The BBC has worked hard this November to find new ways of presenting the Remembrance theme on TV. Some worked and some didn’t.
The My Family at War series was made by the Who do You Think You Are? people, and took celebrities back to battlefields where their ancestors fought. This usually provided a pleasant mixture of sentiment and fun – an emotive moment by a white gravestone balanced by Phil Tufnell having a wild time riding in a biplane. The most thought-provoking was Dan Snow’s discovery that his great-grandfather was not only a lousy general, but a bit of a bastard – a tart contrast to the generally easy emotions of this series.
Jo Brand’s Vera Brittain programme turned out better than I’d anticipated. She obviously had a real interest in her subject, and gave a good straight account of Brittain’s career. What she didn’t do was ask whether Testament of Youth was affected by the time it was written (early thirties) as much as by the time it described – but maybe that’s too much to ask of popular telly.
The Remembrance jamboree in the Albert Hall on Saturday was fascinating as ever. A mixture of religious reverence, military drum-banging and pure kitsch. The kitsch seems to have got kitschier than ever – we used to get Tipperary and Vera Lynn – now it’s In Flanders Fields crooned to music of quite excruciating sentimentality. Until a few years ago, the Festival of Remembrance used to be about the past – remembering the sacrifices made by old men. This year’s was more about the present, and the miserable operations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. These unpopular wars, which we would mostly rather not think about, are given their place in a military tradition. The music lets the project down though. While the two world wars inspired both rock-solid popular hits and classical masterpieces (think Irving Berlin, think Vaughan Williams) the music on offer here was neither popular nor good; these are wars that neither the popular nor the artistic imagination wants to connect with.
Walter’s War on BBC4 carried a warning at the start that little was known about Walter Tull’s life, and that some scenes in the play were fictional. This is a good contender for the Understatement of the Year award. Walter Tull was a black professional footballer, who during the war rose through the ranks to become an officer. A memorial has recently been erected to him in Northampton.
There is a good story here, but this play told it risibly. It showed Tull’s period of officer training, and played the race card for all it was worth. Tull was the one experienced soldier among a load of snobbish public schoolboys, and the play made him consistently superior to them in every possible way – morally, physically, mentally, and even sexually, because he was the only one of them to get a girlfriend. This was chip-on-the-shoulder wish-fulfilment stuff of the most embarrassing sort. You felt sorry for the writer who displayed his inferiority complex so blatantly. The least convincing character in the play was an ex-public schoolboy who secretly whispered socialist propaganda to Tull (who listened, but went his own noble way). The character was deeply unconvincing, especially in his language, referring to the pernicious “Establishment” forty-odd years befor that word was used to descibe the political classes.
Who was this play written for? Was it supposed to supply a role model for black kids? In the week of Obama’s victory, they’ve got a better one, and any black kids who actually managed to find this hidden away on BBC4 would, I suspect, feel mightily condescended to.
The best programme of the season was Ian Hislop’s latest Not Forgotten, this time about conscientious objectors. Hislop is one of the best current presenters of documentaries at the moment. He knows a lot about his subject, but makes new discoveries, and conveys the interest and excitement of research. Like previous programmes in the series, this one explored individual cases, and told some extraordinary stories. There was the Methodist lay preacher who became a total refuser, was imprisoned in Richmond castle, and was even taken to France for a court-martial and a death-sentence (not carried out). There were the two officer brothers who decided together that war was wrong.
Hislop was alive to the complexities of the stories. These men showed great courage, but so did those who enlisted and faced greater dangers. Overall, the programme presented the war as something which confronted men with appalling moral difficulties, through which each had to pick his own way as best he could.
If I have a cavil with the programme it is with its concentration on individuals. The Methodist was alone in his congregation in taking a stand against the war, and a soldier who made his own small protest by becoming a bad soldier told nobody for decades.
There was mention of the Friends’ Ambulance Service, in which Quakers worked together, but no sense of civilian communities supporting objectors, of the sort that were revealed in Cyril Pearce’s Comrades in Conscience. Pearce described the network of supportive communities (including the Quakers, but also the Socialist Sunday School movement) that gave moral support to those who refused to support the war.
Andonce again I must ask – where are the Christadelphians? To repeat some statistics that I have given before, of 3,964 objectors referred to the Pelham Committee:
- 140 were from the Society of Friends
- 145 were Plymouth Brethren
- 112 were Methodists
- 66 were Jehovah’s Witnesses
- 51 were Church of England
- 10 were Seventh Day Adventists
- 9 were from the Community of the Son of God
- 8 were from the Peculiar People
- 5 were Christian Scientist
- 3 were from the Jewish Christian Church
- 3 were Tolstoyan
- 3 were Nazarites
- 1 was from Dowie’s Church
- 1 was Swedenborgian
but 1,716(that’s nearly half) were Christadelphians. Yet their stories are never told. Maybe next time, Mr Hislop…