TV blog: Britain's Greatest Generation and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 15 May 2015

Our TV blogger, Benjie Goodhart takes a look at a series celebrating a remarkable generation, together with other highlights from the TV schedule.

Review: Britain’s Greatest Generation, Friday, May 8, 9pm, BBC Two

I don’t tend to review programmes that go out on Fridays. This blog (or column, as my mum insists on calling in, in a bid to convince herself I am a sort of latter day George Orwell) appears on a Friday, so if I’m reviewing a programme, it’s already almost a week since it transmitted. More, if you haven’t got round to reading this for a few days (although in my mind’s eye, there’s an army of Saga readers up-and-down the country constantly clicking ‘refresh’ on a Friday afternoon in eager anticipation...)

Anyway, the point of all of this is that I had decided not to review this programme, because it went out on a Friday. But then I saw it, and knew instantly that I needed to write about it. Because it was simply brilliant.

The “Greatest Generation” in question is the one born in the first two decades of the 20th Century. Many of them can remember the First World War, and fought or worked during the Second World War. Now, they are in their 90s or 100s. This series (this was the first of four parts) hears from them, looks back at their lives, and at the events that shaped them.

There was much to marvel at here, not least the incredible vigour and sprightliness of those interviewed. Vera Price recalled, in a strong and clear voice, singing to calm wounded soldiers during World War I. She is now 110. Meanwhile Hetty Bower, a stripling at 108, remembered the events of the same period, events that turned her into a lifelong peace campaigner. “I saw men leaving for the front. We would wave and cheer them. And then we saw... when the men came back. I didn’t like what I saw. And that began my pacifism. No more bloody war.” She was still campaigning and marching well into her 100s. She died a few weeks after this interview.

Each individual interviewed was as inspiring and remarkable as the last. Jim Purcell, aged 93, was shown on his rowing machine. His hobby is running. I sometimes feel a run is too much for me, and I’m 42. Oh for some of his Geordie grit. Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s 90-year-old first cousin, recalled playing horses with Princess Elizabeth.

Their stories were astounding tales of hardship and resilience, chronic poverty, loveless childhoods, and misery. People had a nasty habit of dying, back then. Even those who grew up with two parents faced the agonies of the depression, followed by the war. The novelist Diana Athill recalled her (rather posh) mother complaining “The bloody thing about being poor is you go out and leave something on the floor, and when you come back, it’s still there.”

And then there was my favourite interviewee, a divine, twinkly chap called Freddie Hunn, who recalled a lonely childhood and a heroic war with calm equanimity. We saw him, aged 94, talking to a group of scouts in a tepee, laughing and joking. Two days later, he died peacefully.

This was TV at is simple, powerful, moving best. Excellent archive material was mixed with the straightforward reminiscences of the extraordinary interviewees. It’s worth a look, because they will not be with us for long, and we most certainly will not see their like again.

Review: The Night Bus, Monday, May 11, 10pm, Channel 4

Every weekend in London, over 2000 night buses are chuntering about the streets, ferrying the shift worker, the insomniac, the night owl and the drunk. Mostly the drunk. This three-part documentary series rigged up an N29 bus, from Enfield to Trafalgar Square, with remote control cameras, and filmed a night in the life of the bus. The voiceover suggested “It’s more than just a way of getting from A to B. It’s a place to hang out. To make new friends.” Um. No. No, it isn’t. It’s definitely a way of getting from A to B. Nobody, I suspect, in all of human history, has thought “I think I’ll go and hang out on some night buses tonight.” 

That said, things are certainly different on the night bus from the daytime one. I believe that, in London, it is still technically illegal to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know on public transport before midnight. But after the witching hour (or, more accurately, closing time) things start to change, as this first episode displayed in juicy detail. 

It seems that most people treat the Night Bus as a place either to have loud conversations about their sex lives, or as a place where they can set about attempting to improve their sex lives. We were treated to some hilarious and unabashed attempts by boys to chat up girls on the bus, in scenes which turned out to be surprisingly sweet. The boys were funny and cheeky, and the girls were amused and superior. Nobody overstepped any marks and everyone was having fun. It gave me hope after the rather grimmer experiences related by the dating app documentary I previewed last week.

I particularly liked Johnny and Dan, who were dressed in nothing but pants and sombreros, fruitlessly trying to convince everyone to take off their clothes. “If everyone was in their underwear, the night bus would be a lot more sociable.” Or just a lot chillier.

I was dismayed by the two girls dismissing the dating app Tinder as being for middle-aged people. “Yeah, 30-plus.” You what??? Meanwhile Sarah and Georgia were heading into town with their gay friend Richard. They made him solemnly promise not to abandon them for a conquest. Three hours later the two of them were on their way home, alone, munching pizza. Richard was having more luck than the sombrero-and-pants brigade.

I’ll not deny, there is some risqué chat in the documentary that those of a delicate nature might not appreciate. (You’ve seen Channel 4 before, right?) To my mind, openness and frank discussion about sex is far healthier than treating it as a taboo subject. But you might still be hoping, quite firmly, that you don’t see your son and his mates climbing aboard the N29 ahead of episode 2.

Postscript: I’ve just had a thought. I rode the night buses in London for a decade, and nobody tried it on with me once. Depressing.

Preview: Demolition: The Wrecking Crew, Sunday, May 17, 8pm, BBC Two

We all love watching things get blown up or demolished, right? (Maybe not all of us? Is it a bloke thing?) Certainly, my son’s entire reason for enjoying summer holidays is nothing to do with ice cream, sunshine and culture, and everything to do with jumping on sandcastles, watching waves destroy sandcastles, and throwing rocks at sandcastles.

And the truth is, he’ll never grow out of it. I love watching a house being torn down, or a block of flats being blown up. (I mean if it’s empty and it’s been condemned, I’m not a monster). My ideal job would be a novelist or a wrecking-ball operator, if only they were likely to pay enough to keep me in fine wine.

So I tuned in to this programme, the first of a three-part series starting on Sunday, with a degree of cheerful optimism. Dear reader, that feeling could not have been more comprehensively demolished if it was a matchstick castle being assaulted by a napalm-coated wrecking ball. This is dire fare.

It isn’t badly made. Far from it. Some of the shots are excellent, it is edited in a snappy enough fashion, there are some interesting choices for backing music. But oh my aching synapses, the subject matter is dull.

The programme is split into three different stories. The demolition of the iconic 100m cooling towers at Didcot Power Station, the dismantling of a bridge over a road, and a salvaging operation on Hastings Pier. The bridge is just your bog-standard iron bridge going over a road. We are treated (entirely the wrong word) to the sight of two rather dour men in a Portakabin strategising how to demolish a bridge. Except it isn’t as exciting as I’ve made it sound. The demolition is entirely unspectacular as well, the low point arriving when the man in charge starts quoting William Blake to the camera, apropos of not an awful lot.

Things are no better at Hastings Pier. The job is a delicate and tricky one following a fire at the pier. It means it all has to be done carefully, with great precision. No explosions. No wrecking balls. Just a rather large game of industrial spillikins.

At least there is Didcot. Enormous concrete towers. Explosions. Collapses. Woo hoo. Well, yes, up to a point. But there is endless discussion about exclusion zones, public safety, petitions to change the demolition time, council meetings etcetera. Oh, and the small matter that the opening sequence of the programme, designed to whet the viewer’s appetite, had shown the towers collapsing already. The bolt was well and truly shot.

The truth of the matter is, last week, BBC Four showed slow TV, a Scandinavian idea whereby you allow the viewer to relax in front of a programme where basically nothing happens. I think you know where I’m going with this...

Preview: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Sunday, May 17, 9pm, BBC One

Welcome to the most gothic programme ever. It couldn’t be more gothic if it was a Sisters of Mercy concert taking place in Reims Cathedral attended by 5th-Century Eastern Germanic people.

The opening shot is a crow. And that is about the least Gothic thing that happens in the first 20 minutes. I must confess to not having read Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel, but if the first episode of this seven-part adaptation is anything to go by, it’s a hoot.

It’s 1806. Two men are in search of the reason why magic is no longer performed in England (was Paul Daniels’ career for nothing?) They encounter a mysterious gentleman, Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) in his fabulously spooky gothic (duh) mansion, who claims he is able to do perform magic. Real magic, not of the “is this your card” variety. He says he will prove it, at a specific time and date. 11am at the local picnic gardens, perhaps? Some chance. Obviously, it’s at midnight., in a vast, cavernous, pitch black cathedral. His ultimate aim is to use his magic to aid the nation in times of war. Hell, it’s got to be cheaper than Trident, right?

Meanwhile, inhabiting a slightly (but only slightly) less gothic world is Jonathan Strange (Bertie Cavell), last seen playing Nick Clegg in the drama Coalition. Jonathan Strange is in love with a beautiful, dark-haired lady. Much like Nick Clegg. He’s also been left without any defined career, and somewhat diminished prospects. I’m still talking about Jonathan Strange here, got that? Anyway, the object of his affection, Arabella (Charlotte Riley) encourages him to seek out a career. One thing leads to another and, well, he discovers he has a talent for magic. (If I ever see Nick Clegg pulling rabbits from hats on Bournemouth pier I will weep for him).

Mr Norrell goes to London, where he encounters a couple of gloriously sinister characters. One, Vinculus, the sort of bloke who looks like he smells of stale gin, is chuntering on about some prophecy regarding the return of the Raven King. The other, The Gentleman, a deliciously sinister turn by Marc Warren, helps Norrell perform the kind if magic trick that never, ever ends well in these stories: Raising the dead.

It’s all absolute hokum, a sort of pantomime for grown-ups, and is every bit as much fun as that sounds.

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