review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Defence of the Realm (BBC1) begins with a montage of militaria and the high, pure sound of boys' voices, a choice of music that seems to solicit our approval. What is it, you wonder, that John Harle's title music wants us to feel? That there is something innocent and uplifting at the very

heart of the military establishment? Or, perhaps, that it represents the continuation of an inspiring tradition? Later, when a full-throated version of "Jerusalem" swells over the images, our relationship to the music is more ambiguous. Nicholas Soames has picked the hymn while on Classic FM's Celebrity Choice programme, so it can be taken as a journalistic detail, rather than a bit of editorialising. You are free, should you wish, to interpret it as representative of a rather wistful kind of patriotism. At the top of the programme, though, we are actively encouraged to feel that pride for ourselves - the title is in a golden typeface, redolent of prestige and excellence, and when Soames proudly declares that our armed forces are "the benchmark by which every other armed force in the world judges itself", the film doesn't wink at us behind his back.

By the end of Richard Bradley's film, it's possible to hear that title music a little differently, as a requiem for a whole set of attitudes, some foolishly outdated and some rather admirable, though the scepticism is never exactly explicit. The MoD reportedly became extremely nervous about this project during the transmission of The House, a series which alerted them to the fact that they might have left their flank unguarded. They need not have worried unduly - either Defence of the Realm was never a very aggressive series or its attack has been expertly blunted. Where it is subversive of the MoD's self-image, it is so in subtle detail - for example Nicholas Soames' fondness for the phrase "I don't want to show orf but...", a line which quietly seeded the idea of national muscle- flexing in your mind.

The producers will also have to endure the inevitable scepticism of the audience when it comes to their claims for unique access. It does occur to you that you're seeing some of this material 30 years before it would conventionally be aired, but that thought is almost immediately succeeded by the suspicion that if they've let us see it then it can't really be very important. In any case, top civil servants, military men and politicians are a good deal more practiced in discretion than opera types, so in many scenes you have the sense of people weighing their words with jeweller's scales.

That in itself provides some enter-tainment - Soames' reaction on being told that Michael Portillo is to be his new boss was a delicious image of poker-faced calculation. A later scene, in which Portillo entered a room filled with advisers, was also mutely eloquent: a picture of an unpopular man unable to insinuate himself into that jolly sodality (the habitual reference to troops as "the lads" or "the boys" perfectly captures the male clubishness of the armed forces). On this showing, the series will contain no great revelations, in the sense of secrets, but may be revealing about the sentimental instincts of the armed forces.

"Mutiny in the RAF", a Secret History (C4) account of a wave of insubordination that ran through overseas bases just after the war, was a good companion piece to the BBC film. The strikes, which began with complaints about living conditions and the slow pace of demobilisation, were organised into something larger. Men who had volunteered to fight fascism were not prepared to enforce the Empire, a fact which clearly came as a shock to their superiors. Given that this was effectively a mutiny, the indignation of the programme about the treatment of the organisers seemed to me a little overwrought. The harshest punishment was 22 months in jail - unjust in the circumstances, but considerably more reversible than a firing squad. Ian Potts's film was fascinating in its implications about post- war history - one of those crucial footnotes that determine how the succeeding chapters get written.

Comments