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TV review: World On Fire, Defending the Guilty, and Scarborough

11 October 2019

BBC/© Mammoth Screen 2018

A still from the BBC programme World On Fire

A still from the BBC programme World On Fire

MOST of us will be all too familiar with the experience of taking a funeral in an empty church, but few will have tried conducting obsequies in a ruined shell. This unlikely scenario was dramatic reinforcement of the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the deceased a victim of foul Wehrmacht brutality. World On Fire (BBC1, Sundays), now two episodes in, retells the UK’s favourite myth — abject defeat during the Second World War transformed into plucky victory — from an unfamiliar angle: the suffering of Poland.

Being reminded of the misery of central Europe valuably corrects our predominantly insular perspective, and a starry cast give their all as the tragedy unfolds. Unfortunately, the author has also decided to give us everything, too; so no conceivable aspect of the genre is missing, teetering on the edge of cliché. There is a hardbitten but idealistic female American journalist; a bitter and uptight upper-class Englishwomen; her naïve son, only too ready to fall in love; the gorgeous mill-girl; her First World War shell-shocked pacifist father; his wastrel son; the doomed but magnificent Poles, two of whom, against all the odds, will surely find a way to fight on; and, to cap it all, a black homosexual jazz singer who is hoping that, somehow, bars and clubs in Paris will offer him adequate protection against the Germans.

Some tips: cut the plotlines by half; focus on just a few themes and give them room to breathe; and spend your energy sharpening up the dialogue, making it closer to how people actually thought and spoke in the 1940s. For all that, it’s powerful and moving, and proof that the story of Europe is our story, too.

Defending the Guilty would, I suppose, be rather a neat way to describe the work of our Lord, but, in BBC2’s comedy series, it denotes the calling of trainee barristers (Tuesdays). We might recognise some parallels with fledgling clergy: idealism becoming tempered by professional expediency; the development of a — shall we say — cynical attitude to some of the clients; and the growth of a hard carapace to shield the vulnerable reality within.

The humour here spans a wide spectrum, from gentle comedy to outright farce (surely no pupil master can be that overwhelmingly incompetent, no senior barrister so openly Machiavellian in pursuit of ambition and influence?). As the pupils make their first solo court appearances (preachers, think of your first ever sermon), last week’s episode permitted itself a higher proportion of heart-warming sympathy and humanity — even a glimpse of justice being done.

Good-heartedness similarly triumphs in Scarborough (BBC1, Fridays). Northeastern seaside towns will always get a sympathetic reaction from me; but this, in its gentle way, is a superior sitcom. The characters are sharply drawn and realised, and the stories are pushed beyond realism: northern bathos and put down are firmly in control.

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