Daytime TV: Ties civic and sexual

Gary Day learns how Britons made a modern nation and made love, not least on campus

November 5, 2009

Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain (BBC Two, Wednesday 28 October, 9pm) got off to a thrusting start. The opening shots were of three statues. One held a torch aloft, the second a sword. Were these the phallic symbols of empire? In which case, what were we to make of the third, gripping the handle of a sheathed sword?

Andrew, dressed in cream trousers and blue shirt, didn't say. He was too busy impersonating the historical figures he described, though not, mercifully, Christabel Pankhurst. We had Andrew as Edward VII, Andrew as Lord Salisbury, Andrew as Joseph Chamberlain and Andrew as Alfred Harmsworth, founder of the Daily Mail. But no matter what part he played, he waved his arms like an agitated octopus.

Or like a cartoon waiter serving up a feast, though not as large as one of Edward's meals. The King ate more in a day than most of his subjects probably did in a month. Breakfast alone consisted of bacon, eggs, sausage, kippers, kedgeree, porridge and lobster salad. It's a wonder the man didn't explode. Old film showed him blasting birds out of the sky. On the other side of the world, British troops were blasting away at the Boers, but with less success. So they slaughtered their livestock, burnt down their homes and put their women and children in concentration camps. A starving eight-year-old girl stared pitifully into a camera while Edward sat down to a 12-course dinner.

Half of the British soldiers who took part in the campaign were in poor physical shape. This was down to poor breeding, according to Francis Galton, a pioneer of eugenics. Like many of his class, he despised the lower orders. Salisbury referred to voters as "vermin". Andrew told us all this with a smile on his face, as if such attitudes were now extinct, as if there weren't still those who thought the poor have "no civic worth".

Plenty has changed, though. The music hall has disappeared. But what a joy to see Marie Lloyd, if only for a moment, still singing and dancing. She looked remarkably like a young Cilla Black, only a good deal more saucy. She could make smut sound like the seven sacraments and the seven sacraments sound like a seaside postcard. She reddened the faces of civic worthies by her rendition of Come into the Garden, Maud and, sadly, paved the way for Graham Norton. But let that pass.

Not the use of "civic" though. If there is one word that measures the distance between ourselves and the Edwardians, it is that one. It conjures up ideals of duty and the public good, notions that have disappeared along with the maypole and the handlebar moustache. In their place we have the tyranny of economic rationality and the subordination of culture to counting. Yes, we can look back to the first decade of the last century and see the first stirrings of the Labour Party, female suffrage and the birth of the welfare state, but history is about what we have lost as well as what we have gained.

The British in Bed (Wonderland, BBC Two, Friday 30 October, 12.20am). It sounds like the start of a joke, or the punchline of one. There was humour, as various couples described their sex lives, but there was also poignancy. "We've had too much sex," said Alfie, 84. "That's why we're wrinkled." "Do 80-year-olds have sex?" asked Tariro, 18. "Don't their bones snap or something?" "I would like more sex," sighed Harsimrren. "It's so different from anything else we do; yoga, X-box. I really enjoy it." She paused. "I'm really embarrassed now." Her husband, Jujhar, tried to describe how he felt. "I love her soul. Deep within her is something I couldn't live without." There was a radiance about them both.

But in other bedrooms shadows loomed. "Every man I speak to doesn't understand their spouse," began Chris. His partner, Jessica, wondered how many men he spoke to. "Just one." It turned out he didn't even speak to him. "We don't talk about life at all actually, just physics." Turns out that Chris doesn't talk much to Jessica either. She doesn't even know if he likes having her around. But he does. Very much. Life without her would be "awful, a void". "You've never told me that." She was genuinely surprised. The cat bit her toe.

Don't look for realism in Campus (Channel 4, Friday 6 November, 10pm). I mean have you ever been invited to have a chat with your vice-chancellor while he is being fitted for a dress? The satire - English professor seducing all his female students - is out of date, but it's still funny. Indeed, given the way things are, it's probably better to work at Kirke University than in a real one. If there is such a thing.

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