In one of many audacious assertions in a book that tells the story of Britain from 1952 to the present day, Andrew Marr writes that if Shakespeare was 'the hot-glowing cultural figure of the first Elizabethan age, then the Beatles—John, Paul, George and Ringo—performed a parallel role in the second.' ... The packaging of Britain’s story into a 'reign’s length' is attractive nonetheless, because it acknowledges that Queen Elizabeth has been the one truly constant factor in a nation that has been an outlier among major Western powers ... Mr. Marr has written an ambitious book in which he accords more attention to subtle social shifts than he does to 'the big, visible changes' —things such as the disappearance of bowler hats, the emptying of churches and the springing up of mosques, of which we know already ... Elizabethans is an affectionate account of a singular kingdom whose flaws Mr. Marr seldom ignores. His evaluation strikes a note of humility. Cast aside illusions, he says, and forget absurd ambitions.
What does Andrew Marr, formerly of this parish, bring that is new to this discussion? Elizabethans takes a clear starting point – the coronation of our currently ruling monarch – and moves towards the days we are living through; the introduction cleverly elides the Queen’s speech about the NHS with the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation from Covid-19. Quite a contrast. What, I feel, it brings is a journalist’s eye for the human story ... It helps that Marr is such a well-known broadcaster, as you can hear the cadence and timbre of his intonation on almost every page. That is not a glib comment: there is an element of trust built into the book ... Throughout the book, this fascination with the stories of the people who became Elizabethans is both informative and entertaining.
Marr’s interest, as his title suggests, is less in reporting the changing times than spotlighting the main players ... If Elizabethans were a novel read by Martians, they would complain the plot lacked credibility: how could these belligerent, class-obsessed Brits change both so much and so little over one reign? ... All of which shows what rich terrain Marr has to traverse, and there can be no better guide to the Elizabethan landscape. Having been at the vanguard of journalism for the past 30 years, Marr has interviewed many of the figures he discusses ... At the heart of his plot is the irony that we have been so busy falling out over whether or not to be European that we failed to notice we’ve become American.