Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IN THE late summer of 1939, the Second World War broke out, and John Peel was born. It would be poor taste to suggest that the two events are remotely comparable in importance - though you could have got that idea from the weekend's television schedules. The way that Britain reacted to Total War and the fact of Peel's status as a living national treasure both exemplify a peculiarity of the British psyche. A love of failure, I was going to call it, but that's not right; it's more distrust of success, a desire to play it down.

There are sections of society that can come over all smug about the Second World War, but what's surprising is the lack of national triumphalism, given that the country came so well out of it in military and moral, if not financial, terms. Our most treasured image of the war is surely the one offered by Dad's Army: a ruthless, unstoppable war machine routed by a ramshackle combination of geriatrics, cissified youth and snobs - a hilarious botch-up.

There was a strong sense of this in A Very British War Movie (Sat C4) (shouldn't that have been "War Film"?) Most of the programme was taken up with the output of the Fifties, such as The Colditz Story and Ice Cold in Alex. There were some worthwhile titbits here. It emerged during discussion of Above Us the Waves, for instance, that the crews of midget submarines were kept awake with Benzedrine: stuck in the middle of the North Sea in a tin can packed with speed freaks and explosives, enemy action must have been the least of your worries. But these celluloid efforts, churned out in the afterglow of victory, seem callow and uninteresting compared with the much grimmer wartime films tackled in the first 20 minutes.

The critic Raymond Durgnat talked about the final sequence of Carol Reed's The Way Ahead, in which the mishmash of an infantry platoon, at last melded into a tough fighting unit, advances, bayonets at the ready, against the armour and bombs of the enemy. It has been suggested, apparently, that Reed's own view of this went beyond grim realism: the men had been dead and were now in hell. (He didn't mention that this moment was spoofed in the closing titles of early episodes of Dad's Army, created by Jimmy Perry, which is also the name of the David Niven character in The Way Ahead.)

Whether or not you take the extreme eschatological view of the film, it's clear that here, and in such films as Went the Day Well?, callow optimism was not a serious option. Defeat was not just seen as a possibility but greeted as a useful challenge, even a friend. What distinguished Britain in wartime was not a determination to win, but an unwillingness to be fazed by losing.

And likewise with Peel, who has always espoused the unlistened to and sometimes unlistenable, sounded miserable about it, and was rewarded with John Peel Night (Sun BBC2), an entire night of programmes. How we have loved him for it; and how bitterly his fans resent it now he goes on Radio 4 and wins awards. No fun for Peel, of course. But it's the same spirit that won us the war.

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