REVIEW / Hour after hour they ponder the warm field

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The Independent Culture
'PORNOGRAPHY for patriots' was how one writer chose to characterise the current commemorations of D-Day. There are patriots left it seems; the phrase appeared on adverts for Living Marxism, most of which had been torn down within a day or two, displaying a life-expectancy considerably lower than the average fly-poster. Though I wasn't quite moved to action myself, there does seem to be a failure of imagination in the remark, to put it at its mildest.

Yes, there will be people aroused by the last few days, and aroused in ways some of us might not find very appealing - politicians with a sly eye on the voters, weaponry freaks thrilled at the historic cavalcade, salesmen who want to sell T-shirts or trinkets, the impotent dreaming of past potency ('What we're commemorating today is an exercise in power-projection,' said one soulless oaf). But then history isn't an invitation-only occasion - almost anyone has access. And to complain about the act of remembering because some remember for their own ends is like dismissing Manet's Olympia because it gives the odd schoolboy an erection or has once been used to sell ice-cream. Anyone who hasn't felt moved by the recollections of recent days needs to check their human sympathies to see whether they're still functioning.

Having said that, I found it a little difficult to keep my spirits up during yesterday's outside broadcasts from Portsmouth and the Channel. The sight was extraordinary enough, certainly, a diminished echo of that unprecedented feat of organisation 50 years ago. But the tedium of The Civic Function, with its park-and-ride arrangements, its Portaloos and protocol, its fly-pasts and flag-waving, seemed to obscure the heart of the matter. So too did News 1944 (BBC1), a polished but gimmicky attempt to render the events of D-Day as a modern news bulletin. In Sue Lawley's false gravitas, in the faked urgency of present-tense reports by Fred Emery and Jane Corbin, you were given an elegant fake, a pretence at immediacy which smacked uneasily of the schoolroom, an impertinent suggestion that history needed a helping hand.

For the real thing, you had to watch the documentaries in the evening, to see old men in the grip of private memory, not its public equivalent. You saw the same archive again and again - that burdened soldier slumping to the shingle, the roll of a corpse in the water, the landing doors opening to reveal a smoky vista of French seaside houses. But it wasn't the pictures that stirred your thoughts as much as the words. Not everyone realised this: ITV's The Shortest Day didn't always trust its storytellers - one man's recollection of heavy shelling was illustrated with crash-zooms of concrete fortifications, as if technique could capture terror. It also rushed its most moving image - a repeated low swoop over the Normandy shoreline, which only at the very end lifted you over a low ridge to reveal a field full of graves.

Charles Wheeler's Turning the Tide (BBC1) was more dignified and attentive - in a nice touch they backed their contributors with pictures of them as young men, a reminder that everyone lost their youth that day, in one way or another. And, while giving a clean account of a messy battle, they listened carefully to brave men with few illusions left. One would hardly begrudge them the drilled explosions of the drums and the martial beat of ceremony, but I suspect they know better than most that it conceals a more terrifying percussion, that of high explosives - deferring to no pulse, terrifyingly superfluous in its noise and destruction. When that music starts, you want someone to stop it, and for much longer than 50 years if you're lucky.