Last Night's TV - Blitz Street, Channel 4; World War II Lost Films, History
Master blaster misses the target
Tuesday 20 April 2010
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.
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