fri 25/09/2020

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots - The Writers Who Shaped a Nation, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots - The Writers Who Shaped a Nation, BBC Two

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots - The Writers Who Shaped a Nation, BBC Two

Magisterial, richly entertaining study of Scottish identity through its literature

Andrew Marr: out of the studio for the first time since his stroke, his agility of mind as sharp as everBBC/John O'Rourke

You didn’t have to wait for the words in the closing credits, “written and presented by”, to know that The Writers Who Shaped a Nation was a project that Andrew Marr was involved with fully. Its sheer broadcasting quality showed it from the beginning. It’s the first project that has taken Marr out of the studio since his stroke, and it confirmed that his agility of mind (and legs, given the amount of mountain walking involved) was as powerful as ever.

You didn’t have to wait for the words in the closing credits, “written and presented by”, to know that The Writers Who Shaped a Nation was a project that Andrew Marr was involved with fully. Its sheer broadcasting quality showed it from the beginning. It’s the first project that has taken Marr out of the studio since his stroke, and it confirmed that his agility of mind (and legs, given the amount of mountain walking involved) was as powerful as ever.

Simply put, viewers can really feel the difference when a presenter is clearly the master of the script from beginning to end. It’s far from always the case, there beings times when you wonder if he or she has actually read any of the bits outside the pieces-to-camera before final voiceover. Not to mention when you think the script was never more than scribblings on the back of an envelope semi-improvised to camera.

That meant 'wit' in the sense of keen intelligence rather than humour

Marr’s script had a concentrated wit to it – I’d even appropriate the word “adamantine”, with which the presenter casually peppered his commentary at one point. That meant “wit” in the sense of keen intelligence rather than humour, though there was plenty of the latter, too (Sir Walter Scott was “wizard of the North, Walt before Disney”, his Edinburgh monument a “thunderbird statue built by monks”). The acuity of its study of the Scottish identity, seen through its great writers – James Boswell, followed by Scott and Robert Burns, closing last night on poet Hugh MacDiarmid (with Edwin Muir in the sidelines) – proved more than relevant to the decisions Scotland is going to be taking in less than three weeks.

It was a Janus-like, often conflicted journey between the polarised worlds of the loyalists and rebels. The first and last programmes caught the extremes: Samuel Johnson’s biographer never tired of London even while contemplating writing a Gaelic dictionary, while the maverick MacDiarmid was basically a loather of those south of the border. (His lines "For we have faith in Scotland's hidden powers/The present's theirs, but all the past and future's ours” are something of an anthem to Alex Salmond). But the heart of the series was the magisterial juxtaposition of Scott and Burns, two towering figures representing conservatism and a striving for independence.

Obviously it was all about language, too. From episode one, in which the only Scottish accent came from the actor doing Boswell’s voice-over, we went on to some glorious declamations of poetry, passionately delivered, frequently set against a visual background of no less glorious countryside. Marr’s hobby, we discovered, was sketching (pictured, right by Laura Buchan), and the directors – different for each episode, only highlighting the primacy of the presenter – were spoilt for choice in their landscapes, even if by the end we were becoming very familiar with that shot of Edinburgh’s skyline. Refreshingly, no “talking heads” as such, but rather sparing, and very much shared interviews with the likes of a historian who proved a master singer of border ballads, and contemporary historical novelist James Robertson, both speaking on Scott. Poet Liz Lochhead featured as a representative of the new generation of Scottish writers, “MacDiarmid’s children” – a list of all their names was read out at one point with surreal speed, for effect – who took over the baton of developing the Scottish language from the poet.

When a presenter's so much in view, you sometimes wonder whether ego is an issue, but here the simple impression was that Marr knew his subject as well as anyone else, and could present it as engagingly. It was such rich stuff, such textured knowledge, that highlighting anything in particular would be egregious. So might be guessing where Marr’s own allegiances lie, though the figure he seemed emotionally closest to was perhaps Scott. Scott, the “great bestrider” of unionism and Scottish patriotism; the organiser of the royal visit by George IV in 1822 (the “king’s jaunt”, performed by a monarch who had become a “figure of fun who’d lost control of his waistline and libido”); the defender of Scottish currency notes who spent his twilight years writing prolifically (he was “industrious to the point of industrial”) to clear debts incurred from bad investments and “rickety banks”. Such evident respect and empathy may just hint at where Marr himself belongs.

We went on to some glorious declamations of poetry, passionately delivered, frequently set against a visual background of no less glorious countryside

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