Neil MacGregor. Photo: BBC
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Is this the perfect radio series? On Germany: Memories of a Nation

Following on from the global success of A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor is back with a new 30-part series.

Germany: Memories of a Nation
BBC Radio 4

By the time A History of the World in 100 Objects concluded in October 2010, it had been established as one of the exceptional bodies of work yet broadcast by the BBC. It was unique in its telling of history purely through objects and every episode was awaited with confidence and impatience.

The final artefact – a solar-powered lamp and charger, whose technology could give clean, cheap energy to women in parts of Africa who would otherwise be forced to use the sulphur dioxide-emitting kerosene – was a typically humane choice from the presenter and British Museum director, Neil MacGregor, who combines sensitivity with analytical power. Notable at the time was this statistic: not only had the podcasts of the series been downloaded ten million times but half of those had been from abroad by listeners following it on BBC World Service. The enterprise was globally adored and surely unrepeatably so.

Only two episodes of MacGregor’s new 30-part series (weekdays, 9.45am) were available to listen to in advance – concerning a piece of Grete Marks’s pottery from the Bauhaus school, considered entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) by the mid-1930s, and the 1574 astronomical clock inside Strasbourg Cathedral – but we have been promised 600 years of German history through objects as various as a bratwurst and a Bible. So confident is the BBC of another raging success that there will be a variety of accompanying programming on Radio 4 Extra, plumbing further hidden depths – Benedict Cumberbatch reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Philip Pullman reading the Brothers Grimm – like extras on a special edition DVD.

And why not? The way MacGregor moves from object to general history is quite simply the perfect broadcasting idea of the new century and probably the best use of the 15-minute programme yet commissioned. So much better than talking about an incident, or a battle, or the death of a king, or the life of a person, because a thing – something manufactured or made – requires the sort of serious social context that removes any suggestion that this is a gimmick. If you did Bismarck in 15 minutes, people would immediately think it was a novelty. Instead, the form and content here fit perfectly: dense, thrillingly non-linear, modern.

MacGregor’s narrative gift is striking, whether describing the “loose-splashed glaze suggestive of modernist painting” on the vase or, more beautifully, the clock on which “the changing faces of the moon are indicated [and] the position of the sun is charted . . . Every hour, the universal tyranny of time is rehearsed.” His tone – recorded in a studio, or a storeroom in the museum, or a crowded square abroad – is always the same. He’s unhurried, precise, possibly reading from a script but very possibly not.

There is an almost mystical sense that this formula could go on forever, with MacGregor increasingly cast as a talker of Coleridgean brilliance (Anthony Blunt, who first met MacGregor in Bavaria at a summer school, called him “the most brilliant pupil” he had ever taught). As he ranges all over his subject, thinking continually of anecdotes that might ground or illuminate, he often settles on the most filmic. When describing the burning of 20,000 books in Berlin’s Bebelplatz in 1933, he mentions that Erich Kästner was in the crowd watching his novel Emil and the Detectives go up in flames – this without a hint of drama.

It is this clean, held-back quality that makes MacGregor’s work rewarding. He can declare, without bitterness, “This was never going to be a vase in which a good Nazi arranged flowers!” and he can eschew sarcasm entirely when flagging up the absurdity in paranoiacally seeking “Jewish characteristics in a flower vase”. The voice is untheatrical and yet deeply old fashioned in the way that Virginia Woolf’s or Iris Murdoch’s was old fashioned – a way that now makes his narration sound to us like a lost bit of poetry. It’s a cultivated voice constructed to form beautiful words such as “Chagall” and “Munch” and also enunciate – like a voice-over artist proving his mastery of micro-technique – “Strasbourg” as though it were a German city and then, seconds later, as though it were French.

Yet he still manages to make the syllables of certain names sound ineffably unclean. “Goebbels”. It’s as though some raw nerve were ever so lightly being touched and as shockingly effective as a full bottle smashing on a stone pavement seconds before a fight. More please! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution