My Grandparents' War and Elton

Benjie Goodhart / 22 November 2019

TV reviewer Benjie Goodhart looks at My Grandparents' War, in which famous actors explore the extraordinary wartime stories of their grandparents.

My Grandparents’ War 1/4, Wednesday 27th November, 9pm, Channel 4

We are all products of our family. This thought occurs to me with depressing regularity every time we are conducting a four-way shouting match over dinner, or trying to stop the children from tearing each other limb-from-limb over what to watch on TV. (Although, as a TV critic, I am also slightly heartened by their clear appreciation of the importance of the medium). Basically, we’re quite a shouty collection of people, which means that I think our children will either be opera singers or serial killers. Philip Larkin didn’t know the half of it.

But we are also products of our family history. We look back on the generations that came before us, and take pride in their achievements, and lament their setbacks. We take our identity, to an extent, from our four bears. Sorry, our forebears. I’ve been reading Goldilocks to the kids.

Helena Bonham Carter has more reason to be proud than most. Proud of herself – she’s spectacularly good as a tortured, high-spirited but ultimately miserable Princess Margaret in the latest series of The Crown. But proud, also, of her family, not least two of her grandparents – her maternal grandfather and her paternal grandmother. The two of them, who never saw any active service, or fired a weapon throughout the war, were nevertheless heroes whose actions saved countless lives in the Second World War. Their stories are vividly and movingly told in the first of this new four-part series, My Grandparents’ War.

The series sees four famous actors explore the extraordinary wartime stories of their grandparents. Those featured, along with Helena, are Kristin Scott Thomas, Mark Rylance, and Carey Mulligan. Perhaps there were other actors recruited as well, who had to drop out when it emerged that their grandparents spent the war fishing on Loch Tay. No matter, because if Helena’s family is anything to go by, there are some extraordinary stories to come.

The first hint that you’re not dealing with an everyday family comes when Helena goes to visit the house her grandmother Violet had lived in. There is a blue plaque on the wall outside – and the person it commemorates is none other than Violet herself. She was a liberal politician, a campaigner, and a friend of Winston Churchill. Helena remembers her grandmother not as a firebrand speaker and dedicated public servant, but as an old lady who kept jelly tots for her three-year-old granddaughter.

Meanwhile, Helena’s mother’s father was a kindly but reserved and deeply conventional Spanish diplomat called Eduardo. If Violet seems an unlikely hero, a cautious and conservative career diplomat from neutral Spain seems even more improbable.

And yet, what unfolds over a scintillating and ultimately deeply moving hour of meticulously researched and beautifully judged film-making are two stories of everyday heroism, humanity and altruism. Tales of bravery, of defying orders, of sticking one’s head above the parapet when the far easier thing to do would have been to slump down even further. Tales of letters and campaigns waged, and of life-saving papers signed with such constant, monotonous, intense regularity that hands had to be bathed in saltwater.

And, as was all too often the case up and down the country, across the continent, and all over the world, one of them is also a story of tragedy, loss and heartbreak.

Elton John: Uncensored, Thursday 28th November, 9pm, BBC One

It’s been quite the year for Sir Elton John. Well, to be fair, it’s been quite the year for Sir Elton John every year since 1969, but even by his standards it’s been something special. He’s been presented with the Legion d’honneur by President Macron, seen a biopic of his life become a global hit, released his autobiography, and entertained crowds across the world on his 300-date farewell tour. Not bad for a 72-year-old. I’m knackered just typing it.

Anyway, as part of his extraordinary year, he’s decided to do just one major interview. And it’s with… the TV critic for Sa… no, okay, it’s with Graham Norton. But I’m pretty sure I would have been second choice.

Naturally, Elton being Elton, the interview is taking place in a greasy spoon just off Southend Pier. Oh no… hang on… it’s actually taking place in his palatial mansion in the South of France. Just to emphasise the amount of high camp glamour involved, Norton is filmed driving to the interview in an open-topped Rolls Royce. You just know that somewhere in the grey building where the BBC apparatchiks gather together to review spending and production expenses, an accountant has just slammed his own head in a filing cabinet. But it’s Elton, man. You can’t turn up in an Escort!

At the time of writing, there was only a ten-minute taster of the interview available for previewers. This will almost certainly have been so that the rest of the little titbits and scraps of information could be drip-fed to a slavering news media. Fair enough. It’s pretty much the Ronseal of TV programmes, this: it does exactly what it says on the tin. If you are interested in hearing Elton John be interviewed, you will love it. It is candid, forthright, funny, and frank. At least, ten minutes of it is. And if the idea of Sir Elton spilling the beans on his extraordinary life doesn’t appeal, no amount of anecdotes from the man himself are going to change your mind.

The interview looks back at Elton’s youth, as Reg Dwight, born in 1947. A shy boy from Pinner, he “wouldn’t say boo to a goose. I was frightened of my own shadow.” But his talent was evident from a very young age, and he won a prestigious scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. He talks with sadness but no rancour about his strained relationship with his mother, and a bit about his musical influences. And… er… that’s it.

The rest has been held back, so that someone from the tabs can stop hacking phones for long enough to turn it into a salacious story for the front page. Fair enough, that’s how media works. But it would be nice to have had a little more to write about. I’d like to know, for example, whether Sir Elton’s addictions are mentioned. Ditto his passion for football, his battle with prostate cancer, his sexuality and his campaigning on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Does he talk about the joys and travails of fatherhood? About playing at his friend Princess Diana’s funeral? And does he explain the spending habit that saw him splurge £30 million in two years. That’s £41,000-a-day. He spent £293,000 on flowers in 18 months. That’s £535 every single day on flowers.

We do know that he talks about fighting his life after he contracted an infection in 2017 on tour in South America – because it’s been reported in the tabloids, who have revealed that he had to have his tonsils, appendix and colon all removed. “I was about 24-hours from snuffing it,” he says. “I had an annus horriblis.” That’s probably why they had to remove his colon.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 23rd November

Michael McIntyre’s Big Show 1/6, 8:10pm, BBC One: Return of the amiable comedian’s enjoyably daft show, filled with stand-up, pranks, and ridiculousness. Tonight, Bear Grylls hands over his phone for the dreaded (and very funny) Send to All.

Sunday 24th November

Our Guy in Japan 1/2, 9pm, Channel 4: The charming mechanic Guy Martin is embarking on a 2500 trip across Japan, looking at aspects of the country that you certainly won’t find on TripAdvisor.

Monday 25th November

Meat: A Threat to Our Planet, 9pm, BBC One: Liz Bonnin follows up 2018’s award-winning doc Drowning in Plastic by examining how our hunger for meat is impacting the environment, and what can be done about it.

Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railway Journeys 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Tarrant embarks on a European tour to illustrate the role of trains in the First World War.

Tuesday 26th November

Save My Child, 8pm, Channel 4: Sobering documentary looking at the efforts of two families to raise money for life-changing operations for their children. Hankies at the ready.

Tutankhamun with Dan Snow 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: Not, sadly, an interview as the title would imply (that would be a story) but instead a look at the life and death of the Pharaoh, and the discovery of his tomb.

Wednesday 27th November

The Baby Has Landed 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary following six families as they experience the first few weeks in the lives of their precious new arrival. Expect lots of shots of people looking exhausted and dealing with the always-delightful 3am nappy.

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