TV blog: World War II’s Great Escapes

Benjie Goodhart / 14 September 2017

A new series follows key WWII trails in Europe and unearths some remarkable stories. Plus, the best of the rest of the week ahead on TV.

World War II’s Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails, Saturday 16th September, 8pm, Channel 4

The premise of Channel 4’s new series is that former Marine Monty Halls (if you’re called Monty, you’re almost predestined to join the military) travels across Europe, walking some of the key trails that proved so important in helping allied troops escape from Nazi-held territory.

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This series opener deals with a remarkable tale – one that I am surprised not to have heard before. It concerns an Australian Private, Ralph Churches, who led the largest escape of allied personnel in the entire war.

Churches was interned at the Stalag 18D prison camp in Maribor, Slovenia, along with 4,000 allied troops. As Churches’ son, Neil, explains to Halls, his dad abhorred everything to do with Nazism, a feeling that was strengthened by the horrific treatment of the Soviet troops in the camp. Watching his fellow soldiers die of starvation and disease in unconscionably grim conditions hardened his resolve to escape and get back to fighting.

On 30th August 1944, he and a handful of other prisoners were able to escape from their detail working on the railway tracks near the camp, and plunged into nearby woodland, where they were picked up and assisted by local partisan rebels. That night, sheltering in the protection of the partisans, Churches made an astonishingly courageous decision. Rather than head for freedom, he would go back to try and rescue other PoWs. So, assisted by the ever-willing and grimly determined partisans, he did just that.

This is the remarkable story of what happened in the ensuing days and weeks, as a large number of escaped prisoners and a party of partisans made their way through incredibly hostile, enemy-occupied forests and mountains towards safety. En route, they encountered hunger, cold, exhaustion, betrayal and fighting, as well as unbelievable generosity, bravery and hospitality from the partisans and the local population.

Halls tells the story with evocative relish, and the stark beauty of the Slovenian mountains hints at the deprivations and suffering endured. This is boys’ own stuff made real, an inspiration to those of us who can only wonder at the sacrifices of war.

Electric Dreams: The Hood Maker, Sunday 17th September, 9pm, Channel 4

If you haven’t heard of Philip K. Dick, you’re almost certainly familiar with his work. Without doubt the finest science fiction writer ever to draw breath, his novels and short stories have been adapted into some of the most successful films of all time, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau. Writing in the 50s and 60s, his stories have proved remarkably prescient, and his recurring themes – what it is to be human, the evils of totalitarianism, the fragile nature of our planet – have endured.

Now, some of his hundreds of short stories are being brought to life in this magnificently ambitious ten-part science fiction anthology series. Each episode is a stand-alone one-hour film, with a different writer, director and cast, with actors including Steve Buscemi, Timothy Spall, Anna Paquin and Bryan Cranston (who also executive produces) coming up later in the run.

Now, I know what some of you will be thinking. Science fiction is the preserve of 11-year-old boys, and men who have colour-coded pens in their shirt pocket, Star Wars duvet covers, and still live with their mothers in their 50s. But you’re wrong. (I adore science fiction, and the pens in my shirt pocket are almost never colour-coded.) At its best, science fiction can be almost limitlessly imaginative, and address some of the most significant and philosophical issues facing humanity. And it’s also got spaceships and lasers. Woo hoo!

Tonight’s opener stars Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) as a police detective working in a world where all electronic technology has been rendered useless, and where telepaths live among the population, a persecuted and troubled minority. One of the telepaths, played by Holliday Grainger (Strike) has decided to help the police, but her complicity may come at a high price. Meanwhile, civil disobedience is increasing, and a dangerous mob rule is beginning to gather momentum.

Right from the off, the world is beautifully realised. It’s extraordinary just how evocative and strange an office full of clacking typewriters can be – a noise from only a few decades ago that now seems utterly obsolete. There are frustrations – bafflingly, this adaptation dispenses with Dick’s explanation as to why electronic communication has become defunct, and where the telepaths originated – but this is still well worth a watch. In a world of identikit TV, where almost every drama seems to deal with serial killers, and our screens are clogged with reality shows and talent searches, a show of such ambition and vision should be valued and nurtured.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 16th September

Even Better than the Real Thing, 7pm, BBC One: The words “Saturday evening family entertainment” may be the four least-appealing in the English language. Paddy McGuinness fronts this new show, featuring tribute acts, who will almost certainly be nowhere near as good as the real thing.

Sunday 17th September

Speed with Guy Martin: F1 Challenge, 8pm, Channel 4: The affable mechanic and speed obsessive joins Williams Martini’s racing team to see if he can make it as a pit crew member and be part of a team who can change all four tyres in under two seconds. F1 fans will appreciate a fascinating look behind the scenes at their sport.

Monday 18th September

First Dates, 10pm, Channel 4: Welcome return of the show that eavesdrops on first dates in a swanky London restaurant. Octogenarian Doreen hasn’t given up on love, while political activist Lettie, 23, is ‘looking for an intellectual equal’. Hmm.

Tuesday 19th September

Alaska: A Year in the Wild 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: This new four-part series covers a year in the life of the animals and people of this vast, frozen wilderness. Each episode covers a season. So that’s winter, winter, slightly less wintry winter, and winter.

Wednesday 20th September

Bad Move, 8pm, ITV: Jack Dee and Kerry Godliman star as a couple who see a move to the countryside as the opportunity to make their dreams come true. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s ever been to the countryside will attest, it smells weird, and the wifi’s rubbish.

Doc Martin 1/8, 9pm, ITV: Series one squillion for the much-loved whimsical drama starring Martin Clunes as the eponymous grumpy medic plying his trade in Cornwall.

Thursday 21st September

The Supervet, 8pm, Channel 4: Return of the series following the practice of the remarkably talented vet Noel Fitzpatrick. Tonight, a Staffordshire Terrier called Lulu has been hit by a car. Hankies at the ready.

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