Essays: The way the war was won? |
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The way the war was won?

AFTER only two episodes of the promised 26-episode ration, The World at War (Thames) has barely got itself out of Norway, but it has already established itself as a documentary series of central importance: I shall be paying close critical attention to it from now until the surrendering of swords, and during lulls in the fighting will do my best to get a message through.

The wearying research needed to track down such a wealth of film required a long and tempting stretch of time — time which the BBC saturated with bellicose programmes of its own. On the whole these BBC programmes were ordinary going on banal, and some of them were out-and-out unacceptable; One had hopes that commercial television’s series, when it came, would raise the standard in all departments. As far as the use of film goes, it has: but the commentary already sounds the full equal of its BBC prototypes for scrappy tendentiousness.

BBC military commentaries tend towards a gung-ho reassessment which invariably concludes that everything went according to plan except the disasters, which aren’t to be argued with either. On ‘The World at War’ we seem to be hearing the same intensity of confidence, but this time devoted to the knowing assumption that the imperialistic daydreams befuddling the democratic statesmen didn’t just enfeeble their resistance to Hitler, but made them more than his equal in culpability. The commentary is so instinct with wise head-shaking at human folly it’s got an over-developed neck — the benefits of hindsight made flesh. That the script is delivered by Lord Olivier with the elocutionary verve he so wickedly reserves for an uninspired text (‘The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had bitten deep into Germany’s frontchers’) only highlights its pretensions, leaving the reasonably well-informed viewer glad that he got the bulk of his information at an earlier date and sorely tempted to run the show as a silent.

You would never have guessed, from the first episode, that a controversy among historians about the war’s origins had ever taken place. ‘But though Czechoslovakia was ready to fight,’ Lord Olivier found himself saying, ‘Britain and France gave way.’ Professor Taylor, one would have thought, has by now established at least the tenability of the view that they gave way because they had no choice. Hitler’s batty oratorical energy made a savage enough visual contrast with the somnolent movements of the British and French statesmen: here, one decided all over again, was a stretch of history in which men looked like their own cartoons. A dangerous impression, which it should be the first job of an avowedly enlightening commentary to eliminate. Instead, it was emphasised.

Against its conceptual inadequacies, however, the first episode was able to regale us with rarely seen close-ups of Himmler’s crew-cut head, looking as if a bag of suet had been crammed into a pencil sharpener, and Eva Braun’s home movies, in which Adolf deployed his seductive screen presence against suitable Tirolean backgrounds. The German Army swore loyalty to him personally — making, right there in vision, its final and irretrievable political mistake.

The second episode had some footage of one of the first German bomber crews shot down in Britain being buried with full military honours. (As the Jews in Germany were well aware, chivalry was already dead, but most people were commendably slow to catch on.) Such sequences of film were precious beyond rubies. But the commentary never slept. Talking of the Battle of the River Plate, it said that ‘Churchill [then First Sea Lord] made the most of a victory won by bluff rather than gunpowder.’ I hold no brief for Churchill, whose military judgment, it seems to me, was at all times catastrophic and who was temperamentally inadequate to any large political task except the comparatively simple one — for a leader — of leading a united cause. But it is counter-productive to say that such battles were won by anything except the superior seamanship of the British Navy, a superiority which quickly convinced Hitler that the German capital ships were not to be trusted on deep water. If Churchill understood anything, he understood the importance of sea power.

Even more depressing than the free use of such smart remarks was the reliance on the evidence of Lord Boothby, whose understandable, but by now standard, complaint that we did nothing to help Poland, should have been offset by a mention of the crucial historical fact that the means to help Poland did not exist. Trembling pugnaciously at the jowl, he recalled how we confined our war effort to dropping leaflets. Neither he nor anybody else mentioned that the bombs currently available would have caused approximately the same amount of damage. Once again, one was saddened that so superficial a view had managed to gain currency among the people responsible for making the programme. That it might now gain currency among the millions of people watching the programme is a matter I think, for some anger. Knowingness is judgment’s enemy; a series of this magnitude should be free of it.

So what else was new? The Book Programme (BBC2) is very welcome. After two issues (a fortnight apart, unfortunately) it has settled down for what ought to be a Permanent stay. Robert Robinson is the ideal host, having at last been turned loose on subject matter adequate to his talents. In the first show there was an interview with Lawrence Durrell at home in France, but the second show was studio-bound and the better for it — a programme like this should keep its elbows in and enjoy the power of the word. Quiet men like Michael Frayn and John Gross, both too subtle for games of snap judgment, thrive when given room to argue: Gross, talking about Aldous Huxley, was particularly effective.

On Horizon (BBC2) Brian J. Gibson once again produced an inquiry of peculiarly brutalist distinction. This time the topic was ‘Carry on Smoking,’ and there was many a merry close-up of raddled lungs being bloodily excised from shagged-out bodies and gruesomely slit open to reveal horrendous tumours. A machine called Puffing Billy smokes all the brands simultaneously and continuously. I once did the same, and in fact made the same noise, but now I’m off them. What the programme didn’t tell me is whether getting off them puts me in the clear. I mean, do your lungs... you know, forget?

The Observer, 11th November 1973