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?
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.
This 1975 television play by Jack Rosenthal was a wonderful example of what BBC television did so well back in the 1970s. His story of brothers who were evacuated from inner city Manchester to the coast during the Second World War was sweet and poignant. The drama came from the misunderstandings of the childless host family who did not see why the two Jewish boys shouldn’t do what they did in a Christian home.
Jack Rosenthal’s dramas always used comedy to make serious points and there were many wonderful moments in this play, especially when three boys had only two pairs of roller skates between them and decided they had to share to run away. Yet the serious moments are here too. The anxiety of the mother, played by Rosenthal’s wife Maureen Lipman, when letting her children go is clear.
The elderly couple believes they are doing the right thing but the punishments increase and when these include withholding letters from the mother to her boys it seems unbelievably cruel. The boys struggle with the desire to return home and the need not to worry their mother unnecessarily. When the truth emerges it is in the most uncomfortable situation but handled brilliantly by the writer.
I saw this programme in 1975 when the BBC first broadcasted it and I have never forgotten it. That is why is it in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
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?
I saw this movie one late night in an Oxford cinema back in the early 80s. The film. itself, was released in 1971 but I saw it when I was a student, having first read the novel by Thomas Mann. I was always keen to see a performance by Dirk Bogarde and I was fascinated by the fact that he turned his back on a career in popular films, he chose an art house route, one that involved him in great work like this picture.
It was directed by Visconti so the visuals are amazing. The subject matter of the novella translates well to film since dialogue is at a minimum and the interior monologue becomes slow moments of focus on expressions. Bogarde’s face is the most important ‘tool’ in the film. The central conceit is that the main character, a composer in Venice to recuperate, observes a pretty boy with his family of older sisters and mother and becomes fixated with him since he is a thing of beauty.
The difficulty of translating this to film is that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and the final version has to reflect one person’s vision. Yet Bjorn Andreson, chosen for his looks, does a good job of looking like a pretty young man might in the early years of the twentieth century. What is convincing about the film is the notion that an artist can be transfixed by beauty.
The ending is tragic but as the whole film has a melancholic feel, somewhat at odds with the theme of artistic beauty. ‘Death in Venice’, directed by Luchino Visconti is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Thinking about the Kingsley Amis novel, ‘The Alteration’, reminded me of how I found out about it back in the time before the internet and access to large book shops. I was a keen reader as a boy. School provided most of my reading material but, as I grew older, I came to see school books as school work and I wanted reading material from elsewhere. This is where a television programme called ‘Read All About It’ came in. I discovered it by myself on a black and white television set we had left over when the family colour one came in.
On my own in a room, I watched it every other Sunday night. (As I recall, it was alternated with the BBC’s film programme hosted by Barry Norman, which I also enjoyed.) Each week Melvyn Bragg presented a show with three guests. Each guest recommended a book and everyone discussed each other’s choices. That was the simplicity and the strength of the programme. The gift to me was that these were all paperbacks so affordable. Also, the books were not always new to bookshops so I could find old copies or even locate them in the local library. This was not the marketing machine at work but a celebration of books and readers- it worked.
Melvyn Bragg went to ITV to present the major arts programme in 1978 and I don’t remember ‘Read All About It’ surviving his departure. Instead, it remains as a happy memory of a time when I was eager to find books for myself and not rely on school any more.
This novel by Kingsley Amis is one I read in my teenage years and loved. Set in an alternative Britain where the Reformation has not taken place, it shows the difference this would have made to the life of the country through the story of one boy, chorister Hubert Anvil. He sings with the voice of an angel and to ensure his voice is preserved for the glory of God, he must go through a small operation. What is clear from early in the novel is that Hubert himself will have no choice in the matter, himself. This is a society dominated by the church from Rome and to please the church is both a desire and a practical move of self-preservation for his family. Unfortunately, something quiet important to Hubert has to be sacrificed!
There are many subtle changes to history to make his world work and Amis is skillful at maintaining a sense of integrity for the context of his story. Any friction between England and the Catholic Church has been ironed out of history: Henry the Eighth’s elder brother did not die so there was no divorce from Catherine of Aragon; the current Pope is an Englishman; there are no religious differences between England and other parts of Great Britain.
As with all novels, the effect of systems and regimes on people is best illustrated by showing the effect on one person. Hubert is surrounded by those who think he is privileged to be considered for the ‘operation’; members of his family will be able to bask in the reflected glory. There are others, though, who want to help him so he goes on the run. This aspect of the novel is well handled; the tension is built through a ten-year old boy’s escape through England. He meets Jewish people who live lives as second class citizens, Native Americans who are also lower caste in their own land, schemers and then, eventually, makes it to his brother on the Edgware Road in London. His brother aims to smuggle him on to an airship to escape to the New World, away from the clutches of Rome.
The ending comes as a surprise but one that fits exactly with this world created by Amis. ‘The Alteration’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?