TV blog: Blitz – The Bombs that Changed Britain

Benjie Goodhart / 16 November 2017

This week, discover a moving Blitz documentary that cleverly focuses on just four bombs, plus the return of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here

Blitz: The Bombs that Changed Britain, Thursday 2rd November, 9pm, BBC Two

We live coddled lives, most of us, these days. We grumble when our WiFi isn’t quick enough, or not enough people ‘like’ our tweets, or the Ocado delivery is 20 minutes late. As problems go, they’re not earth-shattering. Nobody ever died because they couldn’t check Instagram for a few minutes, or because they were denied access to their sun-blushed-tomato-infused hummus for a short while. In short, those of us who can afford to heat our homes and don’t have to visit food banks don’t have much to moan about. Of course, it doesn’t stop us – moaning is as much a part of the human condition as eating, sleeping, and hoping our friends aren’t too successful. 

Which is why programmes like this are important. They remind us what life could have been like, were we born in a different time, or a different location. Were we around, for example, during the Blitz.

Whichever way you look at it, the Blitz was no trip to the ice cream parlour. Sure, there’s a popular image of an indomitable spirit, a togetherness, a community, people singing together on Tube platforms long into the night. (Today, if someone starts singing on the Tube platform, it means they’ve had nine pints of strong cider and should be given a suitably wide berth.) The reality of the Blitz was that it was dark, dirty, squalid, hugely destructive, phenomenally dangerous, and absolutely terrifying. Over 8 months, more than 450,000 bombs were dropped on the UK. It takes more than a smile and a sing-song to make up for that.

This new, four-part documentary series brings the reality of the Blitz to life, thanks to a rather brilliant premise. Each episode concentrates on one bomb – on where it fell, what damage it did, and whose lives were affected. It looks at the repercussions of that individual, specific bomb – how did it change the lives not just of those immediately affected, but of the wider public? What were the effects that spread, like ripples, from the bomb’s terrible blast?

Obviously, to do the idea justice involves a phenomenal degree of research. First, it’s necessary to find four bombs whose significance stretches beyond the everyday tragedies that were the reality of the war. Then, it requires someone piecing together the story, getting the facts in order, finding out about the people involved, and what happened to them. Then we meet their descendants, who tell the story from their own family’s perspective. 

The first episode deals with the extraordinary story of a bomb dropped on the very first night of The Blitz, at 5:55am on Sunday 8th September 1940. In spite of not going off, it caused a tragedy that was one of the great galvanising forces behind a movement that led directly to a campaign that played a significant role in the setting up of the Welfare State. This remarkable tale is told with beautiful craft and exquisite attention to detail, not to mention wonderful archive material and some hugely moving testimony. 

I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, Sunday 19th November, 9pm, ITV

Most people mark the passing of time by the changing of the seasons. From the first green shoots and hopeful buds of spring, through the summers of cut grass and endless skies, to the russets and mellow fruitfulness of autumn, and eventually the first frosts of winter. Not me. As a TV writer who spends my days settled into a me-shaped indent in the sofa watching all manner of life on screen, the only way I have any inkling of where we are in the calendar is what’s on the telly. Britain’s Got Talent? It’s around Easter Time. X Factor and Strictly? We must be into September. Christmas adverts just starting up? Why, it’s July, of course.

For me, I’m a Celebrity, which starts on Sunday, is an indication that it’s time to start my Christmas shopping. I mean, obviously I never actually DO start it now. I do it all in a blind panic on Christmas Eve, like every other man, which is why my lucky, lucky wife has grown so fond of ASDA shortbread and a two-litre bottle of Strongbow nestling under the tree.

Anyway, I am always minded to greet the return of I’m a Celebrity with a degree of indifference. It’s sort of the same every year: a bunch of hungry, fed up and increasingly grubby-looking slebs sit around staring at a campfire, and occasionally satisfying producers and tabloids by doing a horrendous task, having a massive row or donning a bikini and going for a shower. It’s like the old description of war being 98 per cent boredom, one per cent terror, and one per cent showering in bikinis. (It’s possible I’m mis-remembering the saying…)

Some years, I manage to miss the whole thing, and it all seems like a wild irrelevance. But in other series, I might find myself idly flicking through the channels, settle upon it for five minutes and – BAM – it’s a fortnight later, I’ve not missed a moment of it, and have racked up a massive phone bill voting for a former Hollyoaks actor I’d never heard of 14 days ago.

Why does this show continue to provide such an irresistible lure? Well, much of it is down to the undeniable brilliance of Ant and Dec, who are warm, engaging and, most of all, very, very funny. (At this point it would be churlish not to welcome back Ant McPartlin, we wish him every bit of good luck and good health in the future.) But it’s also down to the consistently inventive and invariably marvellous tasks the campmates are set, and to the fact that we all secretly quite enjoy watching people having a tough time.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the show rests upon the celebrities themselves, and this year’s batch looks like a fairly typical mixed bag of soap stars, former sports stars, comedians, a ‘controversial’ politician, and a few people you’d only recognise if you were 16. You might, for example, be aware of Stanley Johnson, former Tory MEP and father of Satan Incarnate/Our Brexity Saviour (delete as appropriate) Boris. You may be familiar with former sportsmen Dennis Wise and Amir Khan, and if you watch Corrie you’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Jennie McAlpine. But I’m willing to lay good money that you’ve not heard of Jack Maynard. I’m not even sure Jack Maynard’s parents have heard of Jack Maynard. Apparently he’s a YouTube vlogger, and his brother is the singer Conor Maynard, of whom I have also not heard. 

Not that it matters. You’ll know them all soon enough, if you’re so minded. It’s on every night, at varying times – just check the TV listings for I’m not Really a Celebrity But My Brother Sort of Is… Get Me Out of Here. 

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 18th November

Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, 8:10pm, BBC One: The charismatic and likeable funnyman returns with his warm, family-friendly Saturday night extravaganza. Other comics may sneer at his safe, middle of the road comedy, but he’s extremely funny, and this show is the perfect vehicle for him. Tonight, Ed Balls plays the magnificent Celebrity Send to All, frequently the best five minutes of TV all week.

My Country, 9pm, BBC Two: People’s views on Brexit are intercut with politicians’ speeches as this successful stage show comes to TV. Britannia calls a meeting to listen to her people, and the debate is fierce. Because nothing says Saturday night knockabout fun like a fictionalised debate about Brexit.

Sunday 19th November

Guy Martin’s WWI Tank, 8pm, Channel 4: The impressively-sideburned and entirely likable mechanic embarks on a mission to rebuild a WWI tank and, in so doing, tells the remarkable story of the invention of this bellicose vehicle in a feature-length documentary.

Britain’s Cycling Superheroes – The Price of Success? 9pm, BBC Two: British cycling has been an extraordinary success story in recent years. But has it been achieved through legitimate means, or are our cyclists fuller of chemicals than a flagship Boots store? The architects of the success, Sir Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton, give their side of the story.

Monday 20th November

Come Dine with Me, 5:30pm, Channel 4: Welcome return of the arch, often bitchy and almost invariably excruciatingly embarrassing cookery competition show, where contestants get drunk, insult each other, and cook up wildly pretentious dishes, while the peerless Dave Lamb provides a magnificent voiceover.

How to Avoid the Dementia Tax: Channel 4 Dispatches, 8pm, Channel 4: Tazeen Ahmad reports on why some people with dementia have to sell their family homes to pay for care, while others gain access to NHS funds. Sadly, nothing is available for preview for what should be an important and difficult film.

Sinkholes: Buried Underground, 8pm, Channel 5: Series combining the most breathtaking footage with eyewitness testimony from the UK and the US of this rare, random and utterly destructive phenomenon.

Labour – The Summer that Changed Everything, 9pm, BBC Two: Cameras follow four Labour candidates (Lucy Powell, Stephen Kinnock, Ruth Cadbury and Sarah Champion) through June’s election, and beyond, as they navigate the extraordinary and unprecedented political landscape that is the last few months. 

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