Essays: Blockbuster in a mist |
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Blockbuster in a mist

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 (BBC-1) 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 in 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 Fallschirmjäger all over Holland. The heavy implication was that Britain would have stood no chance if the Germans had got ashore in force. Few knowledgeable men 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 the 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 Sargent 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. All attempts to impose consistency on the ramblings of that manic, lethal dunce should be firmly resisted. 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.

Less plausible was a concocted routine about some advertising agency purporting to consider a campaign for flogging Nazism to the British people: a spark called Ian figured largely here, talking hiply about overcoming hang-ups.

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 (BBC-2), 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 fraught 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. BBC-1’s new effort, Midweek, looks cosily familiar, not to say jaded at birth, but is recommended for its marvellous logo, which takes a great deal of trouble to convince us that the middle of the week is made up of things like Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday. Nationwide (BBC-1) has my strict instructions never to touch the subject of rock music again: its piece on Bob Dylan was a total no-no.

More rewardingly, the two foremost fuzz operas were back in the slot and grooving hot. Z Cars (BBC-1) dropped Quilly through a glass roof a few weeks ago, but has now come up with a new ingredient in Detective Inspector Connor, who has a picture of a lion on his wall and who played himself in by darting around the manor frowning darkly at the foe. In Softly, Softly (BBC-1), Harry Hawkins — known to his fans as Harry the Hawk — has been promoted into a dandy new uniform which does dazzling things for his straight-arrow haircut and those bunches of muscle at the corners of his mouth that knot up so impressively when he’s facing a tough problem, such as opening a door. Among his perks is a dishy new girl-friend in boots: thrown together with indecent haste by the scriptwriters, the two love-birds were kissing and canoodling in a trice, while Barlow and Watt stood around elbowing each other with benevolent wisdom. Last week the Hawk snogged and danced. Next week he sings.

A new cop on Thames, Van der Valk, is based on the lacklustre Nicholas Freeling hero and played by Barry Foster. It might click, but they sure didn’t squander any money on locations: Amsterdam only just made it into the programme, under the titles. Betjeman in Australia (BBC-2) bids fair to be a compulsive little series: like his voice and his subtle brain, Sir John’s shirt and hat ought to clash with the place, but somehow don’t. Somebody finessed the Mackeson’s ad, featuring John le Mesurier, into the slot just in front of Harlech’s frail new A Class by Himself, featuring John le Mesurier. Wake up, ITA.

Chuckle-crux of the week was Yorkshire’s wonderful Miss Great Britain 1972, held at Morecambe’s ravishing swimming pool. Statesmen as eminent as Lord Shinwell and beauties as poised as Anna Palk were among the judges, and as the girls tottered along the catwalk a Force 8 gale came whipping across the water to make slush of their coiffures. Watch that long enough and you’ll get it all. Iced broads in high heels! The Hawk walks! Mosley and Powell promise to knock themselves off! I saw it, it was all on television.

The Observer, 17th September 1972

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]