SOMETIMES, having exactly the right material must be a matter of profound regret. The makers of ITV’s excellent documentary Inside the London Fire Brigade (Thursday of last week) must be torn between delight that the past 12 months in which they have been following their subject has provided such dramatic footage, and guilt and sorrow at the human cost of the Croydon tram disaster, terrorist outrages, and, above all, Grenfell Tower.
In fact, their cameras were not out with the crews at the height of that tragedy: the programme had to rely on mobile-phone footage. More significantly, because of the trust they had earned from the firefighters themselves, we heard unusually frank testimony of what it is actually like to do such work: the adrenalin rush of the moment; the sense of failure when lives are lost; the psychological damage caused by what they have to see and do. “We do everything with love,” one of them said. It was inspiring, but, far more, extremely sobering.
The BBC’s Gay Britannia season is marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 partial discrimination of homosexual acts. I choose one out of a cornucopia of programmes: Queer As Art (BBC2, Saturday), which fielded a remarkable line-up of gay sculptors, actors, and musicians to tell the story of the past half-century and its astonishing transformation of public attitudes.
Pop music and TV soaps no doubt contributed more than high art; and more could have been made of the curious convention by which, 50 years ago, comedians and performers were enjoyed for being outrageously camp, yet everyone agreed it was simply an act they put on.
Perhaps it was the AIDS epidemic that forced the public at large to realise that many people were indeed “like that”, and should be accepted for who they were. One milestone in public sympathy was the courageous embrace of an AIDS patient by the subject of Diana, Our Mother: Her life and legacy (Channel 4, Monday of last week), a scoop in which Princes William and Harry spoke candidly not just about their childhood, but also about the continuing effect of her death.
This was an impressive portrait: the Princess’s immediate warmth, ability to put people at their ease, genuine concern, and stretching of royal protocol to breaking-point were all clearly illustrated. The very act of our watching compounds the paradox: we all condemn the relentless media intrusion that makes anything approaching a normal life impossible for the royal family, and yet lap up the programme that offers us privileged access.
Quasi-royalty who grabbed as much media attention as they possibly could were dissected in Dictators and Despots: A Timewatch guide (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). The back catalogue now contains enough material to provide illuminating analysis of how Mussolini, Hitler, Gaddafi, and Mugabe achieved and maintained their power; but what hindsight showed us was largely journalistic failure, missing the evil as it actually took place.