TV blog: Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes

Benjie Goodhart / 12 July 2018

An incredible and little-known part of the Dunkirk evacuation comes to light in this riveting documentary. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.



Dunkirk: The Forgotten Heroes, Sunday 15th July, 8pm, Channel 4

There is every possibility, depending upon events in Russia, that today will see the highest TV audience in British history. It will not be for this programme. It will, instead, be for a programme starting four hours earlier, where 22 men will kick a bouncy sphere around an expanse of grass. As they do their thing in the corner of some foreign field, some of the more excitable and jingoistic commentators in the game will talk about going in to battle, about it being a war. They may even refer to the Dunkirk spirit at some point.

We bandy these phrases about with carefree abandon. But just a cursory glance at this programme reveals the inappropriateness of such language. Because almost 80 years ago young men were fighting and dying in unthinkable numbers on the beaches of Northern France. Those who survived will tell you that the reality of war isn’t the tub-thumping have-at-them spirit that is summoned by commentators and tabloids for football matches. It is terror, and exhaustion, and pain, and death. But those who survived are now few in number. The heroes of World War II who defended our country are almost all gone. Which is why programmes like this, talking to the soldiers themselves, are more vital and timely than ever.

The veterans who speak in this dramatic and profoundly moving documentary are all 97 or older. And theirs is a story worth telling – which makes the fact that it is relatively unknown all the more of a surprise.

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In the late spring of 1940, the German army under Erwin Rommel surprised the allied forces in France by bypassing the Maginot Line completely and invading through the mountains and forests of the Ardennes – a route considered so impenetrable it was almost entirely undefended. Outflanked and encircled, the British army fell back to the coast, from where an astonishing and miraculous rescue took place. The last of the British troops were removed on June 4th.

Except they weren’t the last of the British troops. The 51st Highland Division, who had been placed further East than the rest of the army, was cut off from any prospect of rescue. So they had to stay and fight. This is the story of their battle, from the front line of Abbeville through to their heroic last stand at the port of St Valery. It is the story of a second rescue flotilla, and of a tactically crucial effort to delay the French surrender by fighting alongside them in the face of insurmountable odds.

And it is also the tale of scared boys (which is all they were, really) who had signed up for an adventure and got rather more than they bargained for. Boys like Don Smith, who travels back to Northern France to recall what happened with astonishing clarity for a man within touching distance of his centenary.

This is involving and emotional stuff. The World Cup Final may have been involving and emotional too, but we should never forget that one is life and death, and the other… well, let’s just say Bill Shankly was speaking with tongue firmly in cheek when he said football was more important than that. The survivors of the 51st Highlanders never received a campaign medal, or the recognition they deserved. Now, at last, they are able to tell their story. It is not before time, as their number is dwindling. Even since recording this programme, two of the contributors have died, almost eight decades after so many of their friends.

Our Shirley Valentine Summer, Thursday 19th July, 9:30pm, ITV

And now for something completely different. You could only get further along the scale from serious and powerful to frivolous and frothy if you were showing an hour of people dressed as Disney characters throwing water balloons at each other to the tune of the Benny Hill theme tune.

Our Shirley Valentine Summer is a new four-part series which sees eight famous women ‘of a certain age’ who are all single and “at a crossroads in their life” (even if the crossroads just happens to be that they could do with a free holiday in Greece and a slightly higher public profile). They are all moving to the island of Naxos, in the Cyclades, for a month, in the hope of emotional fulfilment, self-knowledge or, failing that, a nice tan.

The celebs arrive, and quickly get down to the serious business of wine as they get to know each other. They all head down to the beach, Nancy Dell'Olio still in her heels. I expect she was born in a pair of Louboutins. It turns out it’s Lizzie Cundy’s 50th birthday. She’s not messing about, our Lizzie. She’s already got her taxi driver’s number. She has also bought 20 bikinis on holiday. That’s some collection.

Comedian Ninia Benjamin is here to find herself. “I want to use this time to love Ninia.” And to learn to refer to oneself in the first person. Former model Annabel Giles is 58, and looks 20 years younger. She is, she says, “stuck in a box-set rut.” Siȃn Lloyd, Ingrid Tarrant and Melinda Messenger are all divorced, and a little disappointed by the route their romantic life has taken.

No problem! The producers have organised a third-generation matchmaker. Melinda, Ingrid, Nancy and Ninia go off to meet him. Do they not have Tinder on Naxos? He interviews each one in turn. Nancy, who is on platforms the size of Mount Olympus, announces that the most important thing she looks for is shared interests. “And if he has a private plane, so much the better.” The matchmaker laughs. Nancy blinks. He promises to set them all up on dates. I’m not sure that the solution to life’s ills necessarily lies with the good menfolk of Naxos, but time will tell.

Meanwhile, back at the villa, Lizzie, Siȃn and Aggie are having a Greek lesson from… well, knock me down with a feather, a handsome local chap. “He has the eyes of a wild wolf,” says Lizzie, although I would humbly suggest he is not the predator here. She asks him how to say “You have beautiful eyes.” Then she asks him how to say “Your place or mine”. What happened to verb declensions and basic grammar?

But here’s the thing. This is actually a very, very sweet programme. Sure, it is daft, and funny, and ridiculous, but it is also genuinely touching. Hearing Ninia talk of her low self-esteem, or Annabel admit to being lonely, it’s hard not to admire their honesty and openness. And by the end of the first week, there are genuine and very real signs of a nurturing, sympathetic sisterhood developing.

The best and the rest

Saturday 14th July

Wimbledon 2018: Ladies Final, 1:15pm, BBC One: With most of the top seeds barely making it into the second week, it’s been a tournament for the outsiders. Including the low-ranked 25th seed… um… Serena Williams. She’s into the final four, and do not bet against her lifting the title again today.

The Voice Kids, 8pm, ITV: Running nightly all week, this is talent show for little people with big voices – all the contestants are between 7 and 14. Emma Willis hosts.

Sunday 15th July:

Wimbledon 2018: Men’s Final, 1:30pm, BBC One: With Roger Federer knocked out to universal astonishment, today’s final has been blown wide open. Whoever wins the semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic will be confident of going all the way against either Isner or Anderson.

FIFA World Cup Final, 3pm, BBC One and ITV: France v Croatia. Ahh, what might have been.

Monday 16th July

Nadiya’s Family Favourites 1/8, 8pm, BBC Two: The divine Nadiya Hussain’s new eight-part series sees her cooking up a storm with recipes to fit the most demanding lifestyles.

Our Guy in Russia 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: Affable mechanic-cum-racer-cum-daredevil Guy Martin sets off to explore the biggest country in the world in his own unorthodox fashion. David Dimbleby’s Russia documentary this ain’t!

Tuesday 17th July

Inside Facebook: Secrets of the Social Network, 9pm, Channel 4: Dispatches goes undercover to discover who makes the decisions about what can and can’t be posted on the world’s biggest social media site, and why.

Long Lost Family 1/6, 9:30pm, ITV: Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell return with their routinely tear-inducing series in which they bring together families that fate has seen fit to tear asunder. Tissues at the ready…

Wednesday 18th July

Live Well for Longer, 8pm, Channel 4: Brand new series in which Kate Quilton and Tamal Ray investigate the health questions that concern us all. Tonight’s episode is all about sex, drugs and rock’n’ro… sorry, and alcohol.

Animals Behaving Badly 1/3, 8pm, BBC One: Liz Bonin meets the animals who will stop at nothing to find a mate.

Killed By My Debt, 9pm, BBC One: Tragic and outrage-inducing factual drama about Jerome Rogers, 19, whose two £65 traffic fines rose to over £1000 in the hands of bailiffs, leading him to take his own life.

Thursday 19th July

Golf: The Open Highlights, 8pm, BBC Two: Comprehensive round-up of the day’s action from Carnoustie.

George Clarke’s Old House, New Home 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: Old houses are all very well, but are they practical for modern-day living? George Clarke thinks they can be, and sets out to explain how.

Prison 1/2, 9pm, Channel 4: With exclusive access to HMP Durham, this two-part series looks at the daily realities of life facing both staff and inmates.


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