Last Night's TV - Blitz Street, Channel 4; World War II Lost Films, History

Master blaster misses the target

Tony Robinson is a good enlightened liberal, so he probably won't thank me for comparing him with the gruff right-wing populist Jeremy Clarkson, but it has to be said that there is more than a touch of the Clarksons about
Blitz Street, which Robinson presents, and which features a "typical" row of East End terraced houses carefully built on a remote RAF base so that they can be bombed to see what the blasts must have been like during the Blitz. To see, indeed, "the anatomy of these blasts as they've never been seen before".

It must be natural cynicism that makes me recoil every time someone on television tells me portentously that I'm about to see something as it's never been seen before. And I did quite a bit of recoiling during Blitz Street. For all the meticulous scientific and historical research, this is Clarkson-style boys-with-toys television, and it doesn't grab my joystick at all.

Robinson, of course, is very proud of his ersatz – if I might be forgiven for using a German word – London street. It was built just as it would have been between the wars, in the same way, with the same materials. And to destroy it, they've even managed to find the same bombs that were used by the Luftwaffe, the SC50 and the SC500. "The first of our two bombs has just arrived," said Robinson, rather as somebody on Gardeners' World might say "the first of our tulips has opened". It is, he added, "our very own SC50". I could hardly suppress my lack of excitement.

Still, all credit to the Blitz Street team for their painstaking efforts in getting all the conditions exactly right for this small-scale re-creation of the devastating bombing of the East End in 1940. All the conditions except one, that is. They had a camera capable of recording 1,000 frames per second to examine the behaviour of each blast, and a scientist to talk earnestly to Robinson about fireballs and shockwaves, yet they were not allowed to drop their bombs from the air, which seemed a bit like cloning Hitler but leaving out the moustache. I'm no student of kinetics, but even I can see that a bomb dropped out of a plane might have a different impact than one detonated on the ground. The other slight lapse in authenticity, of course, was that there was nobody in these houses when the explosions came. Surely they could have found a few expendable East Enders. Ian Beale and Ricky Butcher come inexorably to mind.

As a return on the money, care and energy invested, the blowing up of Blitz Street yielded very little to make you sit up and say "cor lumme" or even "stone the crows". I liked the fact that a pint of milk on one of the doorsteps survived both the SC50 and SC500, and it was quite interesting when the scientist explained how folk taking shelter under the staircase might have survived, but on the whole the boys-with-toys element was an unfortunate distraction from what could have been a fascinating documentary, with lots of good newsreel footage and some absorbing interviews with people who were there. These included a veteran newspaperman and former colleague of mine, Brian James, who was 10 at the time of the Blitz and remembered overhearing his aunt asking his uncle how she might use his pistol to kill him, her daughter and herself, in the event of the Germans arriving in the wake of their bombs. That anecdote and several others like it did far more for our understanding of the Blitz than Robinson's well-intentioned but essentially silly pyrotechnics. But then I write as someone who loved history at school and hated physics.

Plainly, though, you really can't beat the testimonies of those who were there. The rather mundanely-titled World War II Lost Films is a gem of a series, using recently-discovered colour footage of the conflict over the memoirs, mostly voiced by actors, of 12 old US servicemen and women.

I wouldn't like to speculate on what fraction of the budget of Steven Spielberg's The Pacific it cost to put World War II Lost Films together, but I know which is the more educational, and the more poignant. Last night, we heard from Charles Scheffel, a captain with the 39th infantry regiment in Normandy, who was invalided home after having "my trigger finger" amputated, and in San Antonio, Texas was reunited with his wife after two years apart. It was hard to find a hotel room but eventually a sympathetic stranger gave him a key to a suite, no less. Nine months later to the night, their first child was born.

Less romantically, we also heard from Nolen Marbrey, one of 4,500 marines who landed, via 200 landing craft in less than 20 minutes, on the small Pacific island of Peleliu. They'd been told it would take them three days to capture the island, with its strategically vital airstrip, from the Japanese. In fact, it took them more than 70 days, at a cost of over 10,000 casualties and lifelong memories of hell. Marbrey recalled that, wading through Japanese corpses, "some of the guys collected gold teeth as souvenirs". Unsurprisingly, Spielberg left that detail out of his marines-as-irreproachable-heroes version. Marbrey also talked about the marines' training. "Those war games, they ain't nothing like the real thing," he said. Someone should have told the makers of Blitz Street before they went to all that trouble.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits