This article first appeared on Reaction.
Brunel: The Man Who Built Britain. Channel 5
A few weeks ago I wrote about the unpredictable quality of Channel 5’s multifarious and omnipresent royal documentaries. Some are complete tat, whereas others combine original research with dramatic interpretation.
This month they have treated us to three documentaries on great historic figures who we have all heard of but few of us are experts on. Last week it was Nelson, next week it is Lawrence of Arabia, but this week we were treated to a superb film about the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was two hours of fact, interpretation and drama. Yes, two hours! It is a real tribute to the schedulers at Channel 5 that they allow programmes like this to be shown over two hours rather than 30 minutes, 45 minutes or an hour. Yes, there were advert breaks – let’s remember, without adverts, there would be no money to make programmes like this – but we still had more than an hour and forty minutes of fascinating and pacey documentary.
The programme combined a voiceover soundtrack with talking head experts, each of whom really knew their subject. Sometimes in programmes like this you listen to a gob on a stick and think to yourself: “This muppet knows little more than I do” and they’ve clearly been given a script to guide their less than informative commentary. Not here.
Even the dramatic recreations seemed authentic and helped keep the viewer’s attention. By the end of the two hours I felt enriched and educated. This film – indeed, all three films in the series – should be shown in every school in the country. The reason we know all too little about our own country’s history is because some of our country’s greatest people are routinely ignored in the history curriculum.
Brunel would figure fairly near the top of any list of Great Britons, and this programme showed us why. He was a great man but with flaws. He was also a lucky man, escaping death more than once during the construction of his various grand projets. He also experienced failure, not least the launch of the biggest ship in the world, the Great Eastern. Many men died during the construction of his great works – especially the Great Western Railway - and like many driven men, he could be ruthless and appear unempathetic. But this should not detract from the greatness of the man. He died at the very early age of 53, and it is tempting to speculate on what else he would have managed to achieve had he lived another twenty years. He was a genius, and this programme revels in his glory. Rightly so. His legacy endures in the fabric of our every lives. Even if we don’t know it.
Making an Impression podcast, Simon Lipson
I’ve only recently discovered this podcast and am working my way through its back catalogue of 25 episodes. In a way, this podcast demonstrates the brilliance of the genre, as it plays to a niche. And it’s probably a pretty small niche, but I suspect there are more people than I think who are fascinated by impressionists and how they do what they do. Simon Lipson is himself an impressionist and has been a regular on Dead Ringers on Radio 4. In each episode he interviews an impressionist, many of whom are household names, but some are not familiar to me. But they all have a story to tell. Past guests include Steve Nallon (the voice of Margaret Thatcher in Spitting Image), Rory Bremner (he gets two episodes), Josh Berry, Alistair McGowan and Jon Culshaw. Missing so far is the granddaddy of them all, Mike Yarwood. It was he who fascinated me when I was growing up in the 1970s. I wanted to be an impressionist too, but to be honest I hadn’t got the vocal range to carry it off. Even now, the only person I can do a passable impression of is William Hague.
Each of the impressionists has provided a really insightful account of how they ply their trade and create their voices. It’s always fascinating to find out who they can’t do, as opposed to who they love doing. Some impressionists get typecast with one or two voice. Steve Nallon cannot be separated from Margaret Thatcher. Mike Yarwood’s Ted Heath and Denis Healey are unforgettable. He even gave Denis Healey a catchphrase (Silly billies) which Healey himself had never once uttered. Rory Bremner’s Ritchie Benaud and Tony Benn will stay long in the memory.
This is a fascinating podcast series and I so hope Simon Lipson manages to get Mike Yarwood to agree to appear on it.