Books: Visions Before Midnight — Storm over England |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Storm over England

A full score of series, new and refurbished, and one all-evening blockbuster crammed the week with vitamins. Large things first: If Britain Had Fallen (BBC1) ran to the length of The Sorrow and the Pity but couldn’t match it for weight. Since the occupation of France was an historical fact, a programme on the subject was able to busy itself with what the Nazis did and what the French tried to do in return. The occupation of Britain failed to occur, leaving future script-editors the problem of dealing with hypotheses, most of them vague.

For a major documentary (his fellow-officer, Major Setback, also showed up during the evening) the programme under discussion was conspicuously short of the wherewithal — the Germans just didn’t have all that many plans drawn up for dealing specifically with Britain, so that concentrating on their intentions turned out to be a way of dissipating the air of menace instead of thickening it.

Part 1, ‘Operation Sea Lion,’ covered familiar ground but came up with some unfamiliar facts and footage. Two hundred thousand British dogs were destroyed as some kind of insurance against air attack, and there was film to prove that horses wore gas-masks. Hunting parties prodded haystacks to flush paratroopers, thereby demonstrating that nobody really knew much about what paratroopers were. To rub this point home, there was some diamond-sharp footage of Ju 52s remorselessly unloading battle-hungry Fallschirmjaeger all over Holland. The heavy implication was that Britain would have stood no chance if the Germans had got ashore in force. Few knowledgeable people quarrel with this. The further implication, though (that the Germans knew exactly what they planned to do next), didn’t ring so true.

Part 2, ‘Life Under Occupation,’ contained as much hard news as ever existed. Harrow, Eton and the Oxbridge colleges were to become homes away from home for the SS, apparently because of the abundance of sporting facilities. Apart from the Black List, which we already knew about, there was a White List, naming indigenous sympathisers to the Nazi ideal. For libel reasons, we couldn’t be told the names on it. I’d be surprised if Carlyle and Ruskin weren’t among them.

Reminiscences and reconstructions of what went on in the Channel Islands provided most of the meat in this part of the show. People who were children at the time are still angry about how their homes were looted by their neighbours the moment after they were moved out for deportation. The Germans provided many islanders with a new angle on their fellow man. Apart from malnutrition, that was about all: the local Gestapo, for example, was strictly Mickey Mouse compared with what was on offer further east.

In Part 3, ‘The New Order,’ we were given the Big Picture, numerous experts being wheeled on to deal with questions of free will and destiny. Dr William Sargant told us about the psychological techniques the Nazis would have employed to soften up the population for whatever it was they planned to do to it. What failed to emerge was a clear projection of the global future the Nazis were supposed to be dreaming of. This ideal has been described, in theoretical works on the subject of totalitarianism, as ‘universal concentration.’ Closer than that it’s difficult to come.

Hitler’s table talk was quoted — the famous, demented passage about a Russia cleaned up for use as a German holiday camp-cum-autodrome. There is no reason to think that his plans for Britain would have been anything like this: such as they were, they were probably fully as insane, but in another way. It was amusing, in this context, to find the delectable Sir Oswald Mosley being interviewed. ‘I think most people watching you now would have expected you to become Hitler’s representative in this country.’ ‘Why?’ Apparently he was all set to commit suicide instead.

Running through all three parts of the programme was the question of who would have resisted and who collaborated. The answer was hard to find. The next evening, on Line-up (BBC2), Lord Boothby was certain that resistance would have been concerted and unceasing. As it happened, the nation’s heroism in the grip of the oppressor was never tested, reinforcing the perennial, guilty suspicion that Britain’s liberties are dependent on innocence — the suspicion out of which programmes like this arise. It’s a national characteristic, and a civilising one. So is a sense of the absurd. Enoch Powell was also on Line-up insisting that he, too, would have committed suicide. Perhaps Mosley would have lent him a gun.

It was a tense week for current affairs. World in Action (Granada) divested an anti-immigration agitator of his placard and flew him down to Uganda to suss out the scene from up close. The communication fallacy worked full blast in both directions. ‘What do you fink abaht the Asians?’ ‘De onions?’ ‘Nah, the Asians.’ Semantic malfunctions notwithstanding, our hero ended up admitting that fings were more complicated than he’d fought.

September 17, 1972

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]