Remembrance Sunday is TV's big chance to be useful. Marmaduke Hussey took it very seriously, of course. Introduced to him once (he huge and rheumy-eyed, the retired Captain Ahab of the Beeb; me an abashed teen) I told him I had recently done work experience at the BBC. "Which programme, eh?" When I named the show his face clouded and his manner became stiff. "A very, very grave day. A most important programme." I hadn't the heart to explain that The Friday Night Armistice was in fact a comedy sketch show by Armando Iannucci.
Anyway. This year the coverage of that very, very grave day was outstanding; commemorative but also contemplative. The Beeb sent Jeremy Paxman off in search of Wilfred Owen. He interrogated everyone from archivists to French farmers with clarity; his tenderness, like the unexploded shells still under the soil of the Somme, just discernable. Lord Hussey would have approved.
ITV put on a lavish First World War drama, My Boy Jack. I cried. We all cried, I don't doubt. Not a dry eye in any house. What with David Haig as Rudyard Kipling rushing round so urgently asking "Have you seen my boy Jack?", the 10-second trailer alone almost made me cry, dammit.
It was difficult, at first, to see the lead family as the Kiplings rather than a set of stage-struck Happy Family playing cards: here's Mr Talking Heads (David Haig), married to Mrs Sex and the City (Kim Cattrall), with their children Little Miss Bleak House (Carey Mulligan) and Master Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). But these shades were soon banished by the actors' commitment, the steady focus of David Haig's script, and the authentic setting of Bateman's, Kip-ling's Sussex home. If it had been a studio set you would have said it was too idyllic to be true.
This was an age-old story, on the theme of Iphigenia: what happenswhen pro-war rhetoricians suffer the loss of their own child. This hawkish rhetorician was Rudyard Kipling (Haig), making like Lord Kitchener at rallies and in newsprint; his Iphigenia was his son Jack (Daniel Radcliffe), too myopic to enlist but sneaked into the Army by his father's connections. Radcliffe, a sweet, commendably restrained but ultimately bland performer, got away with it here because he was touchingly inchoate; not yet an adult, just plucky and blind as a baby mole.
He died at Loos, the first time he went over the top, on the day after his 18th birthday. His father had signed a special dispensation so he could, if necessary, fight before he turned 18. Even as Kipling signed, we knew it was his son's death warrant. And yet he signed. Many scenes in this film had an eerie, somnambulist quality, as the characters drifted towards disaster, aware of the rocks ahead but unable to steer away from them. I am not convinced life would have felt like that. Most of us are spared prescience, thankfully. However, it made for an affecting drama.
The First World War is a safe bet for filmmakers. Its myths are made, its survivors unmade. It took considerably more guts for Channel 4 to commission Forgotten Heroes: The Not Dead from the filmmaker Brian Hill and the poet Simon Armitage, an angry, powerful, profound piece on the survivor's experience. Three veterans, one from Malaya, one Bosnia and one Iraq, spoke directly to camera. Their informal speech segued naturally into the verses Armitage had written for (and with) them: "We are the Not Dead, neither happy and proud with a barcode of medals across the heart, nor laid in a box and draped in a flag. We wander this land instead, haunted with fear and guilt, wounded in spirit and mind. So what shall we do with the Not Dead, and all of his kind?"
It was a stunning technique. Rarely does poetry sound as natural, as easy in the mouth as it did here, delivered by Fusilier Beddoes, Private Holland and Guardsman Tromans. Perhaps it worked so well because Armitage had drawn up poems that were perfect silhouettes of their feelings; or perhaps because, rather than self-consciously reciting "poetry" they were giving an urgent message in verse.
Fusilier Beddoes' wife Laura also put in a stunning performance: "After the first phase, after passionate nights and intimate days/ Only then would he let me trace/ The frozen river that ran through his face/ Only then would he let me explore/ The broken hinge of his lower jaw...". The poetry sharpened your ear to the eloquence of everyday speech. Private Holland, who fought in Malaya, told us of an ambush in the jungle he can never forget: "And I just rolled over his head and I killed him and I've got him to face in the near future."
The final statistic appeared on the screen like a punch in the gut: 300 Falklands veterans have now killed themselves, more than died in the conflict. This was commemorative TV at its most vital.Reuse content