In the event of an air raid, take to the woods

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The Independent Culture
The BBC, it seems, was not quite ready for the outbreak of war. When hostilities began the television service was suspended for the duration and, initially at least, theatres and cinemas were closed. The population of Britain turned to those little cathedrals of fretwork and Bakelite for light relief. What they got was Sandy McPherson, a stakhanovite of light entertainment, labouring away at his organ in the basement of Broadcasting House. It was not an unalloyed success; listeners wrote in pleading for him to be unchained from his instrument and the newspapers had a field day, attacking the BBC for being out of touch with popular taste - "inhuman and colourless" was one remark. Some things never change.

You can imagine that the BBC, patrician and basically well-intentioned, was a bit stung by this ingratitude. But it was always going to be hampered by its grand innocence about ordinary lives. In What Did You Do in the War, Auntie? (BBC1) Martin Esslin recalled the advice given to employees in the event of an air-raid: "If the alert is sounded, staff must run into the woods immediately and lie down, preferably in pairs." It wasn't long, though, before the BBC became better acquainted with the concept of innuendo, particularly in the shape of ITMA, a programme which drew 16 million listeners, a staggering figure for the times and one that went some way to justifying the BBC's boast that it drew the nation together.

There was a loss of innocence in other ways too. The BBC rapidly found that honest war reporting was virtually impossible. The dispatches sound impeccably encouraging to our ears, particularly at times of disaster. "You could still tell by his eyes that his spirit was irrepressible," said a reporter about soldiers returning from Dunkirk, a patriotic lie silently rebuked by footage of a blinded man being helped to disembark. Even so, Churchill described the BBC as "one of the major neutrals". They couldn't win either way - Richard Dimbleby, lied to and misinformed in the Western Desert, had to be replaced when he lost the confidence of the troops; an upbeat report on the bombing of Cardiff, celebrating the universal plucky good cheer of the survivors, caused a public outcry from grieving relatives.

What they could do was give voice to shared wishes - of solidarity or resolution or longing. This was not often achieved by letting ordinary people on air - an enfranchisement that only came long after the war. When you heard foot soldiers here they didn't talk, they obeyed orders. Their language was in dress uniform - audibly disciplined by script. Paradoxically it was the professional speech-writers who sounded most genuine and natural - Churchill, with his gift for kettledrum rhetoric, and the BBC's correspondents, sketching the war with flattering words. Neither had much opportunity for telling the unvarnished truth in the early part of the war; fortunately the facts came round to their way of thinking.

The Omnibus (BBC1) film about Dave Stewart was graced with a sporadically applied inventiveness. The acted-out collapse at the beginning was thoroughly unconvincing (unless his colleagues really don't care whether he lives or dies) and not a great deal was added to the standard profile format by having a psychotherapist conduct the interview. But every now and then an image would arrest the eye - as when Stewart's schooldays were introduced by a Dansette playing in an empty gymnasium. The end was pretty nifty too, a nicely cut sequence of a football, apparently bouncing from interview to interview, from the past into the present. It gave Mark James a very serviceable calling-card as a pop video director but also added a little twist to the very idea of a biographical profile, a wry hint that it was all a bit of a game, in which a life is tossed from person to person.