LONDON — History used to be hip on British TV, and not just courtesy of the History Channel.
Historical reconstructions of one disaster or another — the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London — were carefully scheduled to garner high audience numbers. And then there’s the inevitable surfeit of programs examining Tudor England, starring those guaranteed royal ratings winners Henry VIII and his upwardly mobile offspring Elizabeth I.
And though the reality wave — “Wife Swap,” “Celebrity Wife Swap” and “The Secret Millionaire,” among others — put a brake on the history boom, commissioning editors have not given up altogether on Britain’s backstory.
One of the surprise critical hits of the year, “A History of Modern Britain,” is a scintillating new history series written and presented by the BBC’s former political editor, Andrew Marr. Outside the U.K. the angular-looking Marr is hardly a household name, but domestically he’s a respected and trusted broadcaster. As the Observer recently remarked: “Marr is blessed with a rare ability to animate the lifeless and the over-familiar.”
This trait is much in evidence in “A History of Modern Britain,” which in a tough 9 p.m. weekday slot is earning a valuable 14% viewing share for BBC2.
Most of those tuning into the seven-part series will be broadly familiar with the arc of Marr’s narrative as he recounts the story of Britain from 1945 onward. He kicks off with post-World War II austerity and ends on Tony Blair’s Third Way.
En route he takes in 1960s optimism, the bleakness of the strike-torn 1970s and Margaret Thatcher’s brutal economic revolution. Along the way, he reveals some choice morsels, not least being that Blighty only completed paying off its World War II loan to the U.S. last December.
The program avoids those tempting twin terrors of so many television documentaries — an abundance of talking heads and low-budget dramatic reconstructions. Instead, Marr sticks to a highly subjective take on events. The upshot is a timely reminder that TV history can be simultaneously entertaining and intelligent.
The archive footage is often superb. The direction is imaginative as Marr energetically rushes from one location to another to make a point. Best of all are his asides and anecdotes.
The story of how an exhausted Winston Churchill in his sunset days as Britain’s prime minister took to his bed, accompanied by a pet budgerigar and a large whiskey and soda, is an image that lingers.
Marr has written a book to accompany the series and claims to do all his own research.
“I don’t use researchers,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “Even if they’re really good, very often you don’t know what you are looking for until you’ve found it.”
Perhaps that helps explains why “A History of Modern Britain” has none of that flattened out, homogenous feel that blights a lot of small-screen documentary.
Certainly Marr, 47, is a workaholic. His regular BBC duties include anchoring weekly current affairs show “Sunday AM,” the radio program “Start the Week” and writing a column for the Daily Telegraph.
Not even a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, which disrupted the filming schedule of “The Making of Modern Britain” for three months, delayed the transmission date as Marr went into overdrive to catch up and get the program in the can.
He recently admitted: “I feel I’m a small trader in a fast-changing economy. I do radio, telly, books and newspapers because I’m not sure which of those is going to disappear first. I take on more than I should because I’m worried. That’s where the overwork comes from.”
On the strength of “The History of Modern Britain” Marr’s broadcasting career looks set to flourish for some time. On form like this, he may even have it in him to become a BBC titan on the scale of a David Attenborough, the much-loved natural history broadcaster.
In Marr’s hands, British history has become must-watch TV and represents the BBC at its very best.