For some reason, though, we like to think of our grandparents as suppressed and timid innocents. The programme revealed them as anything but. The war dissolved the barriers that had kept them fenced in for years. Men went overseas; women slipped into slinky uniforms, and a million dashing Americans looked for dancing partners. The consequences were inevitable and far-reaching. Adultery boomed - a third of the babies born in the war years were illegitimate - and divorces multiplied eightfold. Women learnt that marriage need not, and perhaps could not, answer their desires. The Britain of the single mother had arrived, and the seeds of a more public sexual liberation had been well and truly planted.
The programme relied, as is traditional now, on a trio of women recalling their experiences. Two were what we might have expected: cheeky grannies chuckling about the years when they were young and fancy-free. "If a man said 'Let's go to bed' I said 'Yes! Straight away!'," said one. It was endearingly blatant: there was danger in the air, and little time for fumbling preliminaries. "It was a standing-up procedure," recalled a policeman. They were at it in parks and porches, stairwells and bomb-sites. Some of what happened could be interpreted today as sexual harassment: men sneaked into the rooms of women they barely knew, and climbed into their beds. But the women embraced them eagerly. Most had grown up believing that sex and marriage were synonyms: some hadn't the faintest idea where babies came from, even on their wedding nights. Many "respectable" girls slipped in and out of prostitution - well, they were doing it for fun anyway, why not pick up five shillings while they were about it?
The film struggled for period footage, relying on newsreel shots of Spitfires or romantic film clips. It gave a corny shimmer to the sometimes affecting recollections of the women themselves, but had the virtue of reminding us that the way we see the past conditions the way we think about it. The war years, fixed in black-and-white, automatically seemed austere, and the film was aware that the silvery cloud of liberation sometimes had a black lining. "There was always the fear," one woman confided, "that the war would be coming to an end." It was sobering to be reminded that, for some, VE Day was an occasion for private anguish.
The world has moved since then. Coppers (C4) described the changes with a concise and plaintive look at the relationship between the public and the police. It began - of course - by invoking and debunking the quaint image of Dixon of Dock Green. Old-timers spoke fondly about the "little flat-handers" or "little clips" they used to administer on the beat. "I liked to fight more than having me dinner, to tell you the truth," said one. But the film became eloquent as it outlined the steady and regrettable transformation of the police from amiable bobbies to paramilitary pigs. In its search for villains it came up with Roy Jenkins, whose demand for a 10 per cent reduction in manpower pushed the police into cars, and turned them into enemies of the people. Ordinary middle-Englanders found themselves hounded on the roads by a hostile police force used to dealing with tough criminals. And so it went. The more heavily armed the police became, the more they were hated. And the more they were hated, the more heavily armed they needed to be to defend themselves. It was a story with no winners, a genuine social tragedy.
Sometimes it takes time, and the perspective of several decades, for such tales to settle and clarify. Sometimes it takes that long simply for them to emerge. Secret History: the Mau Mau (C4) took a cool look at a forgotten episode from the 1950s, and it soon became obvious why it is something we prefer not to dwell on. The way the authorities dealt with Kenya's Mau Mau guerrillas was an object lesson in how not to do it. The Mau Mau were ferocious early terrorists. They lived in the forests and attacked a few whites, and many loyalist Africans, with grisly knives, hacking them to pieces - women, children, whoever was there. In fact, more whites were killed on the roads during the insurgency than by Mau Mau machetes, but the government panicked. Some 80,000 Africans were interned in camps ("villages"), forced to work, bullied to confess and visited from time to time by a mobile gallows: 1,000 were hanged for "alleged" Mau Mau crimes. One fateful day in 1953, at a camp called Hola, 11 prisoners were beaten to death in an Amritsar-type stampede that shamed Britain and led to its departure from Kenya for good.
The film refrained from expressing the dangerous opinion that terrorism works, that the Mau Mau had discovered a successful, if brutal, freedom- fighting technique (they were not so different from the IRA, after all). But it brought together the major actors in the drama, even the superintendent of prisons, John Cowan, whose harsh penal code was put to such dire use. In their anxiety to present him as a cold-hearted tyrant, the producers did not quite confront him with their questions, and sneaked his remarks into contexts that made him look especially callous. But his presence emphasised the archival importance of historical documentaries: the stories these people have to tell need to be recorded before they are lost for ever.
It says something (rather sad, perhaps) that none of these three elegant inquiries into Britain's recent history was on the BBC. Instead, we were given The Essential Guide to the Weather (BBC2), a grand subject that deserves proper documentary attention; the influence of climate on our national character is not trivial. But this was a flimsy travel show. Someone drove about in a vintage car explaining that there's more wind on hilltops than in sheltered valleys; someone else stood on a bridge and talked about the "awesome might" of the sea. A limp collection of pop classics ("Here Comes the Rain Again", "Summer Breeze") was wheeled out to lend a hand. Nothing helped. The subject cried out for an Attenborough, but offered only Ian McCaskill plodding about in a field showing us how to avoid lightning (duck) or fiddling with joss sticks to explain about tornadoes ("Lo and behold! A vortex!").
Jerry Seinfeld would have had a good smile about it: he likes easy subjects. In Jerry Seinfeld Live on Broadway (BBC2) he gave a one-man performance which involved chuckling at the nastiness of New York cabbies, Chinese people, old people, airports, people whose names had eight consonants ("What planet is he from?"), doctors and dry-cleaners. It's hardly a revolutionary package, and for those whose favourite parts of Seinfeld are the snippets of stand-up that bookend the sitcom, the scheduling was bizarre: the most popular television entertainer in the world landed with the midnight shift.
It wasn't because the show was full of four-letter words: "a tremendous pain in the ass" was as dirty as it got. At times he sounded merely like a young and chic Victor Meldrew. "What is it with ...?" he kept asking. "Am I the only sane guy around here, or what?" In one nice fantasy he imagined cows surrendering to McDonald's ("We'd like to turn ourselves in - oh, and we'd like to be a Happy Meal if at all possible") but for the most part he looked for "proof that human beings are not smart". It gave a slightly jeering quality to his suave act, and at times, as he leaned on the mike in his smart dark suit, smiling that amiable toothy smile, he looked like a scary cartoon of Tony Blair. What is it with you people? It's almost a political manifesto.
Brian Viner returns next weekReuse content