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TV review: New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr, DNA, and The Valhalla Murders

18 December 2020

BBC/Pete Dadds

New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr (BBC2, Thursdays) chronicles the Queen’s reign through a series of key individuals

New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr (BBC2, Thursdays) chronicles the Queen’s reign through a series of key individuals

NOT a vicar among ’em. We have seen only two of the three parts of New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr (BBC2, Thursdays), in which he chronicles the Queen’s reign through a series of key individuals, but I hold out little hope that this week’s final episode will be stuffed to the gills with clergy.

Marr is, as always, forceful, opinionated, almost hectoring, as he marshals his gallery of worthies — but also quirky, challenging, and compelling. It is a tale of political and military decline, of Empire dismantled; but also of counterbalancing gains, a changing identity that, in many aspects, can only be thought of as good.

The Coronation represented the apotheosis of British glorious tradition, and yet Coronation Day’s other main story, the conquest of Everest, was revealed to the world by James Morris, who, transitioning to Jan, would herald public acceptance of gender fluidity (Comment, 27 November). The home-grown sex symbol Diana Dors — a sign of growing public cheerful vulgarity — appeared in a beauty-queen pageant alongside Ruth Ellis, who would be the last woman hanged in Britain. Her execution caused such a wave of revulsion as to hasten the ending of the death penalty.

Marr presents a UK less and less convinced of its traditional certainties and moral superiority over other benighted nations — but far more open to cultural pluralities, far more international in its everyday life, and more relaxed about assimilating influences and lifestyles.

There are still highly significant exports. For Marr, Bob Geldof’s Live Aid showed how Britain’s pop musicians conquered the world — in this case for moral good, responding to the Ethiopian famine; his spotlight could focus on almost any other field of performing, artistic, creative, scientific, or sporting endeavour to demonstrate how our islands still punch well above their weight. But will the final programme acknowledge deep-seated national shames: the widening gap between rich and poor, our ruthless addiction to short-term profit, cost-cutting at any social price, our sordid carelessness about selling off any asset for ready money?

I assume that the economy of most Nordic nations is now largely dependent on the export of bleak crime dramas to BBC4. There were some very bad nuns in DNA (still available on iPlayer), the underlying villainy of the piece being the moral certainty of Christians: it seems that we are to blame for everything. Such absolute convictions led here to taking newborn babies from their unmarried mothers, to give both parties — whatever they themselves might think or feel — a “better life”. It ended with a moving act of great renunciation.

Realised with equally excellent and thoroughgoing conviction, the final episode of Iceland’s current series The Valhalla Murders (BBC4, Saturdays) showed that it had not ended at all: the murders of perpetrators of historic abuse at a boys’ home were apparently resolved; and yet in the final frames even deeper corruption (signalled clearly enough to anyone familiar with the genre) emerged.

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