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?
Back in the 80s the BBC broadcast two series of ‘The Chinese Detective’ with David Yip in the central role of John Ho, a keen policeman in London’s East End who has to solve crimes as well as battle the racism of his bosses.
It was a time when new police dramas were appearing, each with an ‘angle’ that made them distinct. The angle for this series is obvious but the distinction of being British Chinese did not last much beyond the first few episodes. There was a running sub- plot about clearing the name of Ho’s father who had been wrongly convicted of a crime years before. The suggestion was that his father took the blame because of his minority status.
In most episodes, and in series two there was no other Chinese face to be had, and very few faces characters that were not white- strange, really as this was London’s East End!
I had seen David Yip on stage a few years before and it was great to see him as the first British Chinese actor in a lead role. I watched the episodes again many years later as a box set and loved seeing the old East End scenes, in the years before the area was transformed. The idea of a maverick police officer, ignoring procedures and protocol to solve a crime is somewhat tired now, and may have been then, but it was still an enjoyable experience to revisit old times.
‘The Chinese Detective’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I heard Mark Thompson, former Director- General of the BBC, speak at a conference a few years ago and was so disappointed by the fact that he, like the two prominent people who preceded him, gave a speech that was so concerned about not upsetting anyone in the audience that he spoke for about half an hour without saying anything of any substance at all!
I was surprised, therefore, at how much I enjoyed his book on rhetoric and the current state of political language in the UK and USA. The background is a gloomy one as far as I am concerned with our country divided by the toxic debate around Europe and Brexit. This book examines, in part, the reasons for the erosion of trust in politics. He also examines the skills and techniques used by politicians to obscure as well as make points. We really do seem to be in an age of poor political debate. Disagreements are often personal. The messenger rather than the message is attacked. Newspapers do not clarify but pedal points of view.
Thompson had a long, distinguished career in BBC journalism and speaks from experience. I could not help reflect, though, that his journalists created as well as suffered from the new world he bemoans. At the very least, they colluded.
Yet here we are, in a media age of infantalised debate and crude online comments attacking anyone we don’t agree with. The book shows that the study of rhetoric would make us all better citizens and, maybe, less susceptible to being taken in by the spin and misinformation of others. This book is a good place to start the fight back against the forces of ignorance.
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 drama, broadcast by the BBC, tells an important story in an understated but powerful way. When Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Israeli’s and put on trial in 1961, there was a move to televise the trial so that the world could learn what had taken place in the Holocaust. Not everyone was keen on the idea but Milton Fruchtman was convinced that the world had to hear (and see) the court proceedings. He hired Leo Hurwitz to direct, a move that was brave and bold as Hurwitz had been blacklisted in the USA in the 50s for his strong left-wing views.
The judges had to agree to the plan to televise the plan and did so because the producer and director had the idea to hide the cameras in false walls and behind screens.
Throughout this drama, real footage from the actual trial is blended with the colour of the dramatised film so that the viewer also feels present at the making of the programme.
I had no idea that Jewish refugees from Europe at the end of the war felt like outsiders in the land that became Israel. The message many of them received was that they were an embarrassment for not having fought back. For some, relating their experiences in court was the first time they had told of the horrific crimes perpetrated against them and their families.
The drama shows the effect on the crew of capturing this testimony and in an exchange that should not have surprised, the television company complains that the trial is being beaten in ratings wars by events in Cuba and in space.
The motivating factor for Milton Fruchtman and Leo Hurwitz was holding fascism to account. Telling the truth and reminding people about what happened is an effective way of making sure it does not happen again. In the most moving scene in the film Anthony LaPaglia as Hurwitz listens while his hotelier, played by Rebecca Front, says to him that nobody believed her when she told them what happened before she came to Israel. As a result she, and others like her, stopped talking about it. “They are listening now!” she says.
‘The Eichmann Show’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?