Yesterday’s First Day of the Blitz aired on Tuesday evening on the actual anniversary, points straight away; ITV’s Words of the Blitz was broadcast last night, Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was no contest really. ITV clearly had more budget for a more spectacular production but they screwed the whole thing up. Their archive stuff, much of it in colour, was excellent and full of variety – you can only take so much of collapsing buildings, billowing smoke and plucky firefighters pointing their hoses.
But then they did two very strange – and unnecessary – things. Thing One: They used actors (Sheila Hancock, Steven Berkoff and others), talking heads style, to read the contemporary jottings of Real People, the overall result of which was that you simply couldn’t concentrate on what was being said while these luvvies seized the opportunity to ham it up, in particular, Russell Tovey, who was the one most employed (do you remember Peter Sellers doing Laurence Olivier doing Richard III reading Hard Day’s Night? A bit like that). Disaster.
What nearly worked, and perhaps they should have thought this one through, was that they also used real Royal Engineers to read the contemporary sappers’ accounts, a real nurse reading the nurse bit, and an elderly lady reading her own mother’s account. All very competently done, thank you very much. If they had tried this throughout, they may have got away with it.
Thing Two: For some bizarre reason, they spliced in contemporary footage of London sites. This bought nothing to the party. The bird’s eye pan of the city with the Gherkin building piercing the night sky was particularly jarring.
Yesterday’s programme – part of their Spirit of 1940 series – was an altogether lower key affair, sticking to the tried and tested formula of archive footage intersperced with talking heads of real contemporaries relating their own real experiences. These old timers, unscripted, did a great job, as only they can*. As a result, the production was engaging , very, very moving, and it worked. Star of the show was a dyed-blonde ancient dear (around 90, I think), who like the actors on ITV, hammed it up like mad. But she’d Earned the Right, it lightened the programme and it didn’t really matter.
My only problem with Yesterday’s offering was that the narrator’s delivery was occasionally a bit garbled and a bit too fast.
So. The Spits and Hurricanes of Yesterday definitely bettered the Heinkels and Messerschmitts of ITV on this occasion.
*Footnote: I visited my 87 year old aunt last Sunday, and despite knowing her for nearly 50 years, asked her for the first time about her experience in the Land Army. What a wonderful cornucopia of anecdotes spilled forth. The elderly can go on and on repetitively about the most trivial and dull things, it’s just a matter of asking them the right questions! So if you have any ancient relatives or friends, don’t lose the opporunity to tickle out their fascinating stories.