Review - Great Britain meets Little Britain

18th May 2012 at 01:00

Anniversaries, apparently, are a good time to look back. The anniversary in question, one assumes, is the forthcoming Jubilee. So we see a woman wrapped in a Union Jack. "I was a big fan of Princess Diana," she says. "And I love Prince William." But the point, on this occasion, is not the royalty. The point of The Great British Story is that the "people's history" is every bit as interesting as that of their rulers.

And so, in the first episode of the new BBC Two series, historian Michael Wood pores over a black-and-white photograph of mustachioed, straw-boatered members of the Long Melford gardening club. "Amazing social documents," he says.

But I am being unfair. Because, it turns out, the people's history is fascinating. Did you know, for example, that the fifth-century departure of the Romans from Britain was followed by near-anarchy? And that, in the early 500s, famine and plague wiped out approximately half the British population?

I could, quite merrily, just list the interesting facts in the programme: jars of Roman olive oil have been found in Hadrian's Wall ("You couldn't find olive oil in Birkenhead until 1980," an academic comments). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, they brought with them the sense of humour that, eventually, gave us the saucy postcard and the Carry On film.

The method of presenting these facts, however, is not always spot-on. It is rather excellent that a Roman-era Fortress of the Arabs exists in South Shields. It is less excellent that this fact is accompanied by photographs of modern-day Tynesiders, dressed in togas, military skirts and hats with feathers.

In 410, when the Romans left Britain to defend itself, locals made their own weapons and formed a home guard. Cue footage of ... well, you can work this one out for yourself.

My favourite moment comes during the account of the departure of the Romans. With no military protection, local councils feared that they were vulnerable to Angle and Saxon raids. Cut to a meeting of Long Melford parish council. "Police have reported three break-ins to garden sheds," one councillor says.

And there are heavy-handed nods to multiculturalism. "They were immigrants from Jutland, Denmark and Germany," Wood says of the Anglo-Saxons. You can almost see the italics when he speaks. Still. Stick with it. Use the visits to Long Melford as a handy tea-making opportunity. Because we - the multicultured peoples of Britain - really are worth knowing about.

The Great British Story starts on BBC Two on 25 May.

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