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Every now and then, on the letters page of The over, a passionate yet respectful debate breaks out whether it is right to refer to the monarch as Queen Elizabeth I, as some Scots do because the nation did not have a Queen Elizabeth until after the Union Act of 1707, or as Queen Elizabeth II.
The host jumps in within the first few minutes in his latest three-part documentary, New Elizabethans with Andrew Marr (BBC2, Thursday, 9 p.m.), and declares her Elizabeth II. As every spectator knows of his Sunday morning interrogations of politicians, it is a brave soul who challenges the fact-checking ability of the other Andy of Scotland (the first, of course, is Mr. Murray).
As he sets out his ideas for the series, Marr has a lot on his plate, the core point of which is that the United Kingdom has experienced dramatic change since the coronation of 1953, most of it for the worse, but some of it for the better. He selects a variety of individuals to demonstrate his points, his “New Elizabethans,” who described their times in some way or pointed a way to the future.
The “New Elizabethans” list is long and varied, ranging from Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid to Sir David Attenborough and Anita Roddick, founder of “The Body Shop” to celebrated chef Elizabeth David, who introduced the bland, beige fare of post-war Britain to vibrant Mediterranean cuisine.
There is a companion book to the series, Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged, as usual for Marr, the crafty journalist, which will no doubt be on the Christmas wish list of many. But through archival and contemporary video, the period really comes alive on television.
He has selected some fantastic tales, some of them less well known than others. There’s not much different, by and large, but Marr deftly and persuasively packages the details, and his arguments are convincing. Fittingly, he cites the innovation and marketing and PR skills of Britain as some of the fields we remain world beaters in.
Yeah, you’re bad, but you like me. Hi honky tonks. About the toothy vicar. Man-starving Hettie. The prickly pensioner, Lampwick. Characters and sayings like these will either leave you absolutely blank depending on your age, or spell out the name of an entertainer in big showbizzy lights: Dick Emery. Anything Dick Emery’s Comedy Gold (Channel 5, Sunday, 9:30 p.m.) attempts to alter until the king of Saturday night TV, you rarely hear of him anymore. “The 110-minute film, directed by Ricky Kelehar, who calls him “the forgotten man of comedy,” traces a direct line to the comedians of recent times from the comedian who survived a post-war stint at London’s Windmill Theatre (where almost only naked models performed), where nobody came for the comedy.
One contributor says that in modern comedy there is more of Dick Emery than many people understand, but since his shows are not repeated, they don’t know. Little Britain, The Fast Show and Catherine Tate are among others on the road he pioneered with character-based comedy.
Quick Show writer and performer Charlie Higson understands better than anyone the strength and tyranny of a catchphrase and a character. It was something Emery was suffering from: the comedy characters gave him money and success, but no matter how much he wanted to be known as a serious actor and make it into a movie, he could never escape them. Television had made him go, and TV had never let him go.
This is a fascinating portrait from another age of an actor. His early years and his time with the RAF are a tale in itself. Throughout his life, he was a doting son, but his many mothers, girlfriends and children had to deal with what was left of his time. At the speed of one of his favorite bikes, he was speeding in and out of existence. “He was a strange man,” one son says.
The many clips explain why the work of Emery fell out of favor. Time has moved on, and attitudes have moved on, and what may have seemed amusing then now seems crass. Still, even in unexpected ways, the film finds defenders who dispute that Emery’s broad comedy was beyond the pale. “For instance, his gay character Clarence is held up as a proud “outed” man.
Whether you believe it or not, Emery’s effect on pop culture, then and now, is not in question. Despite his wealth, the majority of which he invested, and his wealth