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BBC Icons- A Well-intentioned if Flimsy Testament to the Human Spirit

ByHarry Caine

Feb 8, 2019

One person can make all the difference. This is the message that the BBC’s Icons series makes clear time and time again. The aim of the programme is to present the most significant figures of the 20th Century by field (leaders, artists, scientists) and then subsequent public votes are made to determine who the country believes is the greatest icon of the twentieth century.

These sorts of programmes come along every now and again and while they provoke discussion, they often lack depth. Icons is no exception. Each episode is an hour long and features four people, which may sound reasonable but the paltry 15 minutes on each figure means that the icons are only looked at in surface-level terms. In the first episode on leaders, Trevor McDonald tries his best to lend gravitas to proceedings – the visit to Nelson Mandela’s prison cell is particularly poignant – but on the whole, one can’t help but feel that a Wikipedia binge on each person would be a quicker and more informative use of their time.

The second episode on explorers was, like its predecessor, adequate at presenting chestnut-sized biopics, however, all sense of weightiness and pathos fell flat due to the particularly baffling choice of presenter in Dermot O’Leary. Trevor McDonald felt like the appropriate choice for the leaders episode. He had interviewed Margaret Thatcher multiple times in his career and was the first person to interview Mandela after he was released. For the explorers episode, Ellen MacArthur would have been a perfect fit. Or Michael Palin, maybe even Ray Mears. Almost anyone would have made a better presenter than O’Leary.

It doesn’t matter whether he’s telling you how Jane Goodall contributed to the climate change movement or the legacies  Gertrude Bell left on US Foreign Policy in the 2000s. His tone comes across in exactly the same way as when he’s interviewing amateur dance troupes or poking fun at Simon Cowell. The without-doubt iconic figures are not done the greatest service by his trademark Saturday-night-in authenticity. 

The subsequent episodes of Icons are not presented by O’Leary. But the motivation to persist with any more of the series simply isn’t there. A competently put together programme can be made a complete mess of if the presenter is unpalatable in every way imaginable. One person really can make all the difference.


Image credit: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science via Wikimedia Commons

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