thu 20/06/2019

Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You, BBC Two

Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You, BBC Two

Selling England by the pound in our post-industrial age

Dominic Sandbrook, perched on a great British Mini Van

Critic and popular historian Dominic Sandbook understands the power of the soundbite, so he supplied one of his own to sum up his new series: "We do still make one thing better than anybody else – we make stories."

This is a companion piece to Sandbrook's new book, The Great British Dream Factory, in which he upset a few readers by daring to criticise John Lennon. The thesis remains the same, however – Britain has been in decline since 1945, with the Empire gone along with our manufacturing base, but has compensated by applying the energy and ingenuity that made the Victorians great to the creative arts. We've been fantastically successful in pop music, theatre, film and "BritArt", and we've exported them lucratively around the world. Collectively, Sandbrook's story might be expressed by an image of Paul McCartney delivering a double thumbs-up.

Our host was eager to reduce all creative output to a series of commercial transactions

It's a nice tidy theory, and Sandbrook likes it so much that he kept slugging us over the head with it throughout this first programme (and will no doubt continue to do so through the remaining three). Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics made a handy jumping-off point, with its evocations of the Industrial Revolution and potted history of British popular culture – in fact, could it have been this which gave Sandbrook the idea for the book and series in the first place? To make sure we understood the link he was trying to make between the old manufacturing industries of the Midlands and the 20th century eruption of pop culture, Sandbrook used the story of how Tony Iommi had two fingertips chopped off by a pressing machine yet went on to become lead guitarist of the Black Country's premier destroyers of eardrums, Black Sabbath.

As the TV-minutes ticked by, it became clear that the programme wasn't going to be much more than a series of British success stories, from Beatles to South Bank art, or "art", exhibitions, inserted (often precariously) into this Sandbrookian view of the cosmos. He saw Chris Blackwell's Island Records, fuelled hugely by the success of Bob Marley, as a skilful entrepreneurial exploitation of the traditional links between London, the hub of Empire, and its former colony Jamaica. The computer games boom, epitomised by British companies such as Eighties-vintage Acornsoft and Rockstar Games, is apparently "based on the same spirit of technological innovation that had defined Britain's Victorian heyday." Viaducts, sewers, the Titanic, Grand Theft Auto V ...  Really?

One of the more regrettable aspects was our host's eagerness to reduce all creative output to a series of commercial transactions, the bigger the better. Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbusting assaults on West End and Broadway music-theatreland found Sandbrook hailing the flotation of ALW's Really Useful Group on the stock exchange, and praising the composer's insight that "if you get the sales pitch right then everything has its price". Charles Saatchi's monetarist manipulation of the Young British Artists boom was presented almost entirely as a triumph of spending power over taste or talent, while The Beatles and Swinging London were inspired packaging exercises. I reckon Sandbrook has spent far too much time listening to that Genesis album, Selling England by the Pound. 

 

It's a nice tidy theory, and Sandbrook likes it so much that he kept slugging us over the head with it

rating

Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters