THERE can seldom have been a national commemoration to cause responses so diametrically opposed. For many, D-Day 75: The world remembers — a compilation programme of its footage of the Portsmouth commemoration and the Bayeux War Cemetery Service (BBC2, Thursday of last week) — was a vindication of the national values to which we must return: proud isolation, a vision of greatness springing from defiant separatism and absolute self-reliance, and a world where we dictate the terms.
Readers of this journal may, like me, draw a different conclusion. This was a triumph of collaboration, of partnership that demanded the always difficult skills of subordinating personal glory to a shared endeavour. Seeing the leaders of nations sharing the stage, each taking his or her turn to read a passage, was not so much a remembrance of the past as a vision of a longed-for future.
And not just the Allies: most significantly of all, perhaps, the leaders included the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, willing to acknowledge that her country had to be defeated so that justice, liberty, and peace could prevail. So, centre-stage were those most unfashionable virtues of contrition, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Such commemorations now include a far higher element of humility: the recognition that D-Day was the most prodigious gamble that could easily have led to utter catastrophe; and prominence given to the human cost, pity, and horror of war.
Sometimes, the themes of a programme are more significant than the quality of the show itself, and live on longer in the mind. Victorian Sensations with Philippa Perry: Seeing and believing, the third of a series built around newly restored contemporary footage from the British Film Archive (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), raised very interesting points. The astonishing explosion of 19th-century technologies moved faster than scientific theoretical understanding of why they actually worked.
Marconi’s demonstration of electromagnetic waves, of the ability to communicate invisibly, prompted wild speculation about what other conversations might be possible: in particular, in an age of very high death rates, across the boundary of the grave. Growing religious doubt went hand in hand with the development of photography: surely, for the first time, reality can now be fixed absolutely, and what is actually there recorded? In fact, trick and fake photographs grew alongside the genuine. There was a popular sub-genre of staged “ghost” pictures: i.e., photos as unreliable as paintings.
The most eminent scientists pursued psychic phenomena. Reliance on rationality alone proved no guarantee of discriminating the true from the false. Paradoxically, perhaps, faith is a far better pathway to what is genuine. Unfortunately, these important issues were diminished and undermined by a relentlessly sensationalist and jokey presentation.