There was much dipping into archives last week. In Their Own Words offered a kind of history lesson of the years 1919-39 through the words of contemporary novelists.
"We'll see some of the giants of the early 20th century and how they caught the spirit of the age," promised the voiceover. The writers, however, refused to play ball. How did the Bloomsbury Group affect British society? We weren't told. Instead, we got a charming vignette of Lord David Cecil mocking the Bloomsberries for their "terribly solemn faces – they never smiled, even when you shook hands". Virginia Woolf was described as "reinventing the novel to suit an age of doubt", but all we heard "in her own words" were bland truisms about using language to convey beauty and truth. For the flapper period, they wheeled out that literary titan Barbara Cartland to explain that she wrote because she couldn't stand working. Grim footage of the Great Depression was followed, not by a discussion of Love on the Dole but by Robert Graves, describing how he wrote I Claudius because he was short of money.
There was a large gap here between intention and achievement. But it didn't matter when there were such riches on display. The accents! The attitudes! The pomposity! Highlights included a young VS Naipaul oleaginously interviewing Elizabeth Bowen through a haze of nicotine, as she explained how she liked to start a novel with "a major incident – like someone throwing someone orf a cliff". Evelyn Waugh explained to a young Elizabeth Jane Howard (whom he clearly fancied) that modernism was started by some awful Americans, led by Gertrude Stein, who wrote "gibberish". "They hired this poor Irishman called James Joyce – I don't know if you've heard of him – who wrote complete rot. If you read Ulysses, you can see him getting madder and madder." And I loved the interchange between Robert Graves and the ridiculous Malcolm Muggeridge, who asked him, "Do you think the fact that you went through a homosexual phase at Charterhouse affected you ... blightingly?" "No," said Graves, shortly. "I'm not a feggot myself." "I know you're not," said Muggeridge. "You take full credit for that." Priceless.
Meanwhile, The Great British Home Movie Roadshow continued its mission to enthuse the nation about old cine-camera footage. Kirsty Wark and Dan Cruickshank are travelling the country in a special bus, asking punters to send in their home movies, or any secondhand ones they've found at a car-boot sale. They then screen selections and, with the help of two film historians, Robin and Binnie Baker, talk up their importance.
The results were patchy. Shipboard reel of life aboard an aircraft carrier, filmed by a National Service seaman, showed pilots crashing on deck and ratings making a balls-up of launching a rescue boat; it was amazing the cameraman didn't find himself keel-hauled. But footage of a child on the Falmouth sands was about as riveting as home movies generally are.
The programme did its best, however. When a Brixton dweller called Clovis filmed the Brixton riots in 1981, the footage didn't markedly differ from newsreel footage of the time, but was helped by having "Ghost Town" by The Specials on the soundtrack. The climax of the show was the discovery of some Super 8 film addressed to the Earl of Denbigh. The programme-makers tracked down the current Earl and screened the film before his family. It was quite sweet to watch his aunt squirming at the sight of her pre-teen self in baggy brown knickers on sports day. But the programme – an odd combination of Antiques Roadshow and Who Do You Think You Are? – has some way to go to convince us that ancient cinefilm is a national treasure.Reuse content