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TV review: The Australian Wars, The Remarkable Journey of Bernard Levin, and Ghosts

24 November 2023

BBC/First Wars Productions Pty Ltd/Dylan River

Rachel Perkins at the Australian War Memorial, in The Australian Wars (BBC4, three episodes Tuesdays, from 7 November)

Rachel Perkins at the Australian War Memorial, in The Australian Wars (BBC4, three episodes Tuesdays, from 7 November)

REMEMBRANCE-TIDE was given salutary resonance by the three-part documentary The Australian Wars (BBC4, Tuesdays, from 7 November). It opened at the Australian War Memorial, for the fallen of two world wars. But the presenter, Rachel Perkins, shocked us with an uncommemorated reality: as many Australians — 100,000 — were killed in wars fought not abroad, but on Australian soil.

Alongside historians, archivists, and descendants of the fallen, she forced us to recognise the truth about the British takeover of this vast continent. It did not contain lands that were essentially empty, uncared-for wastes, waiting for enlightened Christian agriculturalists to tame and make productive. Rather, they were deeply loved ancestral homelands that sustained a roving population governed by ancient law and custom, with rich art and culture.

Despite protestations and professed intentions of dealing fairly with Aboriginals, it was determined that they had no property rights; so, negotiating a treaty with them would not be possible. The second episode dealt with Tasmania, where the steady wiping-out of its natives can surely be classed as nothing other than genocide. Pretentions to white British superiority — backed up by recourse to scripture and Christian faith — have never sounded so hollow. Alongside the Somme, these Australian killing fields deserve remembrance — except that we Brits were on the wrong side.

For those of us of a certain age, The Remarkable Journey of Bernard Levin (BBC4, Sunday 12 November) was an exercise in delightful nostalgia. From the 1950s, he was one of the most celebrated journalists and reviewers, pushing the boundaries of what could be said and how. Instead of the prevailing detached objectivity, he revelled in rudely puncturing pomposity, standing up for dissidents, exposing fraudsters, and calling politicians and public services to account. He had deep and wide knowledge, especially of music, art, opera, and gourmet dining; and he loved, as the many tributes said, all the finer things in life. But are they, really, so fine? Perhaps there are some other virtues that are rather less self-indulgent? I am afraid that I began to hear tones of intellectual snobbery, a solitary arrogance allied to his refusal of emotional commitment.

Farewell, then, Ghosts. BBC1 broadcast its final episode (apart from a Christmas special) on 10 November. Five series surely stretched the theme far further than reasonable, treading water, marking time, resorting to plot fillers. Yet, Ghosts has drawn an unexpectedly satisfying gallery of farcical British stereotypes — repressed army officer, besotted romantic poet, illiterate neanderthal, naïve scoutmaster, venal and philandering Conservative MP — who, together, have created a rich comic repertory of jealousies and scheming rivalries, as the not yet departed deceased collide with the living. Occasionally, we have been brought up short by unexpected forgiveness, generosity — and even grace.

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