaste Edwardian hit "Come into the Garden Maud" into the sort of thing that might make 50 Cent squirm. Sadly, no recording of that belter was made, but it proved, as Marr, put it, that Britain had talent and that mass-market vulgarity is nothing new, whatever the Mail might have us believe.

If Marr made you sometimes ashamed to be British, then Natural World made you feel pretty awful about being a member of the human race. Bearwalkers of the Northwoods was a surprisingly moving account of the life of Lynn Rogers who has dedicated his life to answering questions about what bears do in the woods of Minnesota, which could also be described as "dark, funny and surprising".

For example, the standard American black bear reproductive technique resembles what you or I might know in human terms as a "knee-trembler", the comic vision of which was only heightened by Rogers' tribute to one of his favourite bear's lovemaking skills – ""Big Harry is especially gentle". What is shameful is the fate of 96 per cent of these beautiful, intelligent, timid and sexually uninhibited creatures – to be shot by hunters for "sport". That was heartbreaking. A hundred years ago, President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt popularised bear hunting. Like some of our Edwardian forebears (no pun intended), he has a great deal to answer for.

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