The winds of gradual change

We learn from This is Britain, Andrew Marr’s programme on the census (BBC2 Friday), that the countryside is more dangerous and wasteful than the city – people consume more energy per capita, and more people have guns, so more people are shot.

Wind Farm Wars (BBC2 Thursday) adds another element to that charge sheet: people in the countryside seem in the main to be a selfish lot, clinging to their right to unimpeded views, and to hell with renewable energy. The series, made before the Arab world exploded and before the Japanese tsunami brought disaster both to the country and to the world’s nuclear power plans, may show the last gasp of a rural bourgeoisie – one intent on keeping the idyll unspoilt, assuming that power will come from somewhere else. Let us hope so: we shall, sooner than we thought, need all the alternatives we can get.

The first programme in the series had the people of west Devon organising to frustrate a plan for a wind farm in the Den Brook valley. The project was led by an energetic and emotional woman named Rachel Ruffle, whose belief in the beneficent effects of this technology collided with the adamantine refusal of fellow Devonians to tolerate giant windmills in their line of sight. When she heard that her application had been rejected, she wept in front of her computer; simultaneously, a leader of the “Say No” campaign chortled and triumphantly phoned her fellows.

It has three more episodes to go, so right may win. If it does not, it will be a consolation that the series, shot over five years, is crafted so that the narrative line remains clear while the main players – the clever but pompous council chairman, the fence-sitting transplanted townie, the passionate project leader, the merry farmer, set to become wealthy, welcoming the windmills on his land – emerge as well-rounded as if they were characters in a finely crafted novel.

Among TV’s storytellers – David Dimbleby, Niall Ferguson (whose Civilization: Is the West History? on Channel 4 on Sundays continues to set the highest of standards), Simon Schama, Jeremy Paxman – Marr stands out, as a Cambridge-trained Scotsman on the make should, for his intelligence. This is allied to a feel for the medium honed during his stint as the BBC’s political editor from 2000 to 2005, producing a style at once reflective, authoritative and mildly thespian. Unlike Jon Snow, another master narrator, he has – as he once described it – had the standard BBC lobotomy of his liberal-leftish views, or at least enough of a simulacrum of one to be taken as neutral by the politicians and intellectuals who are his weekly breakfast fare on Start the Week (BBC Radio 4 Monday) and The Andrew Marr Show (BBC1 Sunday).

This is Britain takes the census and plays a series of historical and contemporary tunes on it. Marriage is slipping out of favour and childbirth is being pushed ever later – as witness two women in their early 30s who smile knowingly and say they want to have more fun yet (“38 is my time for getting worried”). Men in car plants, peering at computer screens and consulting readouts, say they no longer think about what class they are and that it isn’t important anyway. Surprisingly, at least to me, the UK produces the same number of cars as it did in the late 1970s and exports many more: we are an industrial country still. In parts of Glasgow, men often die in their 50s, just like in booze-sodden Russia; a mean streets priest searches his memory for when he last buried an old man.

Peter Taylor is another master of documentary, with 40 years before the lens, most of that as a hound on the trail of the blood that terrorists shed, and of the violence that states visit on those who threaten their security. The Secret War on Terror, whose second and final part aired on BBC2 on Monday, highlighted two responses to the mortal threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates: first, the use of steadily escalating harsh measures on captured suspected terrorists under George W. Bush; second, in the Obama administration, the use of pilotless drones zapping al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Pakistan/Afghanistan badlands. In the first, measures climbed steadily up the scale to torture; in the second, hundreds of civilians have been the collateral damage. Which you prefer – the gruesome first or the more casually murderous second – is a matter of choice, but Taylor’s scruples do not allow him to leave it there. He is clear as to the threat posed, the force of the unassuageable hatred for Christian, Jewish, secular or moderate Islamic values. The Secret War on Terror, working through well-staged reconstructions of appalling episodes, was a small masterpiece of clarity as to our present condition.

Christopher and His Kind (BBC2 Saturday), a dramatisation of Christopher Isherwood’s eponymous memoir of his time in prewar Berlin, was uncomfortable watching for this hetero, so explicit were the gay sex scenes – a discomfort that is perhaps a matter of (my) generation and upbringing. Still, the acting, and perhaps the funding, didn’t quite rise to the necessary intensity. The Nazis were mainly jackboots offstage, the club scenes cramped and awkward. Best were the domestic scenes with Christopher (Matt Smith) and his mother (Lindsay Duncan). It wasn’t great but it was bravely done, all the same. Drama, even on TV, shouldn’t comfort too much.

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