ALL good institutions create myths; and all great institutions
devote energy, sooner or later, to undercutting them. The BBC
At War (BBC2, Sunday) told a different story from the one that
I had assumed was the case. For most of the Second World War, the
BBC (radio, of course, not television) was not the glue that united
our nation in its determination to win through: it was popularly
considered remote and superior. Politicians distrusted it, and the
military thought it was a threat to security.
Slowly and painfully, this perception changed. Some far-sighted
commanders realised the public value of eyewitness-reporting from
the field of conflict; and Downing Street began to appreciate that
independent broadcasting was exactly what we were fighting for.
The troops from the United States massing in Britain thought the
BBC so boring that their own network, brasher and more populist,
was set up; to Auntie's dismay, millions of British people chose to
tune in to it, too.
So, Reithian highbrow censoriousness gave way to more accessible
schedules. Along with the advance through Italy, and the Normandy
landings, a trained corps of reporters sent back dispatch after
dispatch, galvanising support for the troops; and Richard
Dimbleby's account of the liberation of Belsen finally revealed the
depth of Nazi evil. Studio managers thought the report so harrowing
that it could not be broadcast; but Dimbleby said that, if it
wasn't, he would never file again.
The audience was far wider than domestic: eventually, 43
languages were broadcast, and 35 million people in occupied Europe
listened in (to their great peril) to what was accepted as the one
source of truth.
Presented by Jonathan Dimbleby, the programme (the second of
two) had extraordinary personal as well as national resonance; at
this time of agonising over our relationship with Europe, the
significance is highly topical. For those of us committed to
another great national institution, the problem of how to develop
and change while holding on to core values could not be closer to
The yak-herders of the Gobi probably do not tune in to the BBC
much on their solar-powered TVs; but, in Kate Humble: Living
with nomads (BBC2, Friday), they seem otherwise to have
developed a striking accommodation between their ancient way of
life and the modern world. Humble is terrific, joining in
everything with wide-eyed, girlish enthusiasm, and with the right
combination of personal engagement without pretending that she is
really one of them.
La Traviata: Love, death, and divas (BBC2, Saturday)
was not as good as it should have been. Verdi's revolutionary opera
about the realities of contemporary life caused great scandal at
its London première in 1856: the papers were appalled by the moral
degeneration of a work whose heroine is a prostitute. But Amanda
Vickery and Tom Service undermined their exposé of 19th-century
hypocrisy with silly presentation, and by focusing on Violetta
rather than Germont père, whose transformation from being
the embodiment of society's norms is by far the most radical aspect
of the piece.