TV blog: Britain at War

Benjie Goodhart / 16 March 2017

100 years of the Imperial War Museum, plus the best of the rest of the week on TV.

Britain at War: Imperial War Museum at 100, Saturday 18th March, 7:30pm, BBC Two

It’s no fun growing up with cultured parents. When I wanted to be spending my weekends caked from head to toe in mud, or playing computer games, or watching films with lasers while stuffing hot dogs into my face, they would take me to look at churches or stately homes. I developed something of an aversion to educational family experiences. The word ‘museum’ used to send me into paroxysms of misery, throwing spectacular tantrums on the pavement. Which would have mattered less if I hadn’t been 25.

The only exception was The Imperial War Museum. I loved it. I mean, what better way for a boy to spend his leisure time than looking at tanks or aircraft, watching cinefilm of explosions, and being a pane of glass away from some hardcore weaponry. You could stick your posh frocks or your animal skeletons – there was only one museum in this young boy’s life.

And then you start to grow up a bit, and you realise that war, largely speaking, isn’t glorious and exciting, but uncomfortable, terrifying, grim and squalid. And you look at the museum, and realise that it was telling you this all along. Now, one of the reasons I love the Imperial War Museum is because of its unvarnished approach to the real nature of warfare: It isn’t boys’ own stuff, it’s a living nightmare.

The museum is 100 years old this year, and this thoughtful documentary looks at just ten of the exhibits belonging to the organisation to illustrate its history, and that of this country in the last century. The exhibits range from the small and seemingly insignificant (a soldier’s wallet) to the large and undoubtedly significant (HMS Belfast) and each one is introduced by a guest presenter, from Bear Grylls to Kate Adie, via the unlikely figure of Ainsley Harriott. Events are ably marshalled by the authoritative figure of Simon Weston.

Inevitably, with so little time to devote to each exhibit, some of the stories are truncated – try getting the history or contribution of the Spitfire down to a four-minute soundbite, if you can – but there are some extraordinary and deeply affecting moments in this programme – not least among them the contributions of some remarkable people who served in the war, including the woman who typed the orders for D-Day, and a seaman who weeps as he recalls the injured coming off the beaches that day.

This is a valuable reminder that, while museums play a crucial role in our understanding of the past, we learn most from those who have lived through the stories they tell. Those voices are becoming fewer now, and we must appreciate them while we still can – perhaps now more than ever.

Three Wives, One Husband, Thursday 23rd March, 9pm, Channel 4

Out in the middle of the sun-blasted desert plains of Utah is an enormous rock. At the bottom of the rock, living in homes built into it, is an extraordinary community of 14 families. They are Fundamentalist Mormons, and seven of the families are polygamous. This quite remarkable four-part documentary series follows a year in the life of two of those families, the Fosters and the Morrisons. The results are not what you would expect.

Fundamentalist Mormons believe Polygamy, and having enormous families, is the way to paradise. To me, this sounds like the very definition of insanity. As if having three wives and fifteen children doesn’t provide enough soul-sapping mayhem, you can’t even use alcohol as a coping strategy.

As such, I watched this show, poisonous pen at the ready, cynical settings switched to maximum, intent on laughing at the weird, enormous, cave-dwelling families in the desert. And blow me if I didn’t find a bunch of funny, warm, self-aware and charismatic people. I’d say I was disappointed if I wasn’t so intrigued and enchanted. I watched all four episodes, transfixed.

Part of the fascination lies not in how different they are to us, but how similar. They watch TV and DVDs, they dance around the kitchen listening to pop music, they fight, they get jealous of each other, they swear, they joke around. I think I’d been expecting something more like the Amish, with them all wearing hemp shirts with hooks for buttons, and spending the whole time praying by candlelight.

But just when you think how regular they are, you remember that they live in cave houses, where the ceiling is rock. And then you watch the man of the house, Enoch, being waved off on a date by his two wives, and you realise that yes, Dorothy, you’re a long way from Kansas. (Except actually, geographically, you’re not…) Enoch’s prospective new wife is even invited to the birth of his latest child. My wife barely wanted me in the room, I think she’d have objected quite vocally if I’d brought in a girlfriend as well.

This is truly excellent, enlightening and even heart-warming fare. Credit for that goes, of course, to the subjects, but also to the production team. It would have been easy to go down the cynical route, to mine it for laughs and shock value, to play the freak-show card. Their more open-minded, tolerant and grown-up approach has yielded rewards. This comes very highly recommended.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 18th March

Six Nations Rugby, 12:10pm, BBC One: Five hours of coverage of the last round of matches in this year’s tournament sees Scotland host Italy, and Wales travel to France.

Happy 100th Birthday Dame Vera Lynn, 9pm, BBC Two: The forces’ sweetheart and her daughter Virginia look back across 100 years of an extraordinary life.

Sunday 19th March

RBS 6 Nations Championship 2017, 4pm, ITV: England travel to Ireland in search of history, in the form of a record-breaking 19th consecutive win, and a second consecutive Grand Slam. Ireland will be keen not to play ball.

Vera, 8pm, ITV: Brenda Blethyn returns as Britain’s answer to Cagney and Lacey, albeit with more knitwear. This seventh series features four more compelling mysteries.

Monday 20th March

Natural World, 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the work of Puerto Rican conservationists fighting to save endangered species. The undoubted stars of the show? Two adorably cute orphaned manatees – if you can call a 600lb giant cute.

Tuesday 21st March

American Justice, 9pm, BBC Two: Series following cops and prosecutors in Jacksonville, Florida’s ‘murder capital’. Tonight, police investigate a double murder, after a man and his niece are found strangled.

A Year in the Wild, 9pm, Channel 5: New series looking at how wildlife copes on the Yorkshire Dales year-round. Tonight: Spring.

Wednesday 22nd March

International Football Friendly, 7:15pm, ITV: Germany host England in Dortmund. Anyone who’s seen more than a couple of England friendlies knows that they’re better off watching something else. Or grouting the floor.

Thursday 23rd March

Great British Buildings: Restoration of the Year, 8pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud and Dr Anna Keay look at restorations of historic buildings and stroke their chins and discuss ornate plasterwork.

The Red Nose African Convoy, 9pm: Celebrities including David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis lead a convoy delivering vital supplies through East Africa, ahead of tomorrow evening’s extravaganza.

Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad, 10pm, Channel 4: Sobering and harrowing look at the tens of thousands of Syrian men, women and children suspected of being held in detention camps.

Friday 24th March

Comic Relief, 7pm: Hurrah! Some of it is slightly hit and miss, but what do you expect from a massive, chaotic, hugely important evening raising funds, awareness and laughs. Highlights are set to include sketches by French and Saunders, an appearance by Miranda, and the much-heralded Love Actually sequel. Plus some very important, and very moving, films.

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