Smooth drivetime architecture: what’s wrong with “How we built Britain” by David Dimbleby.

You can see the remorseless logic of getting David Dimbleby, the veteran British TV presenter, to write and present a BBC heritage TV series and its spin-off book. There he is, patrician yet genial. A famous name, an enthusiast for the environment, intelligent and inquiring. He’s the default voice for important state occasions. If you put him onto castles and stately homes and bridges, what could possibly go wrong?

In a way, nothing. In another way, everything. In signing up Dimbleby of the mellow voice and wry smile, Dimbleby the TV professional, they got themselves a very polished product. But they forgot two rather important things: original content and interesting comment. So what you get – in the TV series and book alike – is the heritage equivalent of Smooth Drivetime Classics. You know all this stuff. It’s vaguely comforting. But it leaves no mental residue, no trace in your consciousness at all.

At least in the book you avoid some of the tedious visual clichés that the TV series churns out. The tracking shot of Dimbleby in his Land Rover, crossing one verdant landscape after another. Dimbleby talking at the wheel. Dimbleby talking while walking. Dimbleby wearing one of two shirts – usually the pink one but just occasionally the blue one. Dimbleby attempting to shear a sheep. Dimbleby eating a medieval banquet. You are spared all of this in the book, apart from the man with his pink shirt, wry smile, and slightly natty socks on the cover.

Content? It’s like one of those 1930s histories, a weird mix of Arthur Mee’s King’s England series, and Sellar and Yeatman (of “1066 and All That” fame) without the humour. Apparently we were conquered by the Normans (Dimbleby, who claims Viking descent, thinks that was A Bad Thing). Medieval cathedrals were A Good Thing but seemingly there was a lot of death from plague at one point. The Elizabethans built grand houses. The Georgians also built grand houses, plus canals. The Victorians were dead good at industry, especially in the north. In the 20th century, modernism happened, and today we get buildings like Norman Foster’s Gherkin. But funnily enough, most of us still like historic stuff. Cue closing credits. Oh bugger, forgot Scotland. Let’s make that a separate chapter. We can shoehorn Ireland into the Georgian bit. Wales we can safely ignore.

It is chronically unambitious. You can imagine how much better this series – and this book – might have been in the hands of a knowledgeable iconoclast such as Jonathan Meades, or even a gesticulating historian of the Simon Schama or Dan Cruickshank variety. Those people may have their ghastly mannerisms but they start from a basis of knowledge. Dimbleby, in contrast, is a blank page with researchers at his disposal. It shows. The wry smile and the pink shirt, the mellifluous manner, are not enough. Besides, he seems bored, most of the time. This is popular history by numbers.

Let me be fair. He writes fluently, if a little stiffly. Very occasionally he produces an insight. He relates how he once met Osama bin Laden’s illiterate multi-millionaire building contractor father, and reckons the court of that Bin Laden must have been very like that of a powerful post-Conquest Norman family such as the De Veres. That’s neat. And on recent architecture, he wins my grudging respect for recognising that Richard Rogers’ complex, layered Lloyd’s of London building is a more interesting proposition than the smart, seductive one-liner of Foster’s Gherkin. Spot on. But that’s about it.

On telly, this makes just-about-OK visual wallpaper with a swelling soundtrack. There’s no particular need to listen to the words. But why on earth would anybody buy this book? If there is such a thing as GCSE architectural history, this would be a perfectly competent crib. But if you seek insight, look elsewhere.

© Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on June 10, 2007.