Television Review

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The Independent Culture
FOR UNDERSTANDABLE reasons, we don't tend to talk a lot about the Boer War in this country. It was one of the less glorious episodes of our imperial past, notable for Britain's shabby motives, shabby tactics, and shabby treatment of civilians. The Boer War (C4) began with the assertion that the war has cast "a long shadow" over our century. That may be so in South Africa; over here, it lives on mostly in peculiar little corners of British life - in street names like Mafeking Avenue and Ladysmith Road, or the Kop at Anfield. Plenty of people have read verse by Kipling and Hardy about the pathos of English farm boys dying in the veldt, without having much idea of what they were dying for.

So a history lesson is welcome; but I'm not sure that Jonathan Lewis's series is the best introduction. Last night's opener bustled through the politics of the period, offered descriptions of strategy but without any maps, and got far too bound up in describing what went wrong at Spion Kop - which was the same as at most of the early battles of the war: the British soldiers were woefully underprepared for the heat and flies, for fighting at all. Some officers' idea of reconnaissance, apparently, was to ride up to a hill to see if there were any Boers there; if there were, they probably wouldn't make it back to tell anybody.

You could get a far clearer idea of what went on from Kenneth Griffith's two-part Boer War (Sat BBC2), which started last weekend. Griffith approached the subject with a passion born of a sense of history and a revulsion for imperialism. Declaring that the war was "virtually the beginning of the end of the British Empire" - he quivered with rage, sounding a little like some vengeful deity contemplating a forthcoming deluge. Pacing around the scene of some century-old battle, he shook his head and closed his eyes mournfully, throwing up his hands in despair at the futility of it all.

At times, Griffith overacted outrageously, so that even as you appreciated the grim nature of the subject, it was hard to quell a smile. But his passion had an overwhelmingly positive side: an absolute ease with the subject, an ability to get across what was happening. The politics behind it all, the way that Britain's desire to protect its subjects in the Transvaal coincided with Britain's desire to get its hands on the Transvaal's gold, was far clearer in Griffith's version than in Lewis's. He also had more maps, so that it was easier to follow the basic logic of the fighting.

Age gives Griffith a huge headstart: the programme included decades- old footage of him interviewing veterans of the war. By contrast, Lewis has been forced to settle for testimony from centenarians with vague primary- school memories of what their parents had been talking about, for interviews with descendants of the participants, and extracts from a 1936 British imperialist epic, Rhodes of Africa.

But this has its own advantage. Watching the grandson of a Boer general insist vehemently that the war was fought for freedom, or an elderly Boer woman sneering at British "gluttony", you realise that South Africa is one of those parts of the world cursed - like Northern Ireland - with a strong sense of history.

There were more reminders of the ways that war casts its shadow in the final part of The Second World War in Colour (ITV). The novelty of seeing so much colour footage seemed to be wearing thin, to begin with; but still there were shocking moments - the dead of Buchenwald piled high, pink flesh streaked with dried black blood; and gorgeous footage of a night- time kamikaze attack - pink and yellow flak against a deep violet sky; constellations of shells, a plane exploding in a supernova.

Meanwhile, with their heads jammed firmly in the here and now, The Royle Family (BBC1) returned. In last night's episode, which revolved around Denise's announcement that she was pregnant, I only noticed one overt joke: Dave explained that he wanted his friend, Gary, to be godfather because Gary's mum had died recently, and also because he owed him two hundred quid and it might hold him off for a bit. But the acting is perfect - Sue Johnston's teary reaction to the news that she was going to be a grandmother should win some sort of award. Nothing happens, but it happens so beautifully.

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