Benedict Cumberbatch's poshness with pathos strikes the right note on Radio 4's Today

The actor's Today cameo was a brilliant touch, writes Fiona Sturges

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Here is the eight o'clock news for today, Tuesday, 6th June," said a familiar voice on Radio 4's Today. As the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, the go-to guy for poshness with pathos, read out the news bulletin that the British people heard on the BBC Home Service on that astonishing morning of 1944, the mood was of more than just remembrance. For a few minutes, it actually felt like the end was nigh.

The report told of an urgent warning issued to the inhabitants of coastal towns in northern France in light of "a new phase in the allied air offensive". Those living within 25 miles of the coast were advised to listen out for advance notice of the towns that would be "intensively bombed". This notice would come in the form of leaflets dropped from Allied planes.

"When such warning is given," went the report, "people should leave the town at once and on foot. Keep off main roads as much as possible and make with all speed for the open country. People should take nothing with them that they cannot easily carry personally... Those who are able to leave this coastal belt should do so immediately."


Seventy years later, to those of us whose closest proximity to war is via televised new reports, this seemed like the stuff of film drama, not cold, hard fact.

There have been complaints that too much time is being spent on D-Day across the BBC, but I say there hasn't been enough. Enough would be when everyone in the land has stopped and spent just a few moments (because, of course, for some it's a whole lifetime) reflecting on the pain and sacrifice endured by a generation.

Thus it was only right that on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine should be broadcasting from HMS Belfast and Chris Evans from Arromanches, and that Radio 4 had hired the big acting guns (alongside Cumberbatch there was Patrick Stewart and Toby Jones) to read the original news bulletins.

Cumberbatch's Today cameo was a brilliant touch, though the emphasis elsewhere was on the memories of those who lived through it. Or at least that was the idea.

In 5 Live's 70th Anniversary of D-Day, Peter Allen was in Arromanches talking to veterans and trying – and largely failing – to get them to share their sadness.

"[It was] absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying, wasn't it?" he asked a 91-year-old named Percy, with undisguised prurience.

"People say, 'What was it like? Were you scared?'" Percy replied, chirpily. "Yes, we were all bloody scared, quite literally, but you were told what to do... and you just did it."

This refusal to dwell on the horrors of war was echoed in Radio 4's D-Day: a Family Affair, a lovely programme in which Paddy O'Connell sought out the veterans who fought alongside his father in the 47 Royal Marine Commando, and found them boozing it up in northern France.

Landing at Normandy on D-Day, the 47s had been tipped into the sea where they instantly lost all their equipment and fought with weapons taken from the enemy. "As the years go by, you look back and you think, 'Why did I do that?' but it was just bravado," said one.

"And bravery," added O'Connell. "Well, you say bravery, a lot of you people will think that, but it was just a job."

The "just a job" line could be heard a lot through O'Connell's documentary and throughout the coverage in general. But most surprising was that, amid the solemn speeches and the respectful silences, still the most dominant sound among the D-Day veterans was laughter.