The Weekend's TV: Kipling makes exceedingly good drama
My Boy Jack, ITV1; Wilfred Owen - A Remembrance Tale, BBC1; Learners, BBC1
Monday 12 November 2007
Well, I cried at the end, which was the point I suppose, welling up as David Haig read Rudyard Kipling's poem My Boy Jack, written after the heavy losses of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, but given a wrenching personal particularity by the use of his own son's name. Jack had been killed at the Battle of Loos the year before, shortly after his 18th birthday and only after Kipling had used his fame and influence to lever an insurmountable obstacle out of the way of his son's enlistment; the fact that he could barely see beyond his nose. Kipling's short-sightedness about the nature of the war effectively cancelled out Jack's life-saving myopia, and it was a source of self-recrimination for him ever afterwards."If any question why we died/Tell them, because our fathers lied", he wrote later.
In last night's My Boy Jack, David Haig, moulded by nature to play Kipling, told the story of the writer's sacrifice of his son and inadvertently demonstrated, once again, how difficult it is to keep the old lies of valour and glory from seeping back in to accounts of those events. The done thing now - as universal and uncontradictable as bellicosity was in 1914 - is to shake one's head sorrowfully at the innocence of those who thought that war might be an ennobling experience. Instead, we insist on its horror, and, for perfectly good reasons of decorum, draw a veil over evidence that it might debase those who take part in it. Should it matter to us that John Kipling, a boy of 18, acquitted himself well in his final battle and was highly regarded by his men? Surely not if we mean what we say about the betrayal of putting mere boys into such places. But it does, and it did to Haig's drama too, which was at pains to represent Jack's last minutes as heroic rather than abject.
Daniel Radcliffe was well casthere - the Potter squint and earnest sense ofdestiny a natural fit for Jack, who, like countless boys of his generation, enthusiastically collaborated in his own destruction. And Haig's trench scenes were a cut above the usual inadvertent poetry, the last agonising minutes before going over the top grubbied by obscenity and puking and loosening of bladder and bowels. He'd captured, too, the torture of hope that Jack's parents found themselves exposed to - the word"Missing"on the telegram sending them scouring through photographs of prisoners of war to see if their son might still be alive. But, through no fault of his own, I don't think he could entirely keep a strain of sweet transcendence out of his ending.
That even the fiercest and most knowledgeable opponents of the war were subject to the same seduction was demonstrated in the documentary Wilfred Owen - a Remembrance Tale, in which Jeremy Paxman ce ebrated the best known of the First World War poets. Paxman started by going over the top, wildly, arguing that there was a case for saying that Owen"re-invented modern poetry itself". Fortunately, he abandoned the attempt to secure this implausible salient in favour of a straightforward account of Owen's war, visiting the sites of his boyhood and his war service. Owen was kind to his biographers, writing in detail about his experiences at the front in letters to his mother and sister, which, unusually for the time, didn't blithely underplay the horror. But even Owen felt remade by his service at the front."I fought like an angel,"he wrote in a letter signed"Wilfred and more than Wilfred."The soldiers he'd jocularly dismissed as"ugly, coarse, unlovely"when he was mobilised became a hallowed company by the end. In other words, behind the old lie there was the awkward truth that all remembrance programmes struggle with, which is that, bloodthirsty or pacifist, a lot of men think war is a transforming test. It's oneof the reasons that the statement"never again"always has such a forlorn note to it.
Learners, Jessica Hynes's one off comedy drama about a woman learning to drive (and discovering herself in the process, naturally), dispensed with the usual rule of signal and manoeuvre, by which most television dramas let you know well in advance where they're headed and what course deviations you can expect. Instead, it swerved all over the place, keying you with one budding romance and then suddenly having another candidate cut in front without warning. Characters that you thought were going to be played as mere light relief were suddenly revealed to have melancholic depth and apparently significant narrative details turned off and disappeared down a slip road. In a way it was quite refreshing to have all the rules of the road ignored so systematically, but it made for an odd and unsettling journey. It would have been nice, too, if Hynes's talent for bathos had had a little more space to breath. The clutch control might be a little smoother next time out.
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