Viewers who have been enjoying Let Us Entertain You on BBC 2 this month should find the accompanying book – with a lengthy title that bears absolutely no resemblance to the TV name – a fascinating read.
But at 648 pages, it’s certainly a case of dipping in and out rather than making sense of it all in one ‘box set’ session.
Like the TV series, the book is split into four vaguely thematic parts and whilst the programmes have spanned a full four hours, the style of historian Dominic Sandbrook’s written offering is such that you can casually ‘fast forward’ or ‘replay’ at will if you feel you might not have grasped a particular point that is revisited or expanded on in a later chapter.
The author even makes the point that unlike any of his previous books it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle which could easily be reassembled to give a very different picture… and he’s right!
Some sections could be swapped around to emphasise very different points because the content encourages readers to consider parallels and connections which might never even have occurred to the author. Sandbrook freely admits that he has since changed his own mind about some of the points already made.
So which came first, the TV series or the book?
The four-part TV series has thrown up many intriguing facts and theories about our country’s so-called Dream Factory, while the book bands together seemingly everything and everyone you could imagine under the guise of British culture which has been successfully shared with the rest of the world.
Consider, for instance, the impact – not least on the ears – of Black Sabbath’s pioneering legacy of heavy metal music in the 1970s, or the virtues of Oscar Wilde promoting Madame Fontaine’s Bosom Beautifier almost a century earlier.
Sandbrook also looks at the eye-catching gyrations of that nubile, scantily clad dance troupe Pan’s People on Top of the Pops and clocks the spectacle, or rather spectacles, worn to great effect in Coronation Street by the late Anne Kirkbride, no more so than during the national headline-grabbing campaign to free from prison her screen character Deirdre. Support for ‘The Weatherfield One’ even reached 10 Downing Street during Tony Blair’s watch.
Think of a TV programme and it is bound to be in there: Doctor Who (watched in almost every developed country in the world), Minder and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, to pick three at random.
Home-grown movies like Blow-Up, Billy Elliot and Blade Runner are among the examples of big screen showings… and that is just the letter B.
And when it comes to literature, Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling has sold more than 400 million books, statistics show that Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel after Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, whilst only Shakespeare and the Bible have outsold Agatha Christie.
As for music, The Beatles, who hit international fame in 1962 and officially disbanded in April of 1970, remain the best-selling musical group of all time.
As Sandbrook spells out so successfully, there is no British empire any more, in manufacturing, military, diplomatic and economic terms we might not matter as we once did, but when it comes to popular culture no other country, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination.
And, by any stretch of our national imagination, that is an export drive we should be proud to shout about.
(Allen Lane, hardback, £25)