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 1998 Canadian film tells the lives of people in five countries over four centuries who come into contact with the red violin of the title. The instrument was made in Italy in the seventeenth century. In this segment, the story is told in Italian of the violin maker and his wife and child. We find out why the violin is red, a particularly sad part of the film, before moving on a century to Vienna where we meet a young boy who is a musical prodigy. He is given the violin by the monks of the orphanage where he lives. He has a bright future and his music master sees a great future for them both. Another tragedy strikes, though, and the violin moves on to Oxford in Britain.
From Oxford in the late nineteenth century to Shanghai, China in the grip of the cultural revolution and on to Montreal, Canada in the late 90s, or what would have been the present at the time of the film’s release, we follow the violin as it passes from one owner to another.
What the film does, rather cleverly, is to show the importance of music in the lives of all sorts of people. Over the centuries, the violin becomes more valuable, especially as stories about its provenance emerge. The owners throughout its history see the instrument not as a valuable item in itself but essential because of what they create on it. In the final scenes in the auction house it seems as if this important message has been lost.
Episodic films can be problematic; if one segment is much weaker than the rest, the whole film is affected. In ‘The Red Violin’, though, each part of the story serves the greater narrative. It was directed by Francois Girard with a screenplay by Don McKellar. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This British- Italian film from the 80s is the type of film they don’t make any more, or at least they don’t make them in the same way anymore. The most amazing thing about this film is the scale; all crowd scenes were done without any special effect, just human beings!
It is the story of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his ascent to the throne to his fall at the hands of the Chinese Communists. He was imprisoned and re-educated so that he could take his place in the new China. One of the themes the film covers so well is the transition from one form of prison to another, the Forbidden City being as much of a cage as the one he later found himself in.
Bernardo Bertolucci directed the film and co- wrote it with Mark Peploe but the producer Jeremy Thomas, the British independent producer who saw the project through to completion despite many obstacles. It was the first western film authorised to film in the Forbidden City and, despite the subject matter, was supported by the Chinese government, at least in the sense that they did not ban it.
John Lone played Puyi as an adult and Peter O’Toole appeared as the tutor to the young emperor. As the film is told in a series of flashbacks we see the way political forces have always determined the course of Puyi’s life. From the start of the twentieth century through to 1967, when he died, we see how one life reflects political changes.
The film won nine American Academy awards as well as the 1989 BAFTA for Best Film. ‘The Last Emperor’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book by Benjamin Law takes a look at how different Asian societies treat and view gay people. As a gay man himself, he sets off to experience different societies from Bali’s tourist directed gay services to Japan’s popular culture exposure of gay people. The result is a book that is funny at times but ultimately serious in its assessment at how the gay minority presents itself in different places and how it is viewed.
The journey starts in Bali which offers services to the gay tourist, including resorts that are exclusively for gay clientele. Around these resorts young Balinese gather as sex working can be lucrative; not all of the young men are gay themselves, it is a ‘day job’… or more often a night one.
The journey moves on to take in China, Japan, Malaysia and India. It is interesting that each country has a different expression of gay culture. In China the view of the authorities is apparently neutral but most gay life is online and a lot of self censorship goes on to avoid being shut down. In Japan, gays are out in the open but it seems that the more flamboyant, the better. As Law shows, in the end it seems that the great Japanese public accepts gays as long as they are feminine and in the entertainment industry. Trying to be out in any other way is still hard.
Benjamin Law is an Australian and he travels as a gay man who has no trouble with his identity. This book is a reminder that some places have a long way to go but it also demonstrates the power of the human spirit. Even in the hardest places, he found people who were not going to hide their sexuality.
‘Gaysia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This BBC radio series of oral histories was excellent and not only because the estimable Bridget Kendall presented it. Each programme is a short exploration of one episode from the early years of the Cold War using interviews with people involved. Use is also made of archive recordings.
The series covers events from 1946 until 1962. I understand that a further set of programmes covering the 60s to 80s will be broadcast next year.
This is the type of programme the BBC does so well: short but informative with space for the people involved to offer reasoned judgements with the benefit of hindsight. Indeed, this is a series that is only possible now that the Cold War has ended.
The obvious episodes are here, including the Berlin Air Lift, the Korean War and Hungary 1956, but there are also aspects of the era I was less informed about such as how important the Greek Civil War was to both sides and how worried America and its allies were (including the Catholic church) over the 1948 election in Italy when the Communists looked close to victory in democratic elections.
These are fascinating programmes. They are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This book by Nicholas Griffin is a fascinating insight into the events that led to a turning point in international relations during the Cold War. It also makes a connection between a Communist aristocrat from Britain and the thawing of relations between USA and China. The sub-title is ‘Ivor Montagu and the Astonishing Story Behind the Game That Changed the World’. The first part of the book relates the life of Ivor Montagu, a younger son of a wealthy British family who embraced communism and acted as a spy for the Soviet Union. To what extent his activities were known to security forces in Britain is unknown but it is clear that he was regarded with suspicion by the establishment. His mother received a consolation note from Queen Mary when Ivor announced the name of his bride to be!
Montagu had a passion for table tennis and could see how it could be the perfect sport for a communist world; wealth was not needed to participate and it was a great equaliser on the table of play. He codified the game and set off to popularise it across the world. There are interesting tales of how sport can break down barriers. In one, a young Japanese player met a hostile reception from press and public when he played in London after the end of World War Two. By the end of the tournament, though, his skill as well as his dignity won over the crowd.
The second part of the story concerns the political manoeuvres to bring about a thaw in the Cold War and to bring China out of the self- imposed isolation. Table tennis was instrumental in the testing of the waters. The historic visit of the US team to Beijing in response to what was orchestrated to look like an impromptu invitation from the Chinese players paved the way for the later visit of Kissinger and then Nixon to Zhou Enlai and Chairman Mao.
Ivor Montagu is largely missing from the second part of the book. He retired as president of the International Table Tennis Federation in 1967. The epilogue returns to his story and poses questions about his possible reaction to the way the Cold War ended.
Nicholas Griffin follows up the stories of players in both the Chinese and US teams and shows that their moment of fame did not bring lasting happiness to all.
‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the novel ‘The Orientalist and the Ghost’ by Susan Barker when I read it last year so I was keen to read her latest, published in 2015. ‘The Incarnations’ has a central spine of a story concerning taxi driver Wang and his relationships with members of his family including his wife and daughter and father and step- mother. Someone is leaving him strange messages in the form of written stories, though, and through these stories we learn a lot about Chinese history.
We know a few things from the start: Wang has fallen into the job of taxi driver and life is a bit of an effort for him; his relationships are all fraught; his early promise has not been realised. The messages discomfort him, not only because he doesn’t know who sent them but because they claim an intimacy he rejects.
Each ‘story’ told within the novel comes from a different era. We go from the Tang dynasty to the upheaval of the cultural revolution in the 60s. Each story is also about two people, how they meet and how they part. As the writer suggests to Driver Wang, he is one of the two. The writer is the other!
Finding out who the writer is occupies Wang’s time and contributes to his feelings of victim hood and, just like Wang, the reader is left guessing until the end. My knowledge of Chinese history needs increasing but the novel was engaging. I admire Susan Barker’s ambition and look forward to her next book.