Dominic Sandbrook has a genius for helping us notice things that are right before our very eyes. His TV programmes take trivialities from everyday life – such as Coronation Street or Top of the Pops – and draw patterns between them to illustrate a complex social history of our times. The approach is democratic and beguiling.
Sandbrook’s latest series, Let Us Entertain You (BBC2, Wednesdays, 9pm), explores the hidden meanings of British popular culture in the 20th century. In the latest episode he shows how Victorian concerns with morality, poverty and environmental decline are reflected in Doctor Who, Catherine Cookson’s potboilers and John Wyndham’s sci-fi.
It’s not Sandbrook’s bag to draw firm conclusions. The fact that all of them evinced a horror of dehumanisation caused by the Industrial Revolution is left as an observation rather than an indictment of our rather hypocritical attitude towards wealth creation. The Brits love to build a factory, make millions out of it, moan that it’s polluting the local duck pond, tear it down and then complain that there aren’t any “real” jobs left.
Nor are the heroes who fight for the duck ponds always very attractive. Sandbrook casts Doctor Who as the archetypal Victorian explorer – a solver of other races’ problems. The comparison is apt but is it flattering? Remember that as well as being Byronic, the Time Lord is often also patronising, patriarchal and thunderingly rude. And as he wanders around deserts in a floppy hat and scarf he is surely the quintessential Englishman abroad: refusing to dress appropriately. The Doctor is no different to all those ghastly Brits who swagger around sacred temples in boob-tubes.
But even if Sandbrook is reluctant to tell us what to think of ourselves, he certainly does make us think again. Cookson’s novels, I’m surprised to learn, painted a violent and gritty picture of working-class life. And the real Victorian London was rife with child prostitution, crime and addiction. The past was horrible and the British should probably be thankful for the little progress we’ve made.
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (20/11/15)
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