Television Review

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AT FIFTY, everybody has the face they deserve. I can't begin to imagine what David Jason has done to deserve his face, but at any rate, it's an uncommonly interesting one - easily the most interesting thing about All the King's Men (Sun BBC1).

Alma Cullen's drama was based on the true story of the Sandringham Company, a band of soldiers recruited from the workers at the royal estate of Sandringham. Jason played Captain Frank Beck, the estate manager who raised the company and led it into battle at Gallipoli in August 1915, where they vanished into the mist, with no official explanation of their fate ever given. The piquancy of this bit of history is obvious. What better illustration could you find of the clash between old-fashioned ideals of loyalty and service, the pastoral idyll of Olde England, on the one hand, and the newfangled horrors of the First World War, the treacherous incompetence of the ruling classes, on the other? You might spot the stirrings of a paradox in this formulation, though - an appeal to democratic sentiment coupled with an attempt to cash in on royal associations. Not that there's anything wrong with that: the Prime Minister does it all the time.

The film opened prettily, with gauzy shots of men advancing across a stony plain, cutting swiftly to panoramas of the Norfolk countryside, men marching home from a day's work in the fields. Some familiar motifs were quickly established: all-over-by-Christmas optimism, eagerness to show Fritz a thing or two, womanly anxiety clashing with a masculine need to prove oneself, snobbery and emotional inadequacy of the upper classes (royalty excepted), and bitter irony. "How should we put paid to the Turks?" King George demanded of a Boer War veteran. "Act quickly, sir, under precise and detailed orders from a well-informed and far-sighted high command - just as we did in South Africa."

From then on, it followed a traditional trajectory of disillusionment - crippled and shell-shocked veteran spotted in local pub, training-field idealism left dazed by front-line cynicism, early encounters with death, slowly dawning realisation of stupidity of superior officers, and final suicidal advance against overwhelming odds. Amid this fusillade of cliches, relationships and personalities were hastily sketched out, and some peculiar emotional complications shoved in (believing her husband to be dead, one royal chambermaid sprinted off to have sex with the local conscientious objector).

Tales of youth marching away to be slaughtered are common enough, but Cullen and Jason between them created at least the shadow of a more intriguing drama. In Beck, a 53- year-old man who by rights should never have been at the front in the first place, we had an embodiment of Olde England, a man imbued with a strong sense of tradition and his place in life. The most moving sight in the film was Jason's expression of baffled disbelief when he discovered that one of his men had a dose of the clap: for him, you felt, the real horror was not the war so much as the 20th century itself.

But it was hard to take seriously the idea, harped on here, of rural Britain as an undisturbed paradise, especially after watching Green and Pleasant Land (Sun C4). Steve Humphries' series on country life in the early years of the century began by exploring the world of childhood. As described here, it was a world of hunger, forced labour, casual violence and repressed resentment. Gordon Anderson, hired out as a farm-worker for a year when he was 14, described the bothy he had to sleep in - old blankets smelling of other boys' piss, and a roof through which he could watch the stars. At the end of the year, he expected his mother to take him home. Instead, she told him he had been hired out for another year: he screamed and ran. The police picked him up nearly 20 miles away, and took him straight back to the farm.

At times, the commentary overdid the misery: emphasising, for instance, that many country festivals were really occasions for ritualised begging for food (well, you could say the same about trick-or-treating). A more serious fault was the camera's restlessness, forever cutting away from the old people telling the stories to photos or film. The meritocracy that gives you the face you deserve at 50 tends to have broken down a few decades after that, and there are very few 90-year-olds whose faces aren't worth at least a few moments of the camera's time. But still, an intriguing and eye-opening start.