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Changed by war

07 February 2014


THERE is no call for my customary cheap opening gag designed to catch your attention when my first subject is Britain's Great War, Jeremy Paxman's documentary series (BBC1, Mondays). Rather than present the customary overview of politics and military strategy, he is exploring how the conflict transformed Britain's population, attitudes, and structures.

Paxman is keen to make unfamiliar points: the population as a whole was by no means baying for war - 100,000 people demonstrated for peace, and many of the political leaders broke down in tears as it became clear that there was no turning back.

They knew what people at large ignored: Germany had for years been training a two-million-strong army, equipped with the most modern technology of destruction. The UK had only 80,000 regular soldiers, and assumed that its Navy was what really mattered; but Germany's desire to subjugate Europe could be frustrated only by land.

Once war was declared, support was practically universal. Paxman's trademark mockery is strangely muted - he is moved by the overwhelming response to the call to arms, and takes seriously the sense of patriotic duty that actuated those enlisting.

The German naval bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough, and the Zeppelin bombing raids brought the war to the streets of Britain: for the first time in centuries, civilians were at the mercy of an aggressor; being an island was not enough.

This is powerful and affecting TV; my only cavil is that the particular focus gives a curiously one-sided view: we have not heard, for example, about the far greater sacrifices made by French or Belgian combatants and civilians.

Waldemar Januszczak is the "rough boy" of art historians - or, at least, those who make TV documentaries. He acts the buffoon, clownishly swaggering about in conscious contrast with the exquisite delights of Rococo (BBC4, Tuesday of last week).

His first programme had taken "pilgrimage" as its theme, looking at the splendours of Balthazar Neumann's Bavarian churches - a further example of the way in which art critics present Christian doctrine and practice in greater depth than anything we get from supposedly religious broadcasts.

This theme was developed in his close study, in the second programme, of Tiepolo's depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary's giving the scapular to St Simon Stock. For all its rosy efflorescence, Januszczak believes, we ought to take the rococo movement seriously, because its focus on the themes of happiness and pleasure still govern much of what we take for granted as desirable human goals today: in other words, it had a key part to play in shaping our modern world.

House of Fools (BBC2, Tuesdays) is Vic Reeves's and Bob Mortimer's parody of a 1960s sitcom. The humour is surreal, the action more like a lived-out comic strip than anything you could reasonably persuade real flesh-and-blood actors to perform. It is vulgar and highly offensive. It extends the boundaries of what anyone could consider possible or certainly desirable. I find it very funny indeed.

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