Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior political figure at the BBC, having previously edited the London Independent. More recently, in between hosting Radio 4’s prestigious Start The Week he’s begun presenting his own documentaries. His latest, on great Scottish writers in comfortably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blinding ambition, which demanded that he leave Scotland and head for London, and the resentment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he ended up teaming up with the archetypal 18th century Englishman, Samuel Johnson. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jingoistic Johnson up north for a tour of Scotland, which both insisted was the most enjoyable couple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The second episode was even more successful, not to say prescient, comparing the contrasting styles and politics of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Scott the conservative unionist who harboured dreams of rebellion, and Burns the Romantic poet par excellence who wrote in florid Scots inciting actual rebellion, but who worked by day as a tax inspector for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exactly the right balance between literary history and political analysis. Placing these literary giants in the context of the fierce political debate that followed the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes without ever labouring the point.

As a proud Scotsman who nonetheless left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in London, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scottish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scotsman. That tension that governs how they view the land south of the border and the people who live there has always been there.

So will the Scottish vote for independence this September? I get the impression they are coming to regard that previous vote accepting union some 300 years ago with increasing shame. I’ve a funny feeling the heart might rule the head. That 9-2 is looking extremely inviting. In the meantime, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots continues on BBC 2 on Saturday evening.

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “The Trip To Italy” on BBC2.

Series 1, The Trip.

Series 1, The Trip.

Few people noticed when The Trip slipped unobtrusively onto our screens in 2010. A couple of quite famous comedians are sent off on a brief drive around England to knock off a couple of celebrity restaurant reviews. In retrospect, as an idea, it was pitch perfect.

Superficially, it provides an excuse for a couple of genuinely funny comedians to strut their impressions. But beneath that, and much more interestingly it was a portrait of two men in the latter stages of their middle age trying to get their head around the unbridgeable gap between what were once their hopes and dreams, and what they’ve actually done with their lives.

No longer on the menu alas.

No longer on the menu.

This is made all the more fascinating by the fact that for many of us watching, what we dream of is ending up exactly where they are. On the other side of the screen. They have made it. What was so wonderfully dark about that first series was its exploration of what exactly “it” is, and whether the two in question really have got there.

The second series kicked off on Friday. Inevitably it wasn’t quite as sharp or as dark as the first. The Trip to Italy is no longer the secret it once was and the budget and expectations have shot up. So there was a nervousness to the first episode as it tried just a little too hard to please.

But at the very end of the episode they both stood there looking over at a couple of pretty young girls. They’re not even threatened by us, they mused. We’ve become uncle material. What was so impressively dark about this, was that it was delivered absolutely straight.

Series 2, now in Italy.

Series 2, now in Italy.

It was completely and genuinely free from any sense of irony whatsoever. And yet at the same time, you just knew without in any way having to be told, that deep down neither of them believed it. When somebody next asks you what you mean by less is more, these two performances are as good an example as you’ll have to offer.

Brilliantly acted and unobtrusively directed by Michael Winterbottom, series two promises at the very least to be consistently if gently amusing. Hopefully, nice and quietly, it’ll continue to be as brilliantly dark.

The Trip To Italy is on Friday at 10pm on BBC2. Here’s a brief clip.

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BBC2’s “Royal Cousins At War”, a 1st WW programme that’s Actually Worth Seeing.

Royal Cousins At War.

Royal Cousins At War.

This you’ll have noticed is the centenary of what was the Great and then became the 1st. World War. So by about, oh some time around next week, you’re going to be thoroughly fed up with yet another programme marking the anniversary.

On the plus side, unlike WWII, no-one’s going to be dressing up their jingoism by pretending that it was a black and white battle between good and evil, and not just A N Other example of good old fashioned, imperialistic Empire-building.

In its stead, expect much furrowing of the brow, wringing of the hands, and carefully pained declaiming of Oh the humanity

BBC_First_World_War_centenary_logoVery unusually, this was one of the very few wars that nobody involved was keen to pursue. What this programme did so fascinatingly, was to take one element and to show how disastrously its accidents played out.

Most people will be vaguely aware of the story’s outlines, without probably knowing very many of its details. Essentially, it centres around the three cousins who would grow up to become Wilhelm II, the last Emperor of Germany, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and George V of England.

As well as untangling the complex web of intermarriages that the various European royal houses were constructed with, and the way that these provided the currents that powered the different allegiances and tensions that shaped the continent, Royal Cousins at War presented a number of monumental What Ifs.

What if Wilhelm II hadn’t had a breech birth, which left him with a withered left arm? And he hadn’t therefore been shunned by his guilt-consumed mother, but had grown up as part of a loving family, before developing into a confident, care-free and considerate monarch? Instead of rebelling against his liberal parents to become an insecure, socially awkward, reactionary bully?

Or what if his grandfather, Wilhelm I had lived to be 80 instead of 90? And his father Friedrich III, had lived for ten years longer after he succeeded him? Friedrich and his liberal wife would have had 20 years to steer the nascent Germany towards the kind of constitutional monarchy that they so admired in England.

Margaret McMillan's The War That Ended Peace.

Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace.

Indeed, his wife, Princess Victoria had been sent to Germany by her mother Queen Victoria, for precisely that end. And Queen Victoria herself was three parts German, and her adored husband entirely so. England would then have cemented its ties to its natural ally Germany, and how different the history of the 20th century might have become.

But he ruled alas for barely three months.

This last What If was voiced by Margaret MacMillan, one of the many impeccable historians who contributed to this wonderfully engaging programme. Her book The War That Ended Peace was universally praised throughout 2013 as a definitive examination of the war, and sits on my Kindle undisturbed, quietly mocking me.

Get that book, and if at all you can, watch this two part programme.

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Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews on BBC2.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice.

Simon Schama’s appropriately erudite The Story of the Jews continues on BBC2. One time Art Critic for the New Yorker and currently a professor at Columbia, Schama signed a much publicized book and TV deal with the BBC worth £3m in 2003. Simon Schama’s Power Of Art duly followed in 2006.

There, he took eight heavyweight artists ranging from Caravaggio and Bernini to Turner and Rothko, and somehow managed to find fresh and revealing insights into each and every one of them. Which is no mean feat when dealing with the likes of Van Gogh and Picasso.

This latest five part series is every bit as engaging, and manages to be sufficiently personal to genuinely move without ever dwelling for too long on inevitable pathos.

The first episode covered the first millennium BC, whilst the second took us up to the catastrophic expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and ’97. It was this that led to the creation of the first ghetto in Venice, which marks a decidedly ambivalent juncture. It was wonderful to be finally given a home. And yet, they were clearly marked out as Other.

Caravaggio's "The Taking Of Christ".

Caravaggio’s “The Taking Of Christ”.

It’s a vast subject of course, but it would have been interesting to have a bit more on the crucial period between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD. Christians and Jews had come increasingly to understand themselves in opposition to one another, and there were then as many Jews preaching hatred against Christians as there were Christians spewing vitriol against the Jews.

Incredibly though, no sooner had this mutual and profound mistrust become ingrained, one of the two sides suddenly “won”. As in the 4th century A.D., and almost overnight, the whole of the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. Not only that, but over the next few centuries, the rest of north and eastern Europe quickly followed.

Simon Schama's "The Story Of The Jews".

Simon Schama’s “The Story Of The Jews”.

So, it’s been suggested, that anti-Jewish element that was so central to the early Christian Church came to be codified as part and parcel of Medieval Christendom, based as it was on the Roman Empire and its Latin language. When then the Islamic Empire sprang up in the East soon after, it was all too natural for the West to lump the Jews together with their new foe.

This doesn’t of course excuse the unspeakable treatment of Jews by Christians in the Crusades that followed from the 11th century on. And indeed throughout the rest of history. But it does suggest an explanation as to why it is the West has always been so much more intolerant of Jews compared to the Islamic world where, at the very least, they were allowed to exist.

But that’s a minor quibble. This is a comprehensive story brilliantly told with a mixture of scholarship and, unsurprisingly, feeling. The Story Of The Jews continues on BBC2.

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Jane Campion’s TV Series “Top Of The Lake” Monumentally Tedious.

Jane Campion's Top Of The Lake.

Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, currently on BBC2,  was the latest dazzlingly original and unashamedly intelligent series to grace our TV screens. It’s not.

There’s plenty of plot. In so far as there are numerous incidents. There are characters, some fine acting, and it’s all beautifully shot. New Zealand has rarely been rendered as atavistic or as alien. But there’s absolutely no drama whatsoever. Things happen. Sometimes they’re explained, often they’re not. Because Campion clearly has no interest in what you or I would call a “story”.

Or to put to another way, by rejecting the traditions of a hopelessly outmoded patriarchal construct, Aristotle’s absurd insistence that every story should have a beginning, middle and end, she can free the female form from its reductive reification and reach instead for transcendental revelation.

What you get in other words are a bunch of male and females stereotypes who just happen to occasionally meet.

If she wants to explore gender politics – and she clearly does – she should do a phd.

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion's "Bright Star".

Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star”.

The reason it’s been getting all these inexplicably positive reviews is that female critics are so hungry to champion anything that’s made by and for women, they’re rendered completely purblind on the rare occasions that they get to see any.

Whilst their male counterparts are so keen to sport their liberal credentials they feel compelled to play along. Mike Hale, who reviewed it for The New York Times here, was an honourable exception.

Campion should stick to male protagonists, as she did in the wonderful Bright Star. Because whenever she deals with women, she has an uncontrollable urge to lecture. Poorly.

You can see the trailer for Bright Star here.

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