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VE Day: A Nation at Peace review – coronavirus lends a grim relevance to this sobering documentary

What was probably intended as a relaxing Sunday-night nostalgia-fest has become something else entirely during lockdown

Ed Cumming
Sunday 03 May 2020 21:00 BST
Members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service drive through Trafalgar Square during the celebrations in 1945
Members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service drive through Trafalgar Square during the celebrations in 1945 (Getty Images)

When the planners booked VE Day: A Nation at Peace (Channel 4), they must have thought it would be a harmless piece of anniversary viewing on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Churchill droning on, dancing in the streets, happy soldiers kissing their sweethearts: a relaxing Sunday-night nostalgia-fest.

Instead, coronavirus looms large over the whole thing, lending a grim relevance to the archive footage and unseen interviewees. As the Queen noted in her address to the nation last month, when she invoked Vera Lynn (surprisingly still alive) in saying “we will meet again”, there are parallels between the war and our present situation. The sense of national sacrifice, the focus on a handful of key frontline workers, the fear of death. The coronavirus toll in the UK will likely end up comparable to the deaths from the Blitz. The efforts of Captain Tom Moore, the 100-year-old veteran walking around his garden to raise money for the NHS, have made the link more explicit.

Sadly, as anyone who’s had to sit through someone else’s wedding video knows, parties are more fun to be at than to watch afterwards. Seeing wartime footage in colour was novel 20 years ago, but it’s now expected, and the shots of London are too familiar to be very interesting. There are a few entertaining anecdotes about the knees-up in Britain, such as one man reminiscing about the abundance of salad cream, a harrowing reminder that we must never risk global war again. There are only so many shots of happy crowds outside Buckingham Palace we can take.

Luckily, the film moves on to more interesting ground. The programme was originally titled “VE Day in Colour”, but changed at the last minute to VE Day: A Nation at Peace. It’s a strange decision, at best ironic and slightly misleading. Although it starts in the UK, the documentary also takes in France, Moscow and New York, before finishing in the concentration camps. All over the world, the message is clear: the war is far from over, and this celebration is a happy interlude in a conflict that is ongoing. The Japanese would not surrender for another three months, in which time two atomic bombs would be dropped. Although Hitler had been beaten, it was already clear that the truce between the Soviet Union and the Allies would be uneasy at best.

The lasting images from this documentary are not peaceful. They are the Holocaust survivors weeping at the feet of their liberators, the British couple who got home from a VE party to find a telegram telling them their son had been killed, the Russians coming to terms with a conflict in which more than 25 million of their countrymen had died. After the party, the rebuilding begins, and the path back to normality and prosperity will take a long time. Something cheerful to think about when you’re locked down on a Sunday night.

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