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?
I want to pay tribute to the cartoonist Steve Bell whose work in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper keeps me sane in these uncertain times. He always seems to express a sense of fun and a glimmer of hope while skewering the self- righteous. Never has he been more needed than during this UK election period, an election that was unnecessary in any case and was little more than a vanity project for the current Prime Minister. When we wake up tomorrow, there might be good news. However, Steve Bell will have something to say/write/draw that will speak for many of us.
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 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.
Alan Whicker was a presence on television throughout my childhood and well into my young adulthood. His career on British television stretched from the 50s to the 90s with some appearances on radio and television in this century, mostly reminiscences and nostalgic returns to locations of earlier films.
The series that stuck in my mind the most was the 1985 one that focused on British people who lived and worked in the USA. It had the sub-title ‘Living with Uncle Sam’ and each episode featured three or four people. Whicker visited each and interviewed them. It was in this series that I realised that Americans did not have Boxing Day, a situation that seemed worthy of some sympathy.
The subjects were not necessarily famous but Whicker was the master of finding the most engaging people to interview and film. I envied him his life of travel and, at that time, I was envious also of the people who lived in America. Opening shots of an Alan Whicker film usually showed him walking towards or away from an aeroplane to emphasise his globe trotting credentials. His voice was distinctive as were his blazer and suave British appearance.
It has taken many years, but i have travelled to just some of the hundreds of locations first travelled by Alan Whicker. On arrival, I have his voice in my head!
This has not been my favourite year! Politically, I have been very depressed by what has happened and by who has triumphed. However, there were bright spots and the Olympics were a large part of what made me proud to be British in 2016.
Jack Laugher and Chris Mears won Gold at the Rio Olympics. Their event was the synchronised 3m diving. This was Britain’s first diving Gold so was an amazing achievement. I watched it all with a growing sense of excitement when it seemed that the pair would actually win despite the best efforts of the Chinese and the Americans.
When they won, of course, they were delighted and their hug showed the level of excitement. What a shame then that Britain’s Daily Mail, the house journal of the small-minded, could not help but make a point about the fact that this was two men hugging! Good for Mears and Laugher who showed that you can hug your friend and colleague even if you are a man!
I watched this documentary series again recently. I first saw it when the BBC broadcast it back in the 90s and I read the accompanying book by Fred Emery, written in 19994 to mark the 20th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Emery was a famous journalist with BBC television and had been based in Washington for The Times for most of the 70s so his narration of the story of corrupt politicians had authority.
I remember watching the resignation of Nixon as reported on British television in the 70s and I remember thinking that he was a corrupt politician but I don’t remember much about the reasons that caused him to resign. I learned about these through later reading and watching; I loved ‘All the President’s Men’ and I wanted to know more.
I read several books about Watergate during the 80s, including Woodward and Bernstein’s books ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘The Final Days’. I also read ‘Born Again’ by Charles Coulson. Yet this series and the accompanying book set the events in context and showed the depths to which powerful people will go to safeguard their power.
Watching it again after so many years, I was struck by how many of the wrong doers headed for the church in the aftermath of disgrace and how courageous some people were in terms of carrying out their roles without fear or favour. Charles Coulson bothered me, then and now. He was famously ‘born again’ after his wrong doing was discovered but he stayed loyal to Nixon despite knowing how corrupt he was.
Here, though, was a story that showed what can happen when anyone with power is surrounded with people who say what they want to hear. If Nixon had a few more brave people prepared to speak up around him he may have avoided the catastrophe of Watergate. Then again, “If the President does it, that means it isn’t illegal”. Who said that?
The BBC series ‘Watergate’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?