Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WHOEVER ELSE is up for the best documentary series on Bafta night can start making alternative arrangements now. It goes without saying that Cold War (BBC2, Saturday) will come to be seen as a landmark. Its view of the battlefield could not be more sweeping, its roll-call of witnesses could not drop more names. Its ambition is a testimony to the BBC's wealth of expertise and CNN's wealth (the "series concept" is credited to Ted Turner, which I suspect is the media conglomeracy equivalent of a Florentine wool merchant getting his mug into the bottom right hand corner of the Botticelli altarpiece he commissioned).

But that said, you only hope that, of the 23 instalments to come, not too many will telescope seismic events with quite the same breathless enthusiasm as this opening primer, which raced past cataclysm and genocide like a volume of 1945 And All That minus the jokes. There was a hint of nervous throat-clearing as Neal Ascherson's unobtrusive script began in medias res. Ascherson has written more euphonious lines than his opener - "A nuclear shadow falls across the human future" - and narrator Kenneth Branagh has certainly spoken better lines. The story then took a couple of giant strides back to the Russian Revolution, like someone stretching the elastic of a catapult and briefly aiming, before firing the narrative through time towards its target, Hiroshima.

In its own way it was an impressive feat of compression for an overview to kill off so many so quickly, and with almost as little conscience as the perpetrators themselves. Collectivisation massacred millions in a sentence. Half Europe was subjugated by Hitler in a subordinate clause. The mushroom clouds over Japan were the work of a paragraph. But the side- effect of this narrative with its finger on the fast-forward button was a kind of intellectual G-force, and it will be possible to judge Cold War in all its majesty only when it locates the brake pedal.

It is doubtless with the travel-sick in mind that The Nazis: A Warning From History (BBC2) began a repeat last night (as well as to remind everyone that the BBC can make these lapidary histories just as well on its own). Indeed, the ideal way to view Cold War, to put meat on the bones of its banner headlines, would be with access to a digital library. With this resource you could download programmes for reference - the recent film on Von Ribbentrop, The Fifty Years War, The Struggle for Poland, sundry documentaries on perestroika, Solidarity, Katyn, the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, the Hungarian uprising - all from a genre that, for my money, has delivered the best television of the last 10 years. Even this month's BBC interview with Steven Spielberg about Saving Private Ryan would have made useful companion viewing.

The glory of this series, and others like it, is that it gathers together the top brass to drain off their memories in a way that written history cannot duplicate. It helps that a camera crew draws a certain type of moth to the flame. Gorbachev and Bush appear to have done nothing but talk to television historians since they left office. But it's also true that, for all the extraordinary archive footage (some of it suspiciously colourised), television is an intimate, anecdotal medium. "I was there" are the trigger words which galvanise a history producer. While it's nice to have the film of Stalin and Churchill mounting the steps of the conference building at Potsdam, it's better still to have the interview with the octogenarian, whom, as a young chap from the FO, you can see standing discreetly between them 53 years ago. Likewise the interview with Beria's son, who remembered as a child the time Stalin visited his father's house and said the USSR was not ready to go to war: it's less history than his story, gossip solidified into oral archive.

In fact, for all CNN's involvement, part of Cold War's armoury is a proper mistrust of film footage, much of which carries the taint of stage management. The moment Russian and American troops met in Germany in 1945 was artfully captured by the camera, but we learnt here that this was a re-enactment filmed for broadcast. Three days earlier a rather more apprehensive encounter took place, and we met the US soldier who remembered the rendezvous as if it was yesterday.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away