Television Review: Western Front

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The Independent Culture
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.