This documentary series, broadcast on ITV, was an important part of my education in current affairs and politics when I was growing up. The 30 minute programmes opened my eyes to global issues as well as the social situation in Britain. It ran from the early 60s until the 90s but I was most aware of it during the 70s, a decade when some of the most amazing programmes were broadcast.
The programme was created by ITV when it wore its regional and federal structure with pride, a situation that meant that different television companies contributed their best ideas to the network knowing there was competition in intellectual terms from the other companies in the ITV group. Maybe this is why ITV has dumbed down over the years at the same pace as it has become one company rather than a federation of regional franchises. Granada was the company in the Manchester and north-west region.
I encountered some of the most important journalists of my youth on this series, John Pilger the most notable. His films about Vietnam were excellent. I also remember programmes about the far right National Front party which was growing in the 70s and Gay Pride, a film from 1979.
This series was broadcast at a time when television treated its viewers as grown ups. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Reading about the recent death of Adam West who played the Batman of my childhood made me reflect on the fact that the images of our formative years remain with us, despite later re-boots. Therefore, whenever anyone mentions Batman it is the image of the television series from the mid- 60s that comes to mind.
I was of an age that took these things very seriously so I did not, at the time, recognise any of the features that were later described as ‘camp’. I did not realise that the series was from another country, they spoke English after all. To me, it was all worth my attention and belief. I identified more with Robin than Batman, possibly because he was younger and I was a child.
I gave all the later films a miss. I grew away from Batman and superheroes generally but the truth is that the mid-60s television version remained with me and, when I heard the sad news about Adam West, there were all the images and references from childhood just waiting to return. Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin were all there (but in black and white- this was British television, 60s style!)
The news today of the death of John Noakes was so sad to hear as he was such a big part of my childhood. With Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton he was what made Blue Peter great. I know that his time on the programme coincided with my childhood, and that each generation probably has its own special presenters, but he joined in the 60s when I started watching and left after I had grown away from children’s television so he was always there.
John, Val and Pete were the line- up for my generation. Lesley Judd and Simon Groom came after I moved on and presented with John Noakes and I vaguely remember Christopher Trace who, with Valerie Singleton, presented in the early 60s when he joined the programme but it was the three of them who formed a background to my London early years.
In Bath, so off to the Victoria Art Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘History Through the Lens’, a display of press photographs from the Twentieth and early Twenty- first centuries, some of them very well known images.
It was fascinating to see these images together, even if the cumulative effect is to show that we rarely learn from our mistakes; the number of conflicts represented here is depressing!
The exhibition was mounted by the Incite Project. The central purpose is to recognise that press photography can be an art form and, while they were taken to record the news as it happened, the finished photos have merit as works of art. I remember many of the events from the final third of the last century but many of the images from before that appeared in my school history books!
I was most struck by Stuart Franklin’s image of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square and the 2010 image of America’s President Obama by Mark Seliger. I had not previously seen the 1969 image by Horst Faas of a Vietnamese wife discovery the body of her dead husband but it was heartbreaking. The other image that meant the most to me was of civil rights protesters being water hosed by an Alabama Fire department- an image by Charles Moore from 1963 that I had not seen before.
CHINA. Beijing. Tien An Men Square. 1989.
I loved the major documentary history series that used to be broadcast by major television networks in the past. ‘The World at War’ on ITV in the 70s was the gold standard. The series, ‘The Cold War’, was produced by Jeremy Isaacs who was also the producer of ‘The World at War’. Broadcast on BBC Television in the late 90s, this series followed a similar format. People involved in the events being described relate the inside story of the Cold War.
Each of the twenty- four episodes covered a country or a theme over a span of several years with a broadly chronological progression from the end of the second world war to the start of the 90s and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Key players included former Presidents of both USA and USSR.
The reason these landmark series remain in my hinterland is because of their use of oral history. So many modern documentaries have historians as talking heads telling us how a person in the past was feeling at some significant moment. Here, at least, we have the real people talking. Important historians, such as Neal Acheson, are credited with writing particular episodes but all sides are given the space to speak.
Kenneth Branagh brings the same level of gravitas to the narration that Laurence Olivier did to ‘The World at War’. People who grew up, as I did, knowing there was this significant divide in the world were taken aback by the speed of the end of the Cold War. This series reminds us of how significant that divide was throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century and how clear it was to each side who the good guys were.
‘The Cold War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2014 film from Germany explores an eye opening period of recent history. The story follows young state prosecuting lawyer, Johann Radmann. In the course of his work, he comes across a journalist who is trying to draw the attention of the authorities to the fact that former Auschwitz guards are walking around free, despite their cruel actions in the war. No member of the prosecuting team will take the case seriously. For many, the truth of the matter is too close to home.
Young Herr Radmann may be at the start of his career, but he takes up the case. He is encouraged by the Attorney General to dig deep. He takes this on and will not let it drop even when faced by hostility by his superiors in the law, politics and the police. Once camp survivors have been tracked down, and their stories relayed to a disbelieving Radmann and his secretary, the need to bring perpetrators to justice grows.
The eye-opening aspect for me was the very idea that the general public knew so little of the concentration camp called Auschwitz and what went on there. The film starts with a camp survivor seeing an ex- guard he recognised working as a teacher in a school. The shock of seeing these guards at large and accepted as valued members of society is the motivating factor in trying to get the matter to court. There are many who resent a young person making judgements on their actions and what they went through.
Radmann tries to track down Mengele, especially after he has been told that the sadistic doctor makes frequent visits back to family in Germany; an enterprise with which many levels of authority collude. Yet Mengele is protected while others are not and it is the others who end up in court. The American authorities open their files for the young prosecutor but only after advising him not to open the can of worms; Germany is a country trying to recover from a trauma. This is the central point of the film: should the country be allowed to forget when living in it are citizens who cannot move on and cannot forget.
The film ends with the start of the trial. Today, we know about the atrocities of a regime at camps such as Auschwitz but it is only because a country was forced to acknowledge its past. This film is a reminder that it is often individuals who make the difference. Radmann did not give up, even when the most difficult is posed. What did your father do in the war?
‘Labyrinth of Lies’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 1963 book by Anne Holm is a classic. It tells the story of a young boy who escapes from a concentration camp in an unnamed country, but probably in the East of Europe, and makes the journey towards Denmark and home.
The book has an enigmatic quality because there are many questions unanswered. We do not know which country he is in at the start of the book or why he is in a camp. It is not clear what a child of 12 is doing in the camp without parents or even why a guard helps him survive and then escape.
The journey takes the boy through Europe. He has been told to catch a boat from Salonika to Italy. He is heading for a country in the north that has a king. David has been cut off from normal life so does not know how to interact with people but, as he travels north, he meets people who teach him how to socialise.
There is an opportunity to live in a family when he saves the daughter from a fire in a shed but, after a time, the parents become unnerved by David’s worldly wise and woeful outlook, which seems out of step with his age.
This is a book about heading home and the ending reflects the hopeful aspect of the book. Yet the most important journey is the one David takes from being a damaged child to somebody who belongs in society.
‘I am David’ by Anne Holm is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?