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 Anthony Sattin’s book reminded me of this television drama from 1992 with the excellent Ralph Fiennes as T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. In this particular film, the drama revolves around the post- war peace conference in Paris where the victorious allies carved up the world. This was the stage on which Lawrence, acting as an adviser to Feisal, the would- be leader of a new Arab nation; one that they believed had been promised by Britain during the war in return for Arab support.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and the spoils were there for the taking by Britain and France. Both countries wanted influence in the area and the claims of the Arab peoples, themselves, were forgotten.
Denis Quilley played Lord Curzon and Nicholas Jones played Lord Dyson. The fact that both key players on the British side were Lords says a lot about the times! Feisal was played by Anthony Siddig.
The film shows clearly the growing British exasperation with Lawrence, especially over what they see as his disloyalty, while Lawrence shows his contempt for duplicitous politicians. The peace conference is the perfect setting for the political manoeuvering of nations. It also shows how the establishment deals with outsiders.
At this stage of his life, Lawrence is famous. A stage show in London portrays him as a heroic figure in the Middle East. Whether the man himself is happy to be portrayed in this way is left open but the film does show that identity can be forced on people as well as embraced. By showing how awkward he is with women, the implication is that he prefers men for intimacy. I prefer Anthony Sattin’s conclusion that we do not have the evidence on which to conclude whether or not he was gay. I suppose in a way it proves its own point: identity can be forced upon people.
‘A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Back in the 70s, this television programme broadcast on ITV was a popular one in my family. It tells the story of one extended family at the start of the Second World War and follows them through the war years to peacetime, with the inevitable loss of family members on the way.
My young self was most interested in the idea of war and it was hard, back then, to see that the title was a metaphor and a pun and that the home front was very different from the war films of my youth. However, the story of one family was compelling. Britain is obsessed with class and, while the distinctions may be disappearing, they were quite clear back then.
The Ashton family live in Liverpool. Edwin, the father, has moved up the social ladder, mostly because of his marriage to Jean whose brother owns a business. Promotion at the factory seems assured but it is his nephew who is brought in above him, putting him firmly in his place. Interestingly, his nephew is closer to his uncle than to his own single father and the two households are often shown in contrast to each other; the wealthy Briggs family has little of the heart shown in the Ashton household where four sons and daughters fill the house.
The accents of the four younger Ashtons vary but the sense of upwardly mobile people in a world where barriers have been shaken by the war is a strong element.
Ultimately, the programme’s strength is showing family dynamics when under pressure. Jon Finch wrote the series. His later television series ‘Sam’ set in an earlier time also showed families fracturing under difficult circumstances. As with most dramas made back in the 70s, it was mostly studio based so the sense of it being a city as large as Liverpool was minimised.
‘A Family at War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I remember fondly this television series from the 70s. It was an age when television for children involved quite complex ideas as well as good adventures. In this series, Murray Dale plays Dominic the same character he played in ‘Boy Dominic’ but now he is older and a sea cadet at a naval academy, ready to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The earlier series was episodic in nature; there was a different story in each programme with a background on-going story of Dominic’s father’s quest to return home after a ship wreck. In this series, there is one central story which sends Dominic away from the academy and in search of the killers of his parents. His mother and father were attacked by robbers who believed they were in possession of a treasure.
I thought Murray Dale would go on to have a long career in acting but this was the end of the road for him in this particular sphere. I believe he continued a career in film but in production rather than performing even though there was brief time when he was part of a musical group with his brother.
The cast of this series includes heavyweights such as Thorley Walters, John Hallam and Gordon Gostelow. Richard Todd reprised his role as Dominic’s father for the first episode.
‘Dominic’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This television series from Yorkshire Television in the late 1960s was a favourite of mine as a boy. It was broadcast when I was of an age when I started to realise that there were parts of Britain other than London, where people talked with different accents. In this case the Yorkshire setting was significant to the unfolding story.
Each episode was a self-contained story but there was an ongoing story of hidden treasure in the background until the last moment of the last episode. This was highly sophisticated stuff in 1969!
Jonathan Flaxton was a boy who inherited Flaxton Hall from an uncle who had died, supposedly a rich man although nobody could find the fortune. With his mother and servant, he took up residence in the Hall in Yorkshire. His father was away at the Crimea War, missing presumed dead, and the responsibility of running the hall fell to him and his mother. Fortunately, he befriended a sweep who was harshly treated by his master. Archie was taken in at Flaxton Hall and became the second Flaxton boy. Together, Archie and Jonathan had many adventures which mostly seemed to involve running across the moors!
Looking at this series again after over 40 years, I was surprised at how implausible some of the stories were, especially when the two boys outwitted villains. Yet, I didn’t think that in 1969 but rather wished I was part of their adventures too. I wanted to be a Flaxton boy. There were four series in all from 1969 until the early seventies. Each series jumped a time span, going from the 1850s of series one to the Second World War in the fourth series, but in each there were two boys being best friends and having adventures; and no mention was ever made of the class system!
Peter Firth, who played Archie, went on to have a wide and distinguished career in television and film. Indeed, he is still having it!
‘The Flaxton Boys’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This British television series from the 80s tells the story of how Britain disengaged from the Empire it had ruled for centuries. The story starts with the Second World War and ends in the early 80s when the Rhodesia question was finally settled.
The series was timely because it managed to capture the voices and opinions of colonial types who were elderly and, mostly, in retirement in the home counties of England. Had the series been made any later, many of the people most closely involved would have passed away.
It was the nature of the Empire, and a symptom of the times, that most of the talking heads were male. What made the series riveting was the fact that both sides were interviewed and, because time had passed, most were candid.
The defeat of the British by the Japanese in Singapore was a pivotal moment in history. It shocked the British but it proved to many countries living under the rule of Great Britain that the mother country was not all powerful and could be removed. When the war was over the time had come test the power of the Empire.
There were forces at home helping the freedom movements, though. Fenner Brockway was interviewed talking about the feelings emerging from the war that you could not fight tyranny in the form of the Nazis only to insist that other people lived under British rule.
Figures such as Gandhi and Nehru feature in the early programmes but their roles as thorns in the side of the powerful were replicated across the world. There were fourteen programmes in the series, each one covering a colonial struggle. It was, like ‘The World at War’, a major television undertaking. If only we saw more like it now.
‘End of Empire’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Television events of the 70s in Britain did not come any bigger than this series from Thames Television, it must rank as the event of the decade in television terms. It was narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, as he then was, and became the definitive documentary series about the Second World War. Carl Davis composed the atmospheric music which, along with Olivier’s masterful delivery of lines, created a sense of importance and reverence.
The series was broadcast in 1973 and 1974 and lasted for 26 episodes, covering all aspects of the war. Jeremy Isaacs was an important television producer and he was the motivating factor behind the series. He realised that history would lose personal testimony if they did not act fast and record the oral history from those who lived through such momentous times.
The series adviser was Noble Frankland, a director of the Imperial War Museum in London. He listed the most important campaigns of the war for Isaacs and a single documentary was made on each. Then, other episodes covered aspects of the war such as the Home Front in Britain, life in Germany and in Japan. The episode on the Final Solution was the one documentary that was screened without any commercial break.
The series came from a time when British television, including ITV, had a sense of public service. ‘The World at War’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Sir Laurence Olivier narrated ‘The World at War’