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


Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 02 January 2013 01:00

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.

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