FAR from not being as good as it used to be, last week’s TV presented an offering of top-quality nostalgia. By chance, both Dame Vera Lynn and the Imperial War Museums celebrate their 100th birthdays this year, and two not quite back-to-back (they were separated, with scarcely believable serendipity, by an ancient episode of Dad’s Army) documentaries on BBC2 on Saturday made for illuminating comparison. These were no glorifications of human conflict: the uniting theme was more the pity of war.
Britain at War: Imperial War Museums at 100 was brilliantly structured around ten objects, each introduced by a celebrity, most of whom had no experience of fighting, and all of whom were clearly moved by the story of their chosen artefact. In most cases, a veteran was on hand to personalise the narrative.
It was not just combatants who were memorialised: one item was the wallet, complete with photos of his wife and children, and pierced with the hole of the bullet that had killed him on the Somme, which had belonged to the 40-year old headmaster who felt it his duty to sign up: a decision and a death that are still commemorated by the pupils of his school.
We also saw one of the first silk poppies; and a ukulele made from scraps to entertain prisoners in one of the Burmese railway camps. It all added up to a justification of the Museums’ aim: preserving the national memory of conflict. It was, properly, a sobering experience.
Dame Vera Lynn: Happy 100th birthday told a familiar story: the East London girl put on the stage by her mother and achieving astonishing success, selling more than one million records by the age of 22, and given her own radio show; and yet despite this she continues to strike everyone as a friend, direct and entirely natural.
Her finest hour came when she became the first ENSA performer to entertain the lads in the Burma campaign: singing on the front line, utterly committed to the soldiers, and cherished by them as “one of us”.
As remarkable as the story was the line-up of celebrities eager to sing her praise. Sir Paul McCartney said how delighted the Beatles were, at the height of their fame, to perform on the same bill as her; and Barry Humphries — fearless scourge of all that could be considered traditionalist — piled on the compliments. I never expected to hear him say, with obvious sincerity: “She wasn’t sexy, but she made patriotism sexy.”
To complete the triumvirate, I select Pedalling Dreams: The Raleigh story (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). This celebrated more than a century of the iconic bicycle manufacturer. It was another traditionally British story: innovation, international success, and then outsourcing and takeover.
Some remarkable archive film revived a more innocent age — of children cycling safely on empty town roads, of cycle clubs splashing through country fords, and of assembly-line operatives happily singing rock music as they worked.