Last Night's Viewing - Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory, BBC4; Queen Victoria's Children, BBC2

 

If you've ever wondered about what made Simon Heffer the way he is, wonder no longer. It was, according to his own account, Fifties British War Films, a staple of wet Sunday afternoons in the late Sixties and Seventies and, apparently, of Heffer's irascible, small-c conservatism, too: "They're in my DNA," he confessed at the beginning of his hugely enjoyable BBC4 documentary about the genre. "They helped to influence me and millions like me about what it meant to be British."

That was the first occasion on which I giggled, if I'm honest, at the thought that there might actually be millions of Simon Heffers, all with their Edward Heath jowls, their Garrick ties and their pocket handkerchiefs arranged just so. Because one of the reasons his film was so delicious was the combination of a genuinely good subject with a presenter of almost satirical appropriateness. Looking at Heffer, you would assume him to be a man who thinks the rot set in when they introduced colour to movies and people stopped standing for the National Anthem. An assumption he was only too happy to confirm: "I wasn't even born," he said of 1953, when The Cruel Sea was released, "but it was a Britain I like to think was more pleasant and decent than today's."

Heffer's enterprise was a rearguard-action for the stiff-upper lip, an attempt to repel attacks led by such leftie fifth-columnists as Lindsay Anderson, who saw war films as a reactionary distraction from the urgent social issues of the day. Not so, argued Heffer. This was a high-point of British cinema that distilled the very essence of our proud island race. It wasn't exactly a subtle reading of a genuinely intriguing cultural phenomena. But I suspect that Heffer may think that subtlety is subversively un-British in itself. So if you wanted a more nuanced reading of the success of these films at the time, you had to supply it yourself – and settle for the fact that the programme offered fascinating interviews with veteran film-makers and clips that repeatedly brought a lump to the throat.

Plus, of course, the rich comedy of Heffer's presentational style. I'm a little torn about my favourite moment. I liked the bit where he triumphantly refuted the suggestion that wartime movies were classbound and parochial by pointing out that Carve Her Name with Pride featured a leading character who was "working class, a woman and half-French" (played by that matchless representative of the labouring classes, Virginia McKenna). But I think it was narrowly pipped by his defence of Dunkirk against the dark charge of "revisionism". "It never fails to remind the audience that the enemy were beasts," he said sternly. The film historian Matthew Sweet, who appeared in an interview towards the end, would have made an infinitely better documentary about these classics. But it wouldn't have been anywhere near as funny.

I'm not sure what Simon Heffer would have made of Queen Victoria's Children, a new series about the home life of our own dear Queen (or at least theirs). On the one hand, it's about British history at a moment of imperial apogee, and I think he'd approve of that. On the other hand, the Victorians don't appear to have been any more pleasant or decent towards the Royal Family than we are today. "Albert entered by Bushey, advanced through Maidenhead, penetrated Virginia Water and left Staines behind," ran a popular joke about the Queen's wedding night. And the home life of Queen Victoria, far from being a sovereign example of domestic serenity, turns out to have been as lively as a Walford front room, with door-slamming tantrums and serious maternal deficit.

Fascinating, in part because of the emotional candour of both Victoria and Albert in their letters, and also because of their early embrace of that Pandora's Box for the mystery of monarchy – the photographic camera.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?