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TV review: Wartime Britain: Keep Calm and Carry On

Benjie Goodhart / 12 February 2021

In new two-part series Wartime Britain: Keep Calm and Carry On a family gets a taste of what life was like in World War II, and we look back at joyful series Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, in full on the iPlayer right now.

Wartime Britain: Keep Calm and Carry On 1/2, Wednesday 17th February, 9pm, Channel 5

At the beginning of this programme, you could be forgiven for thinking this was another look back at the last 12 months. “Gatherings of crowds were banned,” intones the voiceover, portentously. “Places of entertainment were to close. People were advised to stay in their homes.” Yeah, yeah, we know… “Not long after, the first air raid sirens sounded.” Wait? What? I don’t remember any bombing raids. It must have been a particularly gripping episode of Antiques Roadshow on that night, because the whole 2020 blitz thing completely passed me by.

Ohhhhh, my mistake. This isn’t a Covid retrospective (thank heavens) it’s a look back at what life was like for families living in Britain during the Second World War. The answer, it would appear, is not enormous fun.

This two-part documentary sees the Decker family living as if they were in wartime Britain, in a concept virtually identical to BBC Two’s Back in Time For… series. The Decker family consists of mum Louise, daughter Amelie (13) and son Bryson (9). Dad Phil has been excused, for the sake of realism, as so many men were away fighting. So while his wife is trying to persuade the kids to eat turnip jam and boil their socks, he’s presumably at home on his own getting stuck into Netflix with a take away curry and a six pack. Living the dream. Meanwhile, Louise and the kids arrive at the house, where there’s a sign: “Please deposit all electronic devices.” It would be at this point that the Goodhart family would elect to leave the experiment.

In the first year of the war, as the Battle of the Atlantic saw food imports increasingly hit by German U-boats, panic buying set in. I’ll bet you two sheets of Andrex you wouldn’t get that these days. As a result, rationing was brought in. The government introduced a slogan: “Food is a weapon. Do not waste it.” They must have tried the banana bread I made the other day. You could hole a battleship with it. Not that they made banana bread back then. Bananas were no longer imported.

The Deckers are planning out their weekly menu with their rations. It’s slim pickings. Traditionally, they have a take away on a Friday. Instead, mum suggests parsnip soup with faux excitement. Never mind, a professional chef is making the Deckers some treats, based on wartime recipes. One is an ‘ice lolly’. It is, quite literally, a chilled carrot on a stick. There are also carrot cookies, and a chocolate spread made almost entirely of potato. The kids decide that the carrot on a stick is much the best option.

Things don’t get much better for the hapless Deckers. One evening’s entertainment consists of making a vest and some slippers for dad. (I don’t think he needs a vest and slippers, he’s at home, cosy under the duvet watching Man United with a deep pan pepperoni feast). Another night sees Louise and Amelie glamming up using cornflower, beetroot lipstick and gravy powder. Bryson is notably absent, probably attempting to tunnel out of the family home.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s still time for a meal of brains and mock brains. It’s the one time you’d really be praying to get the fake, meat-free version. Remarkably, both kids are prepared to try brains. I can’t get my kids to have a ham sandwich without World War III breaking out in the kitchen.

This is actually a really interesting, well-researched, informative and entertaining watch, with expert interviews and archive footage intercut with the Deckers’ experiences. It’s also a valuable reminder that, as a nation, we’ve endured plenty worse than this before. They had to do it all without Ocado and Wifi, after all. The mind boggles.

Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, available on iPlayer

Apologies for dipping into the iPlayer archive for our second selection this week, but there is very little in the way of new material starting up in the next seven days, and much of it is being made right up until the last minute, so there is virtually nothing to preview.

Which, frankly, is great news, because I’ve been itching to write about this show.

I mentioned in last week’s blog that I have developed a penchant for watching ‘nice’ television. ‘Nice’, of course, is a terrible word. I well recall my English teacher – a fearsome beast whose passions for literature and shouting were equally fervent – almost decapitating me for using the word ‘nice’ in a descriptive passage.

Nice carries with it certain assumptions. Nice means bland. It means safe. It has about it a whiff of the slightly dull.

Well, allow me to present into evidence exhibit A. Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing is nice. It is gentle. It is slow paced. But it is in no way bland, or safe, or slightly dull. As millions of fans will readily attest.

I was slow to discover the joys of this series. I am a fan of both Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, but the idea of watching them go fishing just left me rather cold. Fishing just isn’t my cup of tea. I’m keen on the idea of all of that sitting – that works brilliantly for me. But all that outdoorsiness, and the waiting, and the cold, and the wateriness of the whole thing. And that’s without the fishiness of the experience. I like my fish to be either swimming happily in the water or sauteed in butter.

But this… oh, it’s simply a joy. It’s not really about fishing at all. I mean, anglers will probably love all the bits where they discuss what fly they’ll use, or how their casting. They’ll relate to Whitehouse’s manic excitement when something nibbles on the line. But the bulk of the show is just two very funny, very charming friends discussing life, and teasing each other.

The show originated several years ago, in the aftermath of Mortimer’s triple heart bypass. Whitehouse, who has also had heart surgery, phoned Mortimer’s wife to find out how the recovery was going, and learned that his friend wasn’t leaving the house, and was in a bad place, mentally. So he invited him fishing. Mortimer has subsequently revealed the effect it had on him. “There comes a moment when you realise you’ve said nothing for an hour and a half. I haven’t thought about anything else. I haven’t worried about the past, or the future.”

After the two had been fishing together for a while, they decided to turn their hobby into a TV show. What better a way to make a living than to turn your hobby into your job. I’d love to be able to do that, but instead I’m forced to sit on my sofa watching TV… oh, hang on…

The result is that there are three series of this quietly magical show now available to watch on iPlayer. Each episode sees the pair on the hunt for a different fish, in a different river, in a different part of the UK. They always find somewhere delightfully quirky to stay, and while Paul is in charge of the all things fishing-related, Bob is responsible for the heart-healthy cuisine.

The whole thing is visually stunning: It’s like a nature documentary mixed with a tourist board video. But at the heart of this series is two men of a certain age, reflecting on life, death, love, loss, faith, ageing and friendship. Their constant teasing of one another belies a touching friendship, and their affectionate rapport makes their mutual fondness palpable. Nice never felt so good.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 13th February

Princess Margaret: Queen of Mustique, 9pm, Channel 5: Princess Margaret was never happier or more relaxed than when holidaying on her beloved Caribbean island. This documentary uses archive footage and personal testimony to reveal the sometimes outrageous and X-rated antics that the royal party girl got up to on her tropical escapes.

Monday 15th February

Panorama: Vaccines – The Disinformation War, 7:35pm, BBC One: Marianna Spring looks at the scare tactics of anti-vaxxers, whose social media campaign has targeted the vulnerable and the young.

Tuesday 16th February

Inside the Zoo 1/8, 7pm, BBC Two: Documentary going behind the scenes with animals and keepers at Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park, in what looks likely to be a carbon copy of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of the Zoo, but with a Scottish accent.

Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild, 9pm, Channel 5: The divine Mr Fogle revisits Amanda Owen and her family at their remote farm in the Yorkshire Dales. Since his first visit, the family have become TV regulars in the show Our Yorkshire Farm.

Wednesday 17th February

Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords 1/10, 8pm, Channel 5: I have never watched this programme, but go ahead and fill your boots with series six.

Thursday 18th February

This Week on the Farm 1/7, 8pm, Channel 5: Helen Skelton and Jules Hudson follow the daily lives of farming brothers Rob and Dave Nicholson at Cannon Hall Farm in South Yorkshire.

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: Chris Eubank, 9pm, ITV: The journalist and interviewer grills the former middleweight champion about his glittering career, his teenage years as a shoplifter, his divorce, bankruptcy and his son, boxer Chris Eubank Jr.

Friday 19th February

Kate Humble’s Coastal Walks 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: The affable naturalist embarks on a series of walks around the UK, showcasing the best of the British coastline. In this series opener, she undertakes an 11-mile walk along Exmoor’s South West Coast Path.

Raiders of the Lost Past with Janina Ramirez, 9pm, BBC Two: The cultural historian looks at some of the great archaeological treasures, and the men who discovered them. In this episode, she travels to Crete to discover the truth behind the myth of the minotaur.

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