TV Reviews: Secret Lives and 1914-18

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The Independent Culture
"You couldn't take a bad picture of that man if you tried," someone said of Errol Flynn in Secret Lives' profile of the actor (C4). This seemed to be true - even at the end of his life, drenched with liquor and on the point of collapse, Flynn's face had an inextinguishable charm to it. But if you can't take a bad picture, it is always possible to make one, and Secret Lives had done its best in that direction. Where Hollywood airbrushed out the defects of its star's portrait, this film set out on a careful act of restoration - reinstating every flaw and pockmark.

"If I have any genius, it's a genius for living," wrote Flynn, in his self-forgiving autobiography. Nobody with any sense would actually want to live with a genius for living, but even so, you wonder why they arouse such resentful envy in those of us with a more mediocre talent for the business. Flynn, the opening narration announced "died a victim of his own debauchery", and it was hard not to hear a faint tone of satisfaction in that coroner's verdict - a reassurance that by burning the candle at one end (and then only on holidays), the rest of us are following the sensible course of action. Perhaps this was why the evidence mounted against Flynn also sounded a little strained. The film announced (again with a kind of satisfied relief) that one of the pillars on which his reputation rested had never been all that remarkable: "It was short and rather stout," said one ex-lover, while another reported that it was of "normal dimensions".

Similarly, when it came to his trial for rape (of two underage girls), the film was at pains to suggest that his acquittal had been a mistake and had tracked down one of the victims to tell her story. But her testimony was hardly damning evidence for the prosecution - "We went up and naturally made love, what was wrong with that?" she said. The voice- over noted that she "would never forget that night", a standard cliche for unhealable trauma, but everything she said suggested it was the outburst of moral outrage that had left her scarred rather than her encounter with the priapic star.

His last lover was presented as living proof of his sexual violence, and yet had nothing but fond memories of her time with him. The film ended with a rather good image of its admonitory tone - taking its principal punctuating device, the pop of an old-fashioned flashbulb, and for the first time letting you see the blistered, scorched husk that remains after the flash. Again, all very reassuring - he paid the price for all that fun. But if Flynn had behaved in such a way that he would have lived until he was 80, he might well have killed himself in despair at 30 - lifespans have never been a very accurate measure of the happiness of a life. Indeed, thinking of that final image, how many 60 watt bulbs secretly dream of trading their unremarkable light for a few years of dazzling brilliance?

BBC2's 1914-18 began at the end, with one of Wilfred Owen's last letters home, and the fact that the announcement of the armistice coincided with the news of his death. For most viewers, this is what the Great War means now - the ready poignancy of truncated promise. We have become well-tutored in the lessons of the conflict, and have absorbed its combat into our very language, in which the least bellicose person can hold an entrenched position or go to the wire for a principle. What is far more difficult to understand is how ordinary people felt about it before it began, which must surely lie at the heart of any explanation of why it began.

The film offered evidence both for those who argue that the war was actively pushed into being, and for those who claim that it simply failed to be prevented. It offered accounts psychiatric, diplomatic and economic - but, despite zooming in on individual actors from time to time, it couldn't explain why the appetite for war cut across almost every other ideological or social allegiance. Even the suffragettes suspended operations for the duration; they had been willing to burn churches for the vote, but not to risk charges of unpatriotic behaviour.