Television Review: Western Front

AT THE end of Western Front (BBC2), Richard Holmes stood in a military cemetery, struggling to encapsulate the lessons of the First World War at the other end of the century. It taught us to question, he thought, ended blind obedience - never again would we be prepared to lay down our lives or those of our children to try to change the world. And, finally, he squatted by a gravestone, engraved to "A soldier of the Great War": "And in a place like this," he intoned, "I cannot but remember that the least of them is as much a man as I am."

There is not much you can argue with there. The pity of this series, though, has been that the moral, personal dimension was given so little space to breathe, crowded out by Holmes's interest in the technicalities of war, the way that men's lives were dictated by impersonal elements - the lie of the land, the swiftly changing technology. Outdoors, pacing the battlefield, Holmes showed a knack of pulling you into the flow of events, of winding up the tension so that momentarily you can suspend your knowledge of the outcome and worry about who is going to win. But the same technique seemed faintly absurd indoors. At one point last night we had the daft spectacle of the professor striding around a conference table, pouncing on the chair here! where Foch sat, and the one there! where Haig was.

The most striking moments were the personal ones, pulled out of the journals of the dead, or recalled by the few survivors (identified on screen not by their rank or regiment but simply by year of birth - 1899, 1898 - as if what makes them interesting to us is not the military facts they are recounting, but the simpler fact that they are still here to recount them). The combination of dullness and horror was best evoked by Ted Rimmer (born 1898), who remembered seeing a friend killed, his insides blown out by a booby-trapped bottle of wine in a German dug-out. But what had astonished him was that the dug-out contained an actual table and chairs. But still, life during wartime was only fleetingly evoked, so that Holmes's conclusions seemed ungrounded, weightless.

They seemed to gain mass later on, though, watching the second part of Channel 4's history of post-war policing, Coppers. "The Road to Broadwater Farm" began with musings on the disappearance of deference and obedience in British society. "In the Fifties," we were told, "the atom bomb, not riots, seemed the greatest threat to social order." Newsreel footage showed a sit-down by CND - people not prepared to lay down their children's lives - with the police carefully lifting the demonstrators away. The commentary smugly announced: "It's pretty safe to say that in most countries at this stage, there'd have been a riot." Benevolent elderly policemen talked of how well-behaved demonstrators were in those days.

The film whizzed on through the Sixties and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, into the Seventies and riots at the Notting Hill Carnival, with increasing violence and increasing distrust of the police. (We saw a young radical with a funny hairdo complaining about the Special Patrol Group - "Harriet Harman" according to the caption.) In the face of this breakdown of the established order, the police tried to foster friendly relations through public information films showing Chief Inspector Hawkins of Brixton Police going about his business, while a voiceover explained that "the West Indian is traditionally happy-go-lucky, with a history of peace and gaiety under the sun".

There was a grim humour about some of this; but the tone of the programme was mainly sad, as policemen from pit villages talked about the conflicting loyalties they suffered during the Miners' Strike. They were alienated from their friends; and from the job as they were edged into activities of dubious legality, such as intercepting cars on the motorways in case they contained flying pickets. (Another radical with a funny hairstyle popped up to complain: this one was called Blair.)

And then policemen remembered Broadwater Farm, the terror of petrol bombs and machetes beating on their shields, and seeing PC Keith Blakelock hacked to death. "In the frenzy of riot," said the commentary, "the mob didn't see the man, they only saw the oppressor." Then Richard Holmes came back to mind, crouching by the tombstone and saying that this was a man. There are some lessons of the war that we still haven't learned.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing