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It’s in the blood

15 December 2017

BBC Studios

Invasion! With Sam Willis (BBC4, Tuesday of last week)

Invasion! With Sam Willis (BBC4, Tuesday of last week)

ARE you a berserker Viking, a mystic Celt, or a true-born Briton? The most interesting revelation in the first episode of Invasion! With Sam Willis (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) was that DNA analysis of our genetic make-up can tell us exactly where, originally, we are from.

This new technique is forcing a revision of our island story. It appears that there is no such thing as a distinctly “Celtic” racial group: instead, there is a range of aesthetic designs and cultures so compelling that country after country took them up — it was a stylistic rather than a genetic invasion.

The distinction between incoming Viking and the Anglo-Saxons, by then native, cannot be traced as a separate racial type, either: they/we all share the same general stock. The last real invasion took place 4500 years ago, when the incoming Beaker people, bringing with them metallurgy and ceramics, overwhelmed the existing Neolithic farmers.

The programme sets out with the admirable aim of debunking myths about British separateness. It is only in the past 6500 years that we have even been an island: until then, mainland Europe extended to Wales. We are all immigrants, travellers, incomers: a mongrel race.

But these important themes are fatally undercut by its tone. It is far too jokey, as though aimed at the readership of red-top papers, hoping, perhaps, to jolt them out of prejudice. It would have been far more effective if billed as Invasion: Without Sam Willis.

The supposedly magical “Celtic” world was invoked more than once in the marvellous Leonora Carrington: The lost surrealist (BBC4, Suday). This was a portrait of one whose artistic integrity was not formed by desperation to show how much she belonged, but rather by a pervading sense of not fitting in.

Her family’s great wealth did not bring them into the higher social echelons of society that they craved and that she rejected. Her membership of the Surrealist circle in Paris, as the lover of Max Ernst, was compromised by these self-proclaimed revolutionaries’ Neanderthal gender assumptions: women were to be Muses, not serious artists in their own right.

Ernst’s imprisonment in the Second World War, and her subsequent breakdown and appalling treatment in a mental hospital made her flee to Mexico, where her unsettling paintings, depicting the penetration of conscious reality by the world of dreams, found fertile appreciation. In her country of origin, we are just beginning to appreciate the importance of her vision.

I have only just come to Motherland (BBC2, Tuesdays), a searing documentary about the home lives of parents from just such a school as ours, chronicling their jealousies, despair with the children, disgust with spouses, the regular prosecco-fuelled bust-ups. Oh, it’s a sitcom! These are brilliantly plotted farces: scenarios carefully built up from the reasonable to toweringly grotesque.

If this is a true picture of our island race, would anyone want to be part of it?

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