There has been some negative comment, especially in the early weeks, about Andrew Marr’s series for BBC television giving his version of the History of the World.
It is a subject so vast, so essential, so all-embracing that everyone has their own take – if not their own version. History is, supposedly, written by the winner and we, by definition, are the winners because we are still here. So is our – and Marr’s – version of history any better or worse than someone else’s?
Quite possibly. As Marr asked in the Radio Times, that most iconic publication of British broadcasting, when the series started, how do you distil many thousands of years of human history into eight one-hour programmes? Answer – you need to be selective.
There is nothing wrong with that. Winners and losers alike will be selective about what facts they choose to include and which to omit. The details may be different; the reasons why something happened may appear different. But the essential message remains the same.
And that is where Marr’s history wins out. He sticks to the essentials. Rather than chronicling what happens in every part of the world through all of its troubled eras, he deftly picks out the key events and traits that define what happened everywhere. Farming. Community. Exploration. Greed. Slavery. Invention. Art. Revolution.
And violence. Some viewers complained early on about the level of violence portrayed so vividly on the screen. But the human condition is steeped in violence. As Marr himself recounts, the poet Derek Walcott once described history as “boredom interrupted by war”. No major change in our history was accomplished without the spilling of some blood – usually copious quantities of it.
And why are these the essentials? Because they are still with us today.
You may not like the dramatisations of things that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, thinking them false (inevitably) and overacted. But other than shot after shot of ancient texts and drawings, what else was Marr supposed to do to illustrate his narrative? This is the 21st century, and it is actually quite nice to see actors rather than CGI avatars playing out the actions of our ancestors (although there is, perforce, some computer imagery in Marr’s programme too).
I am no great history expert but I know enough to recognise that Marr has hit the nail on the head in choosing the unavoidable truths about our past. And it’s well worth eight hours of viewing time to be reminded of them. As he says, the most important part of our history is in the future.