Saturday, November 14, 2009

Facts And Fictions

Wednesday night, long after the setting of the sun, I watched a couple of documentaries shown on the BBC as part of this week of Remembrance. Both were illuminating and extraordinary, but in that latter respect for totally different reasons. First came The Children Who Fought Hitler on BBC4, which had previously been shown on the weekend. The second was a repeat of Armistice, broadcast on BBC2 immediately after Newsnight.

In the first programme the children in question were three of the sons and daughters of veterans of The Great War who had returned to Flanders to create and maintain the war grave cemeteries. Educated at the British Memorial School, established in Ypres by Old Etonians so those veterans’ offspring could receive an English education, when the Blitzkrieg tore through France in 1940, the school was forced to close leaving the pupils from the school to acquire a very different education during the war.

Armistice followed the sobering events of The Great War from the perspective of Erich Ludendorff, victor of the battle of Tannenberg who, with Hindenburg, was made joint head of the German war effort. Knowing that Germany would go under if their offensive on the Western Front failed, Ludendorff’s tactics were leading to success. When the English and French armies eventually began to work together and the tide began to turn, shaken by the death of his stepson Ludendorff tried to instigate a diplomatic endgame to the conflict but fumbled it.

Authored by Professor David Reynolds, the Professor of International History, Cambridge University, Armistice really was an astonishing piece of work. An assured presenter, Reynolds used archive footage, multiple diary entries and letters from soldiers, including a young Harry S. Truman, and location filming to present a gripping narrative that didn’t waste one second of the ninety–minute running time. As the brutality continued on the battlefields, Reynolds showed how the hard bargaining and political gambits of the allies turned the armistice into such a day of national shame and humiliation for Germany that it sowed the seeds for the horrors to come two decades on.

On a smaller scale The Children Who Fought Hitler was just as engrossing, although the title was something of a misnomer as the three ex–pupils of the British Memorial School were all in their mid to late teens. One, Jerry Eaton, had already left school and returned home to join the RAF years before war was declared. Still, it made all their stories no less compelling. While Eaton become a pilot and eventually flew Typhoons, Stephen Grady, who had remained in France, became the leader of his resistance cell, and Elaine Madden, who could speak three languages and been put aboard a fishing boat at Dunkirk, was trained to become an agent for SOE and was parachuted back into occupied Europe.

The documentary may have not had the same resources as Armistice but it had just enough archive footage of children at play at the British Memorial School to get by and, more importantly, there were the three living witnesses to tell their fascinating personal stories on camera. That should have been good enough for the programme makers, except for some reason it wasn’t. Jerry Eaton’s story could be illustrated with newsreel footage easily enough, including the film from his gun camera, but for the other two, when it came to secret activities involving the SOE and factions of the French Resistance, obviously there was never a newsreel team scuttling around after them to record the events.

Faced with this situation, other programme makers might have resorted to some basic reconstructions that could be spliced together with the interviews and whatever brief scraps of stock footage were available. Instead the makers of The Children Who Fought Hitler took a rather more unusual approach. The hour–long documentary had begun with the announcement:

This story is told using home movies, wartime newsreels and period feature films.

When the story reached the Dunkirk evacuation there was the familiar newsreel of the German military advance, with tanks rumbling through the countryside and Junkers Ju 87s peeling off and diving out of the sky, There was also the familiar footage of the convoy of British Expeditionary Force transports that had been hurriedly abandoned on the single road through the Nord Pas de Calais to the coast. With the recollections of Stephen Grady and Elaine Madden, surely this should have been enough to be going on with.

Yet for some reason the programme makers decided they needed to include clips from Leslie Norman’s 1958 film Dunkirk to supplement their existing material. First there were scenes of soldiers being flung across the beach as bombs exploded around them, then later on, there were shots of the weary Tommies queuing on the harbour’s mole as they waited to get onboard a ship. As incongruous as these scenes were, at least we only saw extras in the clips and not the stars of the film. That all changed when it came to Elaine Madden recount her time working for SOE.

Rather than have Madden appear on screen talking about her experiences they had the narrator recount her story in Occupied Europe over multiple scenes from Lewis Gilbert’s Carve her Name With Pride, even going so far as to include actual dialogue exchanges from the film. So instead of Virginia McKenna as Violette Szabo, suddenly here was Virginia McKenna usurped into playing Elaine Madden. If it started out as a mild diversion, the inclusion of so many clips turned it into a real distraction.

In a week when the BBC’s Safeguarding Trust scheme has come under fire from Stephen Poliakoff for lecturing writers how to make factually based drama in the wake of the numerous viewer deception scandals, what the makers of The Children Who Fought Hitler ended up doing felt completely inappropriate. Even with that announcement at the beginning of the documentary, which served as a get out clause, blithely hijacking somebody else’s life to tell this story, ended up doing everyone a disservice.


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