The VE day gag that never made it

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The Independent Culture
David Frost studied his idiot cards intently and made his contribution to the mood of European reconciliation. "Churchill said we would fight them on the beaches," he read, "now of course we're fighting them on the sunbeds too." You would have thought he could remember a joke that bad without the help of a crib sheet but perhaps his mind was somewhere else. It was a telling joke, whatever, hinting at an impurity in the distillation of nostalgia and celebration that made up Monday night's schedules. I don't know about anybody else but it left me with the wrong sort of hangover.

It wasn't the ceremonial that was the problem - even if parts of it rang with a brassy note. Reading Churchill's VE day speech, for example, Robert Hardy strained his vocal cords into a fanfare. It was a cock crowing beside the actual recording (heard repeatedly over the last few days), reminding you how underplayed, how oddly conversational Churchill's rhetorical style could be. In his rendering of the speech there is a sense of ending, of real fatigue - in Hardy's something shriller and more boastful. Performed 50 years on, to an audience most of whom were not alive when the words were first spoken, it sounded like a wish rather than a statement of fact. If only someone could say that to us, you thought. But then what victory could we celebrate with such unanimous fervour? And what would our just deserts be?

There was the same wistful catch to much of the celebrations; ostensibly the mood of the moment was "Never again", but the solemn speeches couldn't conceal the nostalgia for common purpose, for a sense of solidarity that now feels as antique as powdered egg. Sometimes this was explicit - the BBC excitedly relayed the information that the Prince and Princess of Wales had behaved with moderate civility to each other as if this was the closest we could now get to a moment of national relief. Sometimes it was cynically exploited, as in BT's singularly shabby attempt to get us to increase our phone bills in the interest of world peace. Sometimes it was just kitsch - Chas 'n' Dave singing "We're gonna rang aht the washin' on the Siegfried Line", confirming the general view that there is some Cockney copyright on cheery, salt-of-the-earth fortitude.

It might have been better if everyone under 60 had taken a vow of silence for the day and spent it listening to their elders, a fantasy provoked by the most moving of all the VE day programmes, Last Letters Home (ITV). Tamsin Day-Lewis's film was very simple - those who had survived reading letters from those who hadn't. There is, perhaps, an easy poignancy in such documents, one that overrides clich and clumsiness of expression. The wealth of meaning in these tattered pieces of paper is touchingly fragile - how long can it survive those who unfold them so tenderly? But what the letters repeatedly brought home was how thoughtful courage could be. Unpatriotic too, in a way that formed a quiet, unconscious rebuke to the coarser flag-waving of the last few days. None of the correspondents wrote about Britain as such (though one schoolmaster had enlisted to save the boys he taught from Hitler); they talked of larger principles - of freedom and appropriate sacrifice. In some, the occasions of writing could be glimpsed like a watermark; a bomber pilot describes a sudden apprehension of beauty in a country lane, on his way back to his unit. "I'm fighting for the freedom of all men," he writes to his fiance, "and in that I'm fighting just as much for the Germans as for the English people. With freedom and the destruction of hate this world will enter into a period, I hope, that will be much in advance of anything it has known." You couldn't really feel that David Frost had done him proud.