On Monday 1 October, at 9am, Radio 4's flagship talk show, Start the Week, finally returns from its long summer vac. But fans of the programme, now fully recovered from its interregnum years under Jeremy Paxman, have had nothing to complain about in September. Its host, Andrew Marr, has been presenting a documentary series called Unmasking the English. My initial thoughts were pessimistic. This search for the English identity seemed to have the format of a parlour game: think of a famous Englishman or Englishwoman and see if their traits apply to the rest of us. Marr's tone seemed facetious. He would explain the "rules" of the game and describe the series as "fantastically unscientific".
The first programme was head and shoulders the worst. Marr's theory was that Miss Marple was alive and well in the person of Boris Johnson. Like Agatha Christie's detective, Boris pretended to be bumbling but underneath lay a mind of steel, and so on. Marr seemed unaccountably pleased with himself for coming up with this idea, although the cult of English amateurishness is really a form of boastfulness. Effortless superiority is what an Englishman pays his school fees to instil.
Things got better, if a little confused, in week two. Marr's archetype was Walter Raleigh, whom he described, promisingly, as "a creep and a ruthless, even brutal character, the smiling Englishman as killing machine". He scoffed at his castle, Sherborne in Dorset, as a "peacock building" covered in griffins and heraldic beasts and far too many chimneys. Its E-shape was a tribute to his queen, which just confirmed Marr's view that Raleigh was an "oiler in chief". He was too flash, too tall a poppy for Marr's tastes, and the presenter ended up in the City of London looking at "the freebooters of the world economy", wondering if these spivs were his heirs. He concluded that Raleigh defined Englishness less in himself than in the hostile reaction he provoked, which led him finally to the Tower. He wondered if English hostility to a Renaissance man such as Jonathan Miller might be related to this. That seemed quite a stretch to me.
The programme hit its stride in the third episode, an examination of Mr Jorrocks. Invented by the Victorian hack Robert Smith Surtees, Jorrocks, a huntsman who "rode as if he had a spare neck in his pocket", was not a true countryman but a red-faced grocer from London. Marr identified the three English things he represented: a love of the hunt, a love of danger and a love of dressing up. The broadcaster Robert Elms, who identified himself as a costermonger's son, said he knew exactly how he felt. He went to the country because it allowed him to dress in browns and tweed. Marr found Jorrocks's spirit alive and well among quad bikers and sprint racers and at stag nights in Estonia. "I think," Marr concluded on Jorrocks, "he is Jeremy Clarkson."
The last episode in the series, about Samuel Johnson, was the best of all, though I took umbrage early on because A A Gill, one of Marr's resident pundits, wrote him off as a "monstrous bully and a bore" who "loved the sound of his own voice because he could not stand the look of his own body". But Gill was, of course, displaying one of Johnson's virtues: a gift for excoriating rudeness. Once Marr began looking he saw Dr Js everywhere: David Starkey, Richard Ingrams (who confessed he did not have Johnson's courage to be rude to people in person), John Humphrys, Kelvin MacKenzie, Simon Heffer and, even, Simon Cowell, although he was aware he was pushing things there. Ann Widdecombe was "about as Johnsonian as it is possible to be in a skirt". Marr caught Johnson's quintessence: a cruel mouth but a kind heart.
The programme's producers, Julia Adamson and Tom Alban, took Marr out on location, and the device by which he had to announce, "Here I am, standing in X" proved surprisingly atmospheric. I was glad Marr liked Johnson so much despite his gloom and viciousness, particularly when aimed at Marr's country. Only one parapraxis suggested a little lingering Scottish resentment. He pronounced Gough Square, where Johnson lived and wrote his dictionary, "guff". A good joke but not, I think, a deliberate one.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times
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