You wouldn’t necessarily have guessed this from the quality of commemorative programming on TV this week.
You wouldn’t necessarily have guessed this from the quality of commemorative programming on TV this week. But just recently, we’ve marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of an event that used to be considered quite important and interesting. It was called the second world war.
Now that it has been superseded by issues of such seismic significance as climate change, the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and Jordan’s on-off marriage to Peter Andre, one can of course fully understand why TV feels unable to give WWII the thorough and respectful coverage it did in the past. Even so, I can’t help feeling that it still deserves a little better than The Week We Went to War (BBC1, all week) and Land Girls (BBC1, all week).
Sometimes, it takes my wife to make me realise just how bad a really bad thing is. Her reaction when she wandered in, halfway through the first episode of TWWWTW, was visceral and uncompromising: ‘What is this rubbish? Is this meant for children? Who is that woman? Turn it off!’
The woman — a warm, likeable, buxom-blonde-barmaid, daytime-TV-presenter type — turned out to be the Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins. Apparently she has been giving open-air concerts all summer and there’s not a dry eye in the audience when she sings ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ as a Spitfire flies overhead. She’s also the new official Forces Sweetheart, so you can see why the BBC decided to give her the job. But it was still a wrong decision. As wrong as it would be, say, if you were making a six-part documentary series called Hell on the Eastern Front, to go: ‘Mmm. I know, for a change shall we not get Sam West to do the voiceover this time? How about we go for funny-glasses-wearing, camp-voiced, gay comedian Alan Carr instead?’
I don’t know what’s wrong with the BBC. They used to do this kind of thing so well. My guess is that all the people who might have cared about the second world war have long since retired, replaced by a new generation which feels as embarrassed about it as they do about having to fill a compulsory Sunday religious slot. I mean, World War II, it’s like, so kind of jingoistic, isn’t it? And racist, too, the way it encourages such negative stereotyping of the Germans and the Japanese? And definitely quite dangerously militaristic. Sexist, too, when you think that, apart from the odd Soviet Yak pilot here and SOE operative there, most of the actual fighting stuff was done by men.
That’ll be another reason they recruited Katherine Jenkins, then. She looks about as totally un-second-world-war as anyone could. As did the studio, despite the fact that they’d put antimacassars over a leather sofa that could have come from any era between 1900 and 2009. ‘What do you think of the set, Michael?’ Jenkins asked her awkward-looking co-host Michael Aspel, there because — famously — he was an evacuee in the war. Aspel decided to comment on the antimacassars which, he had to admit, weren’t an especially WWII thing — but were sort of because they had them in the house to which he was evacuated. Phew!
But now the programme had a major problem: how do you make the second world war relevant to modern audiences who think Churchill is a dog on an insurance ad and Hitler won the battle of Hastings? Simple. First you get a magazine-type section in which a man from Antiques Roadshow, dressed up like a prat, goes to Bletchley Park and plays with some period toys. Then, when you talk to survivors of the Catford school where 38 children having their lunch were killed by the Luftwaffe in 1943, you avoid key details (like the fact that it was FW-190s that did it: i.e., fighters, not bombers) but include distracting irrelevancies like shots of the (mostly non-white) kids who are at the school now having their lunch.
I mention the ‘mostly non-white’ thing because I think if we want to get close to understanding the second world war we need to try to visualise it as it was, not try to reimagine it through a filter of PC multicultural pieties. This was the mistake (one of the many) made by Land Girls, a shinily implausible daytime drama that had apparently spent so much on the cast (Nathaniel Parker, Sophie Ward, etc.) and on dressing up rural England to look like an ad for Cath Kidston that it had nothing left for the script. And I lost count of the number of scenes in which lovable rustics/townie newcomers performed comical pratfalls in the mud.
In the first part, a Billie Piper-lookalike became an unlikely civil rights campaigner, after a local shop put up a sign saying ‘Whites Only’ to keep out the black GIs. This was a classic case of Archers syndrome: bien-pensant, metropolitan scriptwriters and producers telling country life as they’d like it to be rather than as it actually is.