Last night's viewing - Digging the Great Escape, Channel 4; Desperate Scousewives, E4
Tuesday 29 November 2011
A few years ago, the Imperial War Museum put on an exhibition about PoW escapees and while I was wandering around the press view it suddenly dawned on me that the old men bent over the display cases had a proprietary interest in the contents. I realised they were surviving escapers, there to give cheerful interviews to any journalists who were interested. And I confess I found myself a bit choked. For anyone who'd grown up on Pat Reid's Colditz books and Paul Brickhill's account of the Great Escape, it was a bit like bumping into Achilles or Troilus, figures of legend suddenly come to life. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I may not be the most dispassionate judge of Digging the Great Escape, Channel 4's film about excavations at the site of Stalag Luft III. If truth be told it was a slightly dull and anti-climactic film, but it couldn't stifle the romance of the story it told, and it effectively enlarged your respect for the men who had to do their digging in secret.
The plan was to find Harry, the tunnel involved in the Great Escape itself, and George, a tunnel the prisoners actually built to break further into the camp. Anxious that they might be attacked by civilians as military authority broke down towards the end of the war, they wanted to be able to get to the German armoury if the camp was invaded. With regard to Harry, the dig spent a lot of money and effort to come up with nothing, sinking the main shaft in the wrong place and then discovering how lethally difficult it is to tunnel through sand (quite an instructive failure, to be fair). They did better with George, almost immediately discovering the remnants of one of the homemade mine trucks the prisoners used in their excavations, and following a corroded ventilation pipe down to a rusted PoW radio.
Six currently serving RAF men were meanwhile attempting to replicate the ingenuity of their predecessors, though they built their tunnel by the cut-and-cover method (the real escapers might have had German guards to worry about, but probably didn't have to comply with health and safety requirements). They made a pretty good fist of the air-pump and underground railway, but I think only Mr Magoo would have been fooled by the false identity papers one of them had produced. It didn't really matter though – they weren't there to succeed but to underline the achievements of those who'd done it for real. And, as in the Imperial War Museum, the most moving elements were the veterans themselves, back in that Silesian wood after 70 years. "I hate the smell of pine even today," said one of them – a bit of human archaeology that trumped all the stuff with trowels.
Would those men have poured such energy into escaping if they'd known that they were fighting, in part, to make Desperate Scousewives possible? This is the latest manifestation of "structured reality" programming, essentially photo-romances for people who find reading speech bubbles too challenging, and it's set in the British capital of self-dramatisation, Liverpool. If you've ever been unfortunate enough to catch The Only Way Is Essex or Made in Chelsea, you'll be familiar with the recipe: there are a lot of girls who appear to sleep in Agent Provocateur lingerie and full make-up, and a lot of young man who wander around in just a pair of jockey shorts, all of them boring endlessly on about their relationships. I did laugh when one of the gay beauticians said that they were "looking into anal bleaching at the moment" and his partner explained that it was because they were "trying to bring a little bit of glamour" to the salon, but then I just couldn't take any more. If you're going to fake it, why on earth don't you fake something interesting?
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