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Successful troops

13 June 2014

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"A READING from the Romans": the phrase has lodged like grit in my shoe ever since I heard it. The BBC, quite rightly, trailed its coverage of D-Day 70: The heroes return (Friday) as an epochal moment in our shared world history - a time when looking back to the past could redefine our present and inspire a better future.

Yet this incompetent introduction to the Prince of Wales's reading shows how little has changed since the débâcle of its broadcast of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee river pageant. The BBC is still happy to field commentators who know so little of the Bible that they do not know that the book in question is Paul's Letter to the Romans; and, far worse - because I was watching the evening's edited highlights - no one either noticed or cared enough to be bothered to correct it later.

It is said that the general public's knowledge of even basic Christian stuff is woefully inadequate; but our supposedly pre-eminent national broadcaster should do better than this.

Normandy '44: The battle beyond D-Day (BBC2, Friday) was a fascinating retelling of the campaign beyond the beachhead landings. It was fascinating because of its self-conscious revisionism. James Holland thinks that historians have got it wrong: the British and Commonwealth troops were far more successful in realising their targets than is accepted, and far more central to the whole endeavour, not merely a sideshow to the US forces.

The Germans were not such brilliant strategists: their insistence on responding to every defeat with a counter-attack meant that the Allied advance slowly haemorrhaged two crack German armies. Far more praise should be lavished on the Allies' logistical superiority, and the speed with which they adopted new tactics. The Channel was transformed into a highway, transporting troops and material day and night, building up an inexorable weight of resources.

The documentary bridged the gap between its overview and individual stories, giving faces to a few of the 6500 who were killed each day of the campaign; but what left the strongest impression was its clarity in showing us how a grand strategy was worked out across the fields and cities of Normandy.

I've come late to Fargo (Channel 4, Sundays), and it is an interesting exercise to try to make some sense of a fiendishly complex plot from the eighth episode. But I am not sure that the plot is the main thing - this retelling of a true crime story set in snowbound North Dakota should be relished far more for its bizarre tone, demonstrating its origin in the Coen brothers' movie of the same name.

It is a delicious black comedy: shocking violence is undercut by local incompetence and small-town inertia. Murder is laced with farce. The police chief is woefully out of his depth.

A slew of US clichés are turned on their heads, the viewer constantly wrong-footed in his or her expectation of how the story and characters will play out. Acting, script, direction - all are splendidly intelligent. Perhaps on repeated exposure the quirks and oddities will become wearisome, but for now it offers a highly satisfactory winding-down after the rigours of the Christian sabbath.

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