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Of Sons and Skies

AS SEEN ON TV

Movies4men

Have you ever tuned in to the Yesterday channel or Movies4Men and caught a few minutes of their war documentaries? Many consist of old film footage joined together with a commentary track. So huge expanses of extremely complicated Second World War military activity are confined to those bits for which there is some relevant newsreel available.

A company called Classic Media have cobbled together dozens of programmes drawn almost entirely on old footage. They occasionally feed in snippets of interviews with veteran flyers. Some of these have been carefully staged, other have been patently snatched on the hoof at some air show or event where a few veterans were gathered and one or other has been persuaded to answer a few questions in front of a camera. Most of Classic’s programmes are narrated by someone who does not sound convincing. To beef them up, the documentaries are occasionally ‘fronted’ by a star name: an actor tells us that what we are about to see is important. For some shows they acquired the services of Richard Todd who played Guy Gibson in the Dam Busters movie; however I suspect many viewers would not make this connection. Mr Todd sometimes sits in an easy chair facing the camera. At other times he is in front of a blue screen and has newsreel footage superimposed behind him, which looks very strange. 

The Yesterday channel allocates odd hours to military matters. You’d think the audience would primarily be old folk like me, yet the commercial breaks in series such as ‘Strategic Bombing of World War Two’ include commercials for RAF recruitment. Some Movies4Men fillers are enjoying a second life after initial exposure in the DVD market.

In the edit suite the producers doubtless spin through the moving pictures and find shots that seem relevant to the story they wish to tell, or that they can pass off as representing some part of that story. So a tank punching through a brick wall is a great visual and the original filmed incident may have happened in Poland, but as long as your average viewer cannot identify the make of tank or type of wall, then that shot could be used to portray the advance of the Americans up the Italian peninsula in 1943, or the German assault on the Ardennes in ‘45.

I don’t think the producers are deliberately mis-using the footage available – just that their options are limited, so they deploy an anti-aircraft gun firing or an explosive eruption of sea water in the Mediterranean wherever necessary to give them appropriate images against which they can place their narrative.

Perhaps the most severe distortion of a history lies in segments of the six-part ‘Air War’ series about Bomber Command produced by Classic. Miserable missions are disguised with observations such as “dismayingly unproductive” and “incapable of fulfilment”. Rotten raids are termed “expensive”. One interviewee describes some enemy action as: “unfortunately the Germans didn’t play fair”. At points in the chronology when things are patently going horribly wrong, some strident marching Dam Busters-style music is trickled in, which psychologically conveys the impression that all is proceeding well.

Classics’s interpretation of the Blitz on the Midlands makes no reference whatsoever to the whereabouts of the RAF when the Luftwaffe made their forceful raid on Coventry. And looking at their footage of the aftermath, one could only conclude that it was inexplicable how a single human being could have survived the assaults.

Thames Television’s monumental ‘The World at War’ sets a high standard in deploying appropriate images, but to my ear the admirable endeavour was often badly weakened by narrator Laurence Olivier who tends to ham up his delivery.

I recommend you track down the excellent Timeline series as these programmes communicate most convincingly and sensibly the complexities of those extraordinary years.

 

Dam Buster Poster“ABSOLUTELY SPLENDID” 

This was Barnes Wallis’s response when Guy Gibson told him he had managed to train his crews to fly their Lancasters at just 60 feet above the practice reservoirs in the Dam Busters film.

It was good news. Just in time, the weapons would now be capable of dropping on to the surface of the water and not breaking up immediately due to the severity of the impact. Instead they would be able to bounce and spin forward towards the dam walls. There was hope the audacious mission could succeed.

I’m a big fan of this film – not for the story it tells, but for the way it conveys a high degree of authenticity about the typical nature of life on an RAF station and inside the cockpits of Lancaster bombers.  

Firstly it makes it clear how posh many people were within the hierarchy of the Air Ministry and the Air Force; how deferentially everyone behaved to those positioned above them; and how thoroughly decent each fellow was towards his companions (perhaps somewhat like public school sixth-formers of that era, which, of course, many of them had been).

We only encounter a handful of characters who are not upper or middle class. They are bag packing, serving drinks, fixing planes, on guard duty, pulling chocks away, delivering laundry or dishing out bacon and eggs.

I am assured the modus operandi in the cockpits in flight is accurate. Most airborne faces are covered most of the time in the oxygen masks that contain the microphone that allows them to communicate to the rest of the crew over their helmet headphones. So we get a flavour of life in and around a Bomber Command quarters and whilst flying British bomber aircraft over enemy territory.

The biggest contrivance in the film is the representation of night-time. The audience need to be able to see what’s going on during the climax of the mission. So night scenes are filmed in a way that everything is fairly well lit; some shots looking like no darker than dusk or dawn, and others benefitting from substantial shafts of illumination. The formula of light night is established early on in the narrative: on a sunny afternoon Barnes Wallis is experimenting in his back garden with a catapulting device. The doctor arrives and they go through the French windows to talk to the family in the living room. A couple of lines of  conversation leap us to a point when night has abruptly fallen and Barnes must pull the curtains to achieve a black-out. However he hears aircraft overhead and so he and the doctor step outside again where the audience (subconsciously, at least) discover it is not very dark in the inventor’s back garden.

The power of the film – superbly scripted, performed, shot and constructed – is its capacity to imply the triumph of the audacious undertaking. I’m sure it cemented a desirable reputation for the RAF in a fundamental and lasting manner. Much of this achievement lies in the dialogue delivered by the major protagonists. They frequently indicate what a huge impact their proposed endeavours can make.

Wallis establishes the agenda as he and the doctor gaze into the not-very-dark sky contemplating the prospects for another BC raid on the Ruhr: “It’s like trying to kill a giant by firing at his arms and legs with thousands of pea shooters instead of a clean bullet through the heart.” i.e. Wallis aspires to designing, building and delivering something will which constitute that clean bullet. 

Later, “three enormous dams (holding 400 million tons of water) – just think of the chaos if we could break those walls down.”

Then, to a senior civil servant: “If we can… flood the Ruhr valley (the RAF) can save the thousands of bombs that they’re dropping on the factories there.”

And to Air Marshall Harris: “… the effect on Germany would be enormous.”

Soon Guy briefs his newly-formed squadron: “It’s a big thing and, if it comes off, it’ll have results that may do quite a bit to shorten this war.”

And: “if we can surprise them, then we’ll play hell with them.”

A senior officer explains to Guy: If you can blow a hole in this wall, you’ll bring the Ruhr steel industry to a standstill, and do much other damage besides.”

Finally Guy reveals the goal to his boys: “Tonight you’re going to have the chance to hit the enemy harder and more destructively than any small force has ever done before.”

So we have been given shed-loads of assurance that this mission has the capacity to devastate not just a valley or two but the whole German war machine.

Now the long (32 minute) action sequence in the pretend-dark shows the boys succeeding in breaking two of the dams, which will surely have shortened the war substantially.

Alas, it didn’t, but we don’t learn this from the film.

The movie shows us massive degrees of flooding devastation: cascades of water over-turning a railway train, streaming across factory sites, causing workers to scuttle up ladders to stay dry. Hence the courageous aerial action must have achieved all those things that were promised in the intentions dialogue passages.

Max Hastings’s ‘Bomber Command’ exposes the fine detail; while the film – an adventure in planes with bombs - conveys the culture, behaviours and demands of life in the war-time Royal Air Force, Bomber Command in particular. We come to understand something of the procedures and the language, and learn that not all pilots were English Hooray Henrys; Australians, New Zealanders and Americans supported the cause.

Several planes explode during the film’s mission: one hit by flak on the way to the dams, one shot up by Ack-Ack at a dam, a third crashes against a hillside beyond a dam, and a fourth, we learn, gets shot down on the way home. Later the chalk board chart of individual aircraft logs shows four planes “Missing”, and one early return with damage. The BBC radio news report announces eight planes missing. Wallis bemoans to Guy that 56 fellows have not returned. So we learn that the dangers of flying on BC missions can be horribly high. The final few minutes reveal the ratios of losses on this mission, which was one of the worst, statistically, since the early years when the Command suffered some terrible outings.

The narrative thrust asks key questions: will Wallis’s idea work; can he make the bombs in time; can Guy and the gang (that big roomful of non-speaking extras) successfully carry the weird weapons to their required destinations? All these aspirations are eventually ticked off (occasionally underpinned by judicious deployment of Eric Coates’s fabulous March. Was there ever a better bit of music to convey heroism in the skies?).   

If the film had been commissioned by the RAF the institution could not have hoped for a more positive representation of their wartime endeavours. The top brass would surely consider the portrayal of the service in those daunting years as “absolutely splendid”.

 

MAKING A DRAMA

Playscript

Costs a lot to create sets for scenes to look like they might have taken place in England more than seventy years ago. ITV’s ‘Foyle’s War’, written by Anthony Horowitz, achieved a magnificent amount of age-appropriate authenticity by having key characters wearing old clothes cruising round old streets in an old car, avoiding Tesco delivery vans. But some scripts demanded scenes staged amidst the activity or detritus of war-time events, and so viewers sometimes saw massive and doubtless expensive re-creations of a blitzed street or military encampment or munitions factory; even, in one episode, the edge of a concentration camp. It was all very well done, and doubtless a great stimulator for people to start to learn more about the war in general.

Back in 1942 playwright Terence Rattigan put his first-hand experiences of Bomber Command to good use in the West End. ‘Flare Path’ is set in the Resident’s Lounge of a country hotel situated very close to an RAF aerodrome in Lincolnshire; so close that the ‘residents’ can see the planes taking off out of the (stage set) window - a convenient way of scripting war action scenes at minimal cost.

The high drama comes at the end of Act II Scene 1 when Patricia and Swanson are peering into the dark. The manuscript explains:

‘There is a sudden rattling of machine-gun fire, followed by three loud but dull-sounding explosions.’

“They’re bombing the aerodrome. It was a German.”

“Brakes, you idiot, brakes. Don’t take off.”

‘There is another rattle of machine-gun fire, followed by another explosion, sharper than the bomb bursts and with a tearing, rending sound following it. Patricia stifles a scream. A dull red glow appears at the window. Swanson pulls the curtain to violently.’

This is the only violence to appear on the stage. This sequence must tax the very best of stage managers. The play is primarily about love affairs hazarded by dangers of death. Hats off to Rattigan for big RAF action scenes on a very small budget.

 

WAYNE’S WORLD  

Waynes WorldIf you want to see a bit of Far East flying action – Yanks versus the Japs – check out the Hollywood movie, Flying Leathernecks, starring John Wayne. It’s a curious combination of elements. You have Wayne and other star names strutting around Air Force bases on Pacific islands, intercut with aerial footage. To integrate the two styles, the studio has constructed or acquired some aircraft cockpits and fitted these on to pivots, so they can be manoeuvred into various angles in front of a back-projection pre-filmed sky.

Wayne and his buddies appear (separately) in these cockpits giving or receiving instructions from each other. Following a new command, the actor leans forward and shoves a lever or two, at which point the crew on the studio floor swivel the cod cockpit to make it look like the plane is changing to a new course.

The editor then cuts to a real plane – fuzzy and in the distance – now veering off at a fresh angle, and the audiences are supposed to imagine they are witnessing a critical air battle fought on one side by famous faces. 

To make the most of enemy aircraft movements, the producers deployed a Japanese actor to sit in a mock-up of a Zero cockpit. He too shoves a stick in conjunction with props men manoeuvring the mock cockpit. Cut back to real footage of a Zero in trouble.

Now back to the studio where flames (or perhaps just flame effects) have been superimposed in front of the Japanese actor’s face. Back to the real footage: Zero spinning towards the sea. Cut to American cockpit. One of John’s boys looks satisfied for a second, before scanning the back-projection sky for more “slit-eyed bandits at 9 o’clock”.

Wayne is mostly in charge, grimly contemplating the dangers and losses of his own men.

He seems extraordinarily lucky whilst in the air until, near the end, his guns fail to function. (i.e. engineering fault, not Wayne’s fault) and his plane is then hit by the Japanese aircraft he was trying to shoot down. Next shot: parachute descends towards the sea. Next shot, Wayne back in base with arm in sling.

So, no attempt to stage and shoot the esteemed pilot landing in sea and see how he struggles in the water and how someone manages to find him and bring him back to land for hospital attention.

I’m sure the great Hollywood star grilled his agent for having got him into that pesky situation.

 

ABOUT RIGHT 

About Right

Often the distortion of events within well-intentioned television programmes is not deliberate, but a bi-product of the compression and simplification of complex military matters of many years ago, frequently thickly illustrated with heavily manipulated shots from old newsreels and sometimes steered by celebrity observations and reactions.

But not all programmes hit those hurdles. Lion TV’s ‘Bomber Boys’ for the BBC achieved a very admirable balance of content and context. It was presented by actor Ewan McGregor ably assisted by his brother who is an ex-RAF pilot. They had previously made a film about Fighter Command, and so brought their confident and convincing pairing of interests and enthusiasm to this subject matter.

The spine of the story was brother Colin’s wish to fly a vintage Lancaster. Could he learn how to do this? Along the way the boys met old crew, historians, and victims of Bomber Command’s sorties in Germany. All the vital facts were embraced and the results of the missions were considered soberly, maturely, honourably. And Colin got to handle the controls in the air.

Great job, boys.

 

Coventry War MemorialPICK A DAY 

August and September 2015 were peppered with special occasions commemorating the achievements of RAF Fighter Command seventy five years previously.

Each and every undertaking was unquestionably an admirable event, but unfortunately the clustering of them and in particular the broadcasters’ utilisation and presentation of them was in danger at times of generating a degree of confusion and even misrepresentation of those extraordinary and challenging air battles, their strategies and the individual daily outcomes.

Germany’s serious attempts to assault Britain by air went on for nearly a year, during which time the RAF had mixed results in terms of resisting those onslaughts. The nature of the attacks evolved, as did the tactics and capacity to respond.

When a television or radio programme tries to compress the complexity of months of terrible aggression into a single hour for a particular transmission day inevitably the story communicated to the viewer or listener must be simplified and made digestible.

Radio delivers a strictly linear narrative. You hear each sentence once, then listen to the next one. Unlike reading printed text, whereby the reader can go at his or her own speed and jump back and re-read as they wish, radio relentlessly presses forward.

So too does television commentary, but here there is a high capacity for communicating distortion beyond the presenter’s commentary. The moment the TV producer begins to illustrate the television dialogue with pictures of what is being talked about there is enormous potential to steer the viewers towards a particular comprehension of historical events.

Each individual programme endeavours to find the best means to convey the necessary overall narrative arc, but ultimately the viewer is bombarded with powerful images that do not necessarily simply complement or underline the sentences being spoken.

We all know this. We are not naive children vulnerable to being led badly astray by mischievous adults. And generally the broadcasters work hard to do an honourable job with their subject matter. However the density and date anomalies of 2015 commemorations unintentionally transmitted serious distortion of the sequence of some 75 year old events and their significance.

Nothing malicious in this. It was doubtless merely the repercussions of rapid, broad-brush-stroke decision-making by different commissioning departments and schedulers.  

So many dates, so many occasions, what is a broadcaster to do?

Bear in mind that September 2015 came very shortly after events and programmes marking 70 years since VJ day in August and those of VE day in May. On the 18th August there were vintage aircraft fly-pasts marking ‘The Hardest Day’ of the Battle of Britain.

There had been a commemorative fly-past over Buckingham Palace on 10th July, marking the day when the first aerial dog-fights had taken place 75 years previously. This was the start of what became known as the Battle of Britain. It continued until October 1940. Escalation and changes in German strategy meant some accidental bombing of London took place in August. This caused Churchill to instruct the RAF to bomb Berlin which in turn determined Hitler to demand the deliberate bombing of Britain’s capital. The first of these Luftwaffe bombing raids took place on 7th September.

Seventy five years later, this date must have seemed to some commissioner and producer like a good opportunity to recall those raids. In 2015 the 7th of September fell on a Monday. Why not produce a week of programmes about the Blitz?

So that’s what we got (see Blitz Creak below). Mostly good stuff.

Then, a few days later, along comes Battle of Britain Day, the 15th September. From more than three months’ worth of RAF Fighter Command’s courageous and costly  daily sorties to challenge Luftwaffe fighter intrusions of British skies and attacks on their own airfields, the 15th of September has come to be the day when those magnificent endeavours are most publicly recalled, respected and commemorated.

And admirably so.

On Sunday 13th September 2015 at 7 o’clock in the evening Channel Four screened a documentary entitled ‘Battle of Britain: the Day the War was Won’. Two days later, on the 15th, at 8.00 pm Channel Four offered the second part of this study: ‘Battle of Britain: Return of the Spitfires’. Channel Four had done their bit, like this:

Dermot O’Leary discussed the day’s events at Biggin Hill in the company of historian James Holland. Between them they mounted up the significance of the 15th of September.

Holland described the Prime Minister’s appearance at the station as if the great man was personally directing the operation. In fact Churchill visited simply to evaluate current circumstances. There were no expectations of any particular battle on that day. In his memoirs he notes that the date only became to acquire significance in retrospect.

Towards the end of the evocation of the events of the 15th September, the producers dropped in a section of Churchill’s “their finest hour” speech. This had originally been delivered by the Prime Minister on 18th June 1940. A classic editing contrivance to advance a narrative even if this means distorting history to achieve what the commissioners want on the label, in this case by Arrow Media.

If one were to read the article in the Radio Times designed to accompany the Channel Four programmes, one would learn a few vital statistics that Dermot and co considered unnecessary to broadcast: “The Hurricane was an obsolete aircraft in 1940”; “on 15th September the Government claimed we destroyed 180 aircraft – in fact it was about 60”; and ‘from a squadron strength of 22 pilots, 18 were “burnt badly, wounded or forced to bail out. Most of them were on fire and killed when they hit the ground.”’.

But it’s not compulsory to read associated articles in TV listings magazines prior to or after watching the relevant show.

By the time of the companion programme two days later showing a specially staged fly past of WW2 fighters Mr Holland had backed off somewhat from his earlier pronouncements on the significance of 15th September. It was now simply a day when lots of planes had gone up to tackle lots of Luftwaffe craft.

On Friday 18th September, Radio 2 dedicated several programmes to commemorating the Battle of Britain, then on Sunday 20th September BBC1 provided live coverage of the Battle of Britain thanksgiving service from Westminster Abbey (see Where Praise is Due).

In essence the focus on the Blitz for a week followed by coverage of the Battle of Britain inevitably indicated to the casual viewer or listener that – all those years ago – the Nazi bombers hammered our country after which the RAF won the Battle of Britain. 

Does this matter? I think so.

 

BLITZ CREAK 

Bomb disposal

As luck would have it, the 7th September fell on a Monday in 2015, which provided the perfect pitch for a five day reflection on the commencement of the blitz bombing of London back in 1940.

One can imagine the discussions with the commissioners. Five days: let’s concentrate on five cities, thus profiling our responsibility to cover the country and not just focus on London. So that’s what they did.

But London led the way, so Monday’s programme was set there. Presenting the information? Let’s get celebrities, one from each location, talking about the conurbation in which they grew up.  For London, best would be an actor from East Enders. That’ll pull the audience in.

Unfortunately the chap chosen was not from the East End, he was from north London, but never mind. Oh, and his family had not lived in London during the war years, but never mind.

So we meet the soap star in a social club where he used to collect glasses as a youngster. He tells us he doesn’t know much about the blitz but he’s looking forward to finding out a lot.

He is taken up in a light aircraft to follow the same route towards the docks that the German planes took that fateful day. Yes, they relied on following the Thames upstream.

High point. He could see his mum’s house down there. 

Experts show him Luftwaffe maps that clearly mark the locations of the docks as the intended targets. More maps show where the bombs actually landed. Yes, the Germans could not be accurate with their bombs.

Was this because of bad navigation, bad judgement, the challenges of barrage balloons, Ack-Ack guns, the RAF? This doesn’t crop up. The emphasis lies on the violent destruction being inflicted on the city. Each bomb site is described as “the target”, as if the air crew had sought out a particular street corner or shop window.

No mention of the fact that the initial blitz raid was Hitler’s retaliation for the RAF’s bombing of Berlin a few days earlier. The chronology is simplified into a linear narrative that jumps from Nazi forces advancing across western Europe to bombs scattering across British urban areas, all generously illustrated with carefully-chosen newsreel clips, confirming the simplicity and brutality of the arc of aggression.

Yes, there’s a need for brevity and simplification, and why would a producer not want to use handy, shocking footage of military advance and damaged houses on fire, but somehow the compression and juxtaposition distort the evolving circumstances and avoid the awkward elements that might confuse or mystify the audience.

We don’t know how mystified our soap star was during his location filming schedule, but if he asked what the RAF was up to, it didn’t get past the editor.

He returned to the social club where a bunch of Londoners, who as children remember the blitz, have joined him.

Their recollections impress him. Perhaps the conversations lasted an hour or so, but they have been hacked down into a few pithy phrases that indicate how plucky and determined people were back then, driven by a wish to maintain munitions output; hence they would clamber out of their air raid shelters each morning and stumble through the rubble to get to work. No mention of the fact that perhaps their commitment to employment was due to them needing a wage at the end of the week.

One elderly gentleman talked about the noise of the V1 rockets flying overhead. Did anyone in the room or the edit suite realise or remember this happened towards the end of the war, following D-Day, in the summer of 1944? There was no explanation of the timescale.

Shane Richie was moved by his experience. He now appreciates how London could take it. But the inability of the RAF to successfully resist the German night bombers was air-brushed out of the picture.

‘Blitz Cities’ was a BBC Northern Ireland production for BBC1 at 9.15 am. It informed, and to some degree misinformed, probably a million people.

The celebrity sucks in a strong share of the available audience and the producers now have a huge responsibility to constructively, fairly, intelligently utilise that slot to enlighten those viewers as to what happened and in what context. 

On this day with this programme I think they could have done better.

Across the following mornings more stars re-visited their home towns and so we saw further emotional responses to death and damage on suburban streets. Ricky Tomlinson had the capacity, intelligence and sensitivity to convincingly champion the challenges faced by Liverpudlians. (Merseyside was, after London, the most attacked location by the Luftwaffe, because it was the arrival port for American supplies. Reaching this English west coast destination was a triumph for the German electronic navigation systems.) Community groups in Hull complained to the BBC that their war-time aerial assaults were not been featured in the films.

Meanwhile Channel Four repeated ‘Blitz Street’, Tony Robinson’s study of the impact of German bombs on British houses. This series again preceded the scheduling of the major commemorations of the Battle of Britain.

The broadcasters used their tools to communicate the horrors of the German bombing. Despite best intentions the compression creates a degree of distortion which is compounded by scheduling decisions that can inadvertently convey to the viewer a simplistic comic-book interpretation of an extraordinarily complex series of events.

Due to the way anniversaries work and historical events are documented, vaguely interested parties might readily conclude that the order of activity three-quarters of a century ago were just as the schedulers exploited their diaries: we got the Blitz (bad), to be followed by the Battle of Britain (our boys beat the enemy – good).

I’m sure there was no deliberate manipulation of history to achieve a convenient narrative; the ordering simply reflected a curiosity of timing and the repercussions of the complexity of armed conflict in Britain in 1940.

As we know, the Luftwaffe commenced its skirmishes with the RAF over Kent in July 40. The fighters prickled on through August, then into September.

In parallel, on 7th September 40, the Luftwaffe undertook its first major bombing raid on London’s dockland (as retaliation for earlier escalation by both sides). This event was subsequently perceived as the start of the Blitz, which went on for the next nine months until Hitler decided to re-deploy his forces against Russia.

15th September 40 was one of the days when the RAF gave a very good account of itself in the air war. The inability of the Luftwaffe to take command of the southern English skies by this time caused Hitler to postpone his prospective invasion of Britain.

The RAF subsequently saw fit to treat this date as the defining day in the Battle of Britain. Thus, calendar-wise, the Blitz is remembered in the first week of September, the Battle of Britain in week two.

So to the most casual viewer there is a neat and swift success story dominating the chronology: Act One: Germans blitz Britain; Act Two: RAF wins Battle of Britain; Act Three: British Victory over Germany.

This simple story doesn’t need Russians or Americans or Japanese or any other foreigners, good or bad. It’s a comic strip World War Two: three panels: St Paul’s Cathedral on fire from German bombs; two: Messerschmitt shot down by Spitfire; three: Churchill’s Victory V-sign.  End of strip, end of war.

I hope OF SONS AND SKIES  helps explain that it was all somewhat more complicated.

 

MAINTAINING THE MYTH

GErman Map of UK 

The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall on the evening of Saturday 7th November 2015 was more or less the same as the one held the previous year. As the Radio Times explained, ‘This moving combination of performance, spectacle and religious service to honour British servicemen and women who have died serving their country never really changes.

The participants are different each year but the sentiment – a celebration of the camaraderie of the Forces and a poignant reminder of the victims of conflict – is always the same.

In the old days the BBC stuck cameras round the edge and captured the action and music as best they could. Now the broadcaster is integrated into the centre of things, with links presented to the Hall’s audience and the TV audience by newsreader Huw Edwards.

And as well as the marching, bandsmanship, singing and speeches, we get short film clips to enhance our appreciation of particular visitors. These play on big screens at the front of the hall, as well as on our tellies.

These film inserts are high quality affairs: beautifully crafted interviews with ex-servicemen and their relatives, in some cases illustrated with appropriate newsreel footage.

And in one case a film insert managed to repeat and thus further ingrain a myth about World War Two.

An RAF fighter pilot was interviewed in his own home about his experiences around the Battle of Britain. It was all most admirable, but his remarks were then edited to present an order of events that jar with the history.

We saw a series of shots of post-Blitz devastation, then this fine man told us how much people appreciated his efforts to keep the Luftwaffe at bay from Britain. The impression anyone would take from the ordering of the illustrative footage in the film was that the Germans had bombed London and then were beaten back by the RAF.

Sadly, as we know, the RAF could not deter the Luftwaffe once they adopted intrusion in the dark. And the Blitz continued for six months after the Battle of Britain over the Kent coast.

Millions of people at home probably had no reason to question this misleading ordering of the sequences, however there must have been hundreds in the hall who knew that the presentation was distorting the galling series of events that terrible autumn and winter. 

I wonder if any complained.

 

WHERE PRAISE IS DUE 

Poppy field

An old TV producer is inevitably critical of his ex-colleagues’ efforts to capture and present elements of military conflict of seven decades ago. Yes, I’m a nit-picker. But in case, dear reader, you get the impression that this is a universal phenomenon, please note my unreserved respect for the content of BBC1’s outside broadcast on Sunday 20th September 2015 covering the Westminster Abbey service of thanksgiving to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

This was a class act, not least due to presenter Kirsty Young and her script, which, I trust, she mostly wrote herself, perhaps with input from her producers.

Kirsty’s initial strength is her voice. It is not that of a toff, but simply of a college-educated woman. She’s not talking down to us, but across to us.

And what she and Dan Snow and James Holland had to say was a terrific summary of complex events that did not fail to embrace the vital elements that other presentations so often leave to one side.

These carefully prepared passages were interspersed by some fascinating live interviews with RAF veterans. Because it was an outside broadcast no-one could be absolutely sure what an elderly gentleman might say when asked a particular question in the circumstances of the moment. However much rehearsal and prompting has been attempted, once that person has been encouraged to speak, no editorial intervention is possible; the answer cannot be edited. So certain information and views can be communicated that a film editor might see fit to leave out.  

Same with a sermon. Perhaps the Chief Chaplain of the Air Force had his speech vetted by the hierarchy beforehand, but once he’s at that lectern no brass hat can deny him his rare access to the airwaves.

I would wish that the whole unedited programme be made available on i-player for all time, not least for schools to study and debate, but here let me at least quote some passages that succinctly convey some essential understanding of those shocking events and their significance.

Kirsty began: “We remember the bravery and fortitude of all who fought, defended and served in the air and on the ground in the epic struggle against Nazi Germany.”

Dan Snow promises us: “remarkable stories in the struggle for air supremacy.”

Kirsty continued: “And we remember those that lost their lives in a battle that was a crucial turning point in the second world war, The Battle of Britain.”

And now some simple tasteful black-and-white still photographs of RAF airfield preparations, crew and aircraft, backed by music.

Then Kirsty continued her voice-over commentary behind live images of the congregation assembling in the Abbey: “To remember the courage and sacrifice of those who fought. And at the heart of today’s commemoration will be those extraordinary men who demonstrated exceptional bravery in the fight for freedom – ‘The Few’, as they were named by Sir Winston Churchill. The Few were the fighter pilots who took to the skies against the Luftwaffe.

“Important of course to remember not only the fighter pilots but all the different elements of the Royal Air Force that played such a crucial part in the success – they were the ground crews, the WAAF, Coastal Command and the Observer Corps.

“And then of course Bomber Command who, in helping win the Battle of Britain, had a higher number of casualties than any other RAF Command.”

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in appreciating the wisdom of these observations whilst we simply saw the worshippers gathering. This allowed the audience to fully absorb the significance of her summary.

Then a link: “Dan Snow now guides us through some of the pivotal phases of that first major campaign to be fought in the air:” To a short film mostly consisting of newsreel, but avoiding the Yesterday Channel-style Hitler ranting, tanks blasting montages.

DS: “In the early summer of 1940 Britain and France had been catastrophically defeated. Now Hitler wanted to finish Britain off before turning east to carve out an empire in the Soviet Union.

“Faced with the first real invasion threat for generations, Churchill insisted that he would never make peace with Nazi Germany.

“Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to smash the Royal Air Force and take control of the skies over Britain.

“In July Germany attacked shipping and ports to strangle Britain’s supplies and starve the nation into submission. Then on 13th August came Eagle Day. Hundreds of aircraft flooded across the Channel and the North Sea. For weeks the RAF fought a desperate battle as the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy its airfields. But this assault was met by fearless pilots, a brilliant air defence system and crucial raids by Bomber Command.

“Then in late August the Luftwaffe accidentally dropped bombs on London. The British War Cabinet ordered an immediate retaliation, and over the following days bombers struck at Berlin.”

(At this point we see a shot of Hitler sitting listening to someone speaking – not him ranting to a crowd, Movies4Men fashion.)

“Hitler was incensed and ordered the Luftwaffe to turn its full might on London. It was the start of the Blitz.

“For the RAF it was a welcome reprieve. They could re-build airfields and re-supply.

“Hitler ordered another massive assault on London. On the 15th of September the decisive day arrived. Around 400 German planes flew in waves towards the capital where a huge aerial battle ensued.

“British fighters took a terrible toll on German bombers. The Luftwaffe could not continue the fight. The brave airmen and tireless ground crews would not be defeated.”

“Hitler postponed his invasion plans indefinitely. The Battle of Britain was won.”

Out of vision, over Abbey interior angles, Kirsty is now joined by historian James Holland:

KY: “Why was it so important in turning events around?”

JH: “Up until that point the German war machine had been completely unstoppable. And the way the German system was set up was it was really resource poor, Germany. It didn’t have enough of the things you need to protract a long and successful war. It didn’t have much oil, natural resources, food, so that is why they were set up to do these very short, sharp lightning strikes. Poland over in a few weeks. France, mighty France, one of the world’s super-powers, destroyed in just six weeks. And it seemed completely unstoppable.

“But the Battle of Britain halted that advance. It was their first major defeat. And that meant then that Germany was consigned to a long and protracted war – one ultimately it couldn’t sustain.” (Note though, no mention of Russia here – the nation whose armies eventually overcame the Nazi regime.)

KY: “And very important to remember too that there was a genuine fear that Britain was going to be invaded by the Nazis. A genuine and legitimate fear?”

JH: “Well, certainly very genuine. When you see how hard it was on D-Day just a few years later to invade northern France with all the advantages that the Allies then had at that point - it would have been hard in 1940 to pull it off, but that doesn’t take away the fact at the time it seemed a very real threat indeed.”

KY: “Successful strategy and planning are at the heart of any battle.”

JH (voice behind photographs of Hugh Dowding): “I think there has been a traditional image of little Britain against the Goliath of Germany, backs to the wall, amateurs, and in actual fact they were well prepared and incredibly well organised. We had the first ever fully coordinated air defence system.”

A very neat compression of major issues, knocking down a number of myths.

That was all scripted, but of course a live outside broadcast takes a risk when it includes an interview with anyone which cannot be edited, and this programme gave several veterans an opportunity to drift off message:

Dan Snow asked 609 Squadron ground crew member Stan Hartill what was his hardest day: “My pilot came back and said, “Stan, they’re bombing London and there’s nothing we can do to stop them”, and that was awful, depressing.”

Later Dan moved on to ex-Hurricane pilot, Paul Farnes: “Hurricanes shot down twice as many aircraft as the Spitfire did. And I think that any time there’s anything to do with the Battle of Britain, there’s always a Spitfire. It’s a bit depressing.”

Mr Farnes went on to add: “Where we had honestly claimed maybe 150 enemy aircraft destroyed, in fact we had only destroyed about a 100. The German records show that up.” These are the sort of slightly sticky remarks that a producer is often tempted to nibble out of a recorded interview if it’s taking the thrust of the intended narrative somewhat off course.

Done live, the producer can only fretfully pace the outside broadcast truck’s gallery with fingers crossed, buttocks clenched.

Next on screen due reference to the many flyers from overseas aiding the RAF in those dark days: fifteen nations in all, not least Poles, and “punching above their weight” New Zealanders and Canadians. Now clips from interviews with WAAF personnel and ground crew.

Could the Venerable Chaplain-in-Chief of the RAF be relied upon to stick to message?

We don’t know if Jonathan Chaffey’s sermon was vetted in advance. It certainly included some revealing lines: “It was a close run thing. By early September Fighter Command was running out of pilots. Air Chief Marshall Dowding stated that the problem had taken on formidable proportions, the output from operational training units being quite inadequate to meet the casualty rate on the front line squadrons.

At the same time battle-weary pilots were struggling with unrelenting tiredness as they were scrambled for sortie after sortie.”

Another man-of-the-cloth made one misleading statement as part of a prayer. He described the RAF as having achieved air supremacy by October 1940. He did not clarify that he was only referring to day time hours, for, of course, tragically the bulk of the Blitz demonstrated in a very ugly way the inability of the RAF to command the night skies over Britain at that time.

Ms Young wove a tasteful and tactful route through the service, handling the pomp and circumstance with a light touch. She pointed out that perhaps this might be the last time many of The Few will be still with us.

The ceremony was followed by a fly past, and of course, ceremonies easily drift off schedule and fly pasts seldom turn up exactly on time, so the programme was over-running towards the end, and Ms Young was clearly obliged to wrap up fast. So we don’t know if she had a passage of script that pointed out the problems the RAF faced when the Luftwaffe turned to night flights, or explained how the Russian armies eventually and ultimately brought the German war machine to breaking point, rather than the Allies in the air or on the ground. 

She did however advise us that we could find out more at www.bbc.co.uk/i-wonder.

And, yes, here we can find – if we explore sufficient links – the essential chronology that includes the Blitz (without mentioning the RAF’s incapacity to inhibit it) and emphasises the Russians’ staggering, brutal drive to finally overwhelm Germany at war.

So, all in all, a great job.

 

 

Look out for more AS SEEN ON TV blogs through this year.