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TV reviews: Falklands War: The Untold Story and Banned: The Mary Whitehouse Story

Benjie Goodhart / 25 March 2022

Two new documentaries hit the airwaves this week, including a feature-length look at the Falklands War and a two-part series on Mary Whitehouse.

The Falklands - Mount Longdon
The Falklands - Mount Longdon. The Falklands: The Untold Story, Channel 4

Falklands War: The Untold Story, Sunday 27th March, 9pm, Channel 4

When the PR granted me access to this feature-length documentary about the Falklands War, he sent me an email. It said, pithily: “A bullying neighbour trying to seize territory that it regards as historically theirs - but an invasion that quickly proves more difficult than they imagined. Can’t really see the relevance to anything we’re living through.” Tragically, of course, as the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. It’s difficult to watch this absolutely fascinating, comprehensive overview of the Falkands War without thinking of the even worse carnage that is being wreaked just 1300 miles away.

I remember the Falklands War happening. I was nine. It was all rather exciting, as wars tend to be if they’re far away and you are a nine-year-old boy who plays with soldiers. I remember being glued to Brian Hanrahan’s reports sent back from the task force, and the line “I counted them all out, and I counted them all back.” I remember my parents being disgusted with The Sun’s unbelievably crass headline ‘Gotcha’ when the General Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 368 lives. And I remember the absolute certainty that we were going to win, and the wave of patriotism that followed victory and the return of the troops.

But this documentary tells a rather different story. Sure, it is full of the extraordinary courage and skill of the brave men who travelled 13,000 miles to liberate the islands. But it is also a story of bungling, incompetence, chaos, disagreements, trauma and bloodshed. War, it turns out, is a pretty grim business. Who knew?

The film is your standard mix of archive footage and talking heads, but what separates it from the norm is the meticulous detail in recording what happened, and the outstanding array of interviewees, from key military and intelligence figures on both sides, to troops on the ground, war reporter Max Hastings, and even the widow of Colonel H Jones, posthumous winner of the Victoria Cross.

The simple facts are these. On 2nd April 1982, the Argentine army invaded the Falkland Islands. Within days, the British government responded, sending a task force of 8000 troops to retake the islands. The entire operation was run from an underground bunker at Northwood, in Middlesex.

But fighting a war, at a moment’s notice, halfway around the world, was a complex business, and right from the beginning, it seems that the campaign was beset by difficulties. As one senior military figure opines: “We very nearly lost the war due to some extraordinarily bad decisions that were taken by Northwood with regards to the land battle.”

Intriguingly, the gist of the film is that the outcome of the conflict was far more finely poised than was assumed at the time. One by one, those who were part of the task force reveal a catalogue of blunders and tactical errors that came within a whisker of derailing the whole operation. At one point, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Rose, who was in command of 22 SAS, and is speaking publicly about the war for the first time, reveals that if the Argentine army had launched a mountaintop assault ten minutes earlier, “we might have lost the war.”

For viewers, this is an extraordinary historical documentary, and one well worth 90-minutes of your time. But for those who were there, it remains a part of their lives every day. In an incredibly powerful moment, Captain Jan Koops of the Welsh Guards remembers his fallen comrades: “40 years on. It’s a long time, but in many ways it’s no time. I’ve got those families with me now. I’ve got those guys, as I’m sitting here now, talking to you. They’ve been with me every day of my life, and will be so. And then, wherever we go at the end of life, I will go and join them.”

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Banned: The Mary Whitehouse Story 1/2, Tuesday 29th March, 9pm, BBC Two

As a liberal, I’m not much in favour of banning things. I mean, sure, I’d ban umbrellas (horrible, eye-level prongs for tall people). And I’d ban the phrase “It is what it is”. That’s just a collection of words that doesn’t mean anything. I’d ban stinky cheese. And the infuriating fashion of wearing your jeans with the waist down at knee level. Oh, and lentils. In a heartbeat. And any shoes that cost over £100. Same with handbags. Oh, and herbal tea, that’s gone too. And facial tattoos. Okay, it seems I’d ban quite a few things. Maybe I’m not so liberal after all.

But I’m steadfastly against banning stuff on TV. As such, I would put myself firmly in the opposition camp to Mary Whitehouse. The campaigner, a devout Christian who dedicated her life to railing against the permissive society and what she saw as a war against her way of life, was about as illiberal as it gets. But you can’t say she wasn’t good at what she did.

This remarkable two-part documentary charts her life, and her career as head of the National viewers and Listeners Association. Using archive footage, interviews, and just some of the gazillion letters of complaint she wrote to the BBC, this is a comprehensive and fascinating look at a woman driven by a sense of duty and a feeling of moral outrage. Much of the footage is of Whitehouse’s numerous TV appearances. She might not have agreed with its output, but she certainly understood the power and reach of the medium, and was as feisty and doughty a debater as you could ever wish to see. Or wish not to see, if you were Sir Hugh Greene, the BBC’s Director general and focus of much of her ire.

Whitehouse began her campaign in the early 1960s, appalled by the direction society was taking. While young people were enjoying the fruits of freedom, music, and the cultural revolution of the decade, she was tucked away in her office with smoke coming out of her typewriter. A teacher in Telford, she was embarking upon a 30-year crusade that would make her one of the most recognisable figures in public life. It was an extraordinary transformation, as her biographer, Ben Thompson, points out: “How did a 53-year-old woman with no real experience of political campaigning build a political movement in her own image?”

The first of this two-part series documents her meteoric rise, and her remarkable ability as a campaigner. As well as her letters, she collected massive petitions (one with 380,000 signatures), appeared on radio and TV, and travelled the country giving talks to acolytes. The story follows her battling against what she saw as anarchists and communists at the BBC (although the footage of Sir Hugh Greene suggests that he was very definitely neither of those things), and her disgust at sex education films, TV plays such as Ken loach’s Up the Junction, pornography, Till Death Us Do Part, Last Tango in Paris, and even the Beatles.

Today, she might be remembered as a figure of derision and mockery by many, but what this series reveals is just what an effective campaigner she was. It was largely due to her efforts that Sir Hugh Greene retired from the BBC – whereupon he promptly bought a painting of Whitehouse, naked, with five breasts. I know all art is subjective, but I’m not sure I’d have wanted that gazing down at me in my twilight years.

And she did it all for free. She was never paid a penny for her efforts. It’s difficult not to have some form of admiration for Mary Whitehouse, even if I abhor almost everything she stood for.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 26th March

Chernobyl: The New Evidence, 7:30pm, Channel 4: Part one of two. Documentary exploring catalogue of errors that occurred in the run-up to the nuclear disaster, examining newly declassified evidence from the KGB archives about the safety of the plant.

Sunday 27th March

The Misinvestigations of Romesh Ranganathan, 9pm, BBC Two: The comedian examines the lives and untimely deaths of some of pop culture's biggest stars, with criminal psychologists and private detectives helping him dig deep into each case. Romesh begins by attempting to resolve the mysterious death of American rock star Jimi Hendrix.

Holidaying with Jane McDonald: The Caribbean 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: The singer and TV presenter embarks upon the trip of a lifetime, around the Caribbean, beginning tonight in Barbados.

Monday 28th March

HMP Wakefield: Evil Behind Bars, 9pm, Channel 5: Through interviews with ex-inmates, retired guards and relatives of Britain's most infamous inmates, this documentary uncover secrets of life inside one of the UK's toughest jails.

Tuesday 29th March

Convert for Ukraine, 8pm, ITV: A star-studded line-up of musicians perform some of their most powerful hits, in aid of the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal, in front a live audience at Birmingham's NEC Arena.

Thursday 31st March

Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars, 1/8, 9pm, BBC One: The acerbic chef sets out on the hunt for the next generation `food star", seeking someone running an exciting and innovative food or drink business in which Ramsay will invest £150,000 of his own money. The Apprentice meets Dragons’ Den meets MasterChef, with an angry man at the helm.

Horizon: How to Sleep Well with Michael Mosley, 9pm, BBC Two: I’m not absolutely sure I want to sleep well with Michael Mosley, but there it is. This documentary follows Mosley in search of the latest insights into how we can all get a little more of the all-important shut-eye.

Friday 1st April

Have I Got News for You, 9pm, BBC One: Whatever will they find to talk about? The marvellous Clive Myrie hosts, with Paul Merton and Ian Hislop team captains, as ever.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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