TELEVISION / Shame, grief and no innocent memories

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN TERMS of conversation-stoppers, Martin, a German Catholic who entered the priesthood in 1947, was definitely holding the trump card: 'Hitler was my godfather,' he said about halfway through Timewatch's 'Children of the Third Reich' (BBC 2). Martin's second name was Bormann and he was sitting in the Neve Shalom Peace Centre in Israel because his paternity ('He was a strict but good and fair father') qualified him for inclusion in a kind of genetic experiment. Over four days the children of Holocaust survivors were to meet and talk with the children of Nazi war criminals.

Television likes to effect this sort of confrontation (or at least be present when they occur), usually in the belief that they will capture some human alchemy of forgiveness or healing occurring under the lens. There was a vogue a few years ago for sending violently opposed groups (racists and black people, for instance) off for a hellish house party, in which they could 'explore their differences'. It came to an end because, as is the way with exploration, people mostly ended up with the terrain of mutual hatred greatly enlarged. A changing mind is more difficult to film than a mating panda.

Clearly this was never going to be in quite that category; guilt and rage can be inherited but culpability is far more difficult to transmit. Short of somebody arguing that the whole thing had been blown wildly out of proportion you simply weren't going to get a confrontation of minds. Even so, the producers must have hoped for more from the daily encounter groups than they actually got here. The film was moving and revelatory but most effectively so when people entered the electronic confessional and talked alone, not for other people but for themselves.

What was most striking was how shame can magnify grief. The children of war criminals had lost parents young but had no consolation of love to fill the gap. One man read out his mother's last letter from his father, written just before he was hanged for war crimes. It was a tender letter, filled with paternal regret and it moved him to tears - before he lifted his head and said: 'But how many lies in there?'

Another had kept the secret from her own children in the hope that the chain of family affection might leap a generation: 'I wanted my daughter to love her grandfather,' she said hesitantly, aware that this utterly conventional sentiment might sound monstrous in her case. They had been bereaved twice, you realised, deprived both of fathers and of all innocent memories of them.

In Fighting for Gemma (ITV) Geoffrey Case made a brave attempt to turn the statistical fallout that surrounds the nuclear industry into a sustainable narrative. It was a dramatisation of the real story of Martyn Day's battle to bring a civil action against British Nuclear Fuels and prove that the Sellafield plant was responsible for the high rate of leukaemia among local children. As he struggles through the mass of highly complex evidence (muddied by the nuclear industry's tradition of truth economy) Gemma D'Arcy, the daughter of a Sellafield worker, is fighting against her own cancer.

'If you're going to argue it in court you'd better understand it,' said a colleague, a line that alerted you to another bout of numbing fact-crunching from the actors. This was brave, as I say, a real attempt to register the recalcitrant nature of judicial proof and scientific data, but it fatally lumbered the drama, which had to keep cutting away to Gemma (played with radiant matter-of-factness by Jennifer Kate Wilson) to revive itself with a breath of real human feeling.

David Threlfall is a wonderful actor, and his face was working overtime here, writing the lines that weren't supplied by the script. He managed to make you feel something of the obsessional rage that drove his campaign and the sheer mental effort of seeking a clear way through the blizzard of figures, but even he couldn't quite make this mass go critical.