Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE ARE two basic categories of history. On the one hand, there is the history that everyone can remember. This sort is typified by Let Them Eat Cake (BBC1), a so-so new vehicle for French and Saunders set around the time of French Revolution. This was apparently cobbled together from a variety of sources: a half-remembered Blue Peter feature on Marie-Antoinette; the first 25 minutes of Dangerous Liaisons; and Carry On, Don't Lose Your Head. In Peter Learmouth's script, Versailles is populated by thick aristos with ludicrously high coiffures and correspondingly low morals, and their sly-boots servants. The humour relies heavily on blunt double entendres (big laughs when aristo Saunders' husband is alluded to as "the old comte"), but there are also numerous references to goitre and "the pox". As in Blackadder, the past is viewed, not unreasonably, as a Third World country with appalling sanitary arrangements.

On the other hand, there is the history that we don't remember. The premise behind The Second World War in Colour (ITV) is that we remember the war in black and white. By digging out colour footage from the archives, the series hopes to give us a new, more immediate picture of the war - to make us feel that this is a part of our own history, not a buried episode of the past.

Last night's opening programme lived up to this aim quite brilliantly. Of course, we have seen the war in colour before, but only in fictionalised contexts: seeing footage of reality, with all its tiny, random events and discrepancies - small boys picking their teeth as a parade passes by - is very different. What you realise, watching this series, is how far a world without colour is bleached of human qualities. The point was unwittingly made by a German soldier observing a massive column of Soviet prisoners of war trudging away from the front: "Were these really human beings," he wrote, "these grey-brown figures, these shadows lurching towards us?" But the monochrome, soulless horror he described didn't square with what we saw on screen: the play of colour dissolved this mass all too clearly into individuals.

The war became less black-and-white in another sense, too: watching a Nazi rally, it was a shock to see the holiday mood that pervaded. A shock, too, to see jolly German soldiers munching on green grapes in occupied France, and splashing about in a bright blue Atlantic. Once you add colour, it is harder to see Nazism as uncomplicatedly, monolithically evil.

Pre-war Britain turned out to have been a more cheerful place, too - its dominant colour not Depression-tinged grey, but the brick red of factories and suburban villas. Other images were more forlorn: corpses on the Eastern Front, the beach at Dunkirk strewn with burnt-out trucks. The emotions evoked were often enhanced by some well-chosen readings from diaries and journals; less often by the penny-plain commentary.

Overall, the programme reminded us that the past is not a foreign country, but somewhere closer to home. As seen here, the fires of the Blitz were more frightening, the plight of French refugees more moving than we'd imagined. History is where we live.