Blessed Plot II: Britain From Above

Here’s an interesting thing. Did you know that, the higher he is, the more Scottish Andrew Marr sounds? Stand him at street level and he doesn’t sound particularly Scottish at all. Perch him atop a skyscraper, like an odd, nervy little superhero, though, and he begins to sound quite a wee bit more Scottish. Go so far as to stick him in a light aircraft, whisk him up a few thousand feet, and chuck him out the door, and you’ll find he gets very Scottish, very fast. Even with a parachute.

By extrapolation, the evidence would suggest that, were he ever to be blasted into space, Marr would make a noise like Duncan Macrae. I’m not sure what to make of this phenomenon. But I can’t help feeling it’s significant.

Exciting scenes of Andrew Marr tandem jumping and sounding Scottish have been heavily employed in the heavy advertising the BBC has been doing for Britain From Above . Watching our political broadcasters grow increasingly batty as they get older has long been a cherished British pastime, of course, from Robin Day through to Trevor MacDonald’s successful campaign to turn himself into Zebedee. The greatest recent example is David Dimbleby, who has gone rogue without anyone noticing, even despite the evidence he presented in his 2005 series A Picture Of Britain, which might have better been titled “The Day Dimbleby Went Mad,” consisting as it mostly did of him bombing around in his jeep, cackling, striking heroic poses and generally just acting strange. The scene in which, while discussing Coleridge, he reenacted a bad drug trip in the style of an old Shamen video has to be seen to be believed.

But you have to worry about Marr. He’s still relatively young, and there is the chance he might yet have ambitions to do some more serious work along the lines of his excellent History of Modern Britain. All the same, he has been unable to resist throwing himself prematurely into his When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple period. It all started, of course, with those pelvic thrusts in fishnets for Children in Need. Now, the BBC’s former political editor finds himself torn, unable to decide whether to be Jeremy Isaacs or Jeremy Beadle. A head for business, a body for sin.

Britain from Above crystallises his dilemma. Marr himself tries, fails, and tries again to find inside this meandering, aimless programme some great essay about the way the country works. The BBC, however, which has been promoting the series with increasing desperation – going so far as to shove some of its gimmicked-up map sequences into its news programmes as if they constituted a story – is counting that, when all else fails, we’ll still tune in for some Loony Marr. Hence all those fun-fun-fun trailers of him jumping out of a plane.

Two warnings, though. One: if you do want to see Andrew Marr dangling from a parachute in a funny helmet, you’ll need to wait until episode two. And, two: Britain from Above is so incredibly boring the chances of anyone making it to episode two alive are slim.

A great deal of it is given over to those satellite shots you might have seen on the news, showing the country criss-crossed with glowing, computer-generated networks of lines, illustrating things like London taxis being tracked by GPS systems or the number of telephone calls being made. These lines are pretty. But I’m not sure they warrant a whole series, especially when the information they communicate boils down to revelations such as: cities contain more people than villages; people make a lot of phone calls; and roads get busier at rush hour.

As it is, the best sequences have nothing to do with flashing lines or tediously half-hearted explanations of how the sewage system works. They are, plainly, the simple, symphonic aerial shots of the country; bird’s eye views of grand, grey-green little Britain and her tiny citizens going about their business, unadorned by flash computer effects. If they’d just strung together an hour of this genuinely poetic footage, with some nice relaxing music – “Sailing By,” maybe – it would be a chill-out masterpiece. No narration. Well, maybe a friendly, reassuring voice fading in occasionally to whisper, “Everything is going to be alright.”

Published in The Sunday Herald, August 10 2008