Bob Monkhouse – Behind the Laughter

bob

I’ve recently, after a long break, uploaded some archive bits and bobs to my YouTube channel, including this two part documentary from 2003.

Sadly part one cuts out early (presumably there was a late schedule change and the timer let me down) whilst uploading part two is proving to be rather problematic, since BBC Worldwide appear to have a block on even short clips of Tony Hancock’s BBC shows.  Quite why they should be so protective of him is a bit of a mystery.  I’ll have another go at uploading part two – I’ll probably just cut the whole Hancock section out to be on the safe side.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, Monkhouse was reaching the end of his life and this might explain the downbeat tone of the piece.  Heroes of Comedy this certainly isn’t ….

But whilst Monkhouse does dwell on the self destructive nature of some of Britain’s comedy greats, he also acknowledges their undoubted skills  – even if, as with Frankie Howerd, he also admits that he never understood his appeal.

Part one tackles Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd.  There are no major revelations, since the frailties of Cooper, Hill and Howerd were already well known (had the recording not cut out I’d assume that the only living subject – Dodd – would have received an easier ride).  The most absorbing sections occur when Monkhouse relates his own personal experiences with his subjects.  Frankie Howerd, painted as an unpleasant sexual predator, certainly comes off worse here.

In part two, Monkhouse turns his attention to Morecambe & Wise, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock.  The character flaws of Sellers and Hancock were also very familiar, although again the personal touch from Monkhouse is of interest (he claims that Tony Hancock and Morecambe & Wise were rather condescending towards him).

Monkhouse’s comedy partner, Denis Goodwin, who took his own life at an early age, is also discussed, which fits into the general tone that comedy can be bitterly self-destructive.

Not always an easy watch then, but Bob Monkhouse doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind and – unlike some talking heads who have passed judgement on these people in other documentaries – at least he knew and worked with them.

 

Connections – Simply Media DVD Review

connections2

James Burke (b. 1936) first came to prominence on Tomorrow’s World during the mid sixties, where his relaxed and conversational tone provided a sharp counterpoint to his co-presenter, the more precise and patrician Raymond Baxter.  His profile on TW meant that he was an obvious pick for the BBC’s Apollo coverage – he would go on to helm numerous hours of live television alongside Patrick Moore and Cliff Michelmore.

After leaving TW in 1971, Burke moved onto his own series, The Burke Special (1972 – 76), in which he examined various aspects of modern life and conjectured how they might develop in the future.  Already in place was Burke’s trademark style of swiftly jumping from one subject to another and some of the topics covered – such as test tube babies and gun control – ensured that the series generated a certain level of controversy.

Burke then moved out of the studio and onto film for Connections (1978).  Subtitled An Alternative View of Change, it sought to challenge the accepted linear view of technological progress.  Burke would argue that no part of the modern world can be regarded in isolation – instead you need to track back through history to find apparently unconnected events which can be linked together in order to show a continuity of change.

This interdisciplinary approach wasn’t to all tastes and neither was Burke’s presenting style – contradicting himself or walking out of shot during mid-sentence, for example.  But it’s fair to say that Connections was a programme which made a deep impression on a section of its audience and – whether you disagree or agree with all his theories – still provides substantial food for thought.

This three disc set contains the following –

The Trigger Effect – Original broadcast 17th October 1978

Death in the Morning – Original broadcast 24th October 1978

Distant Voices – Original broadcast 31st October 1978

Faith in Numbers – Original broadcast 7th November 1978

The Wheel of Fortune – Original broadcast 14th November 1978

Thunder in the Skies – Original broadcast 21st November 1978

The Long Chain – Original broadcast 28th November 1978

Eat, Drink and Be Merry – Original broadcast 5th December 1978

Countdown – Original broadcast 12th December 1978

Yesterday, Tomorrow and You  – Original broadcast 19th December 1978

connections-01

Burke’s idiosyncratic style is clear right from the opening moments of The Trigger Effect. He asks the audience (“would you do me a favour?”) to consider all the man-made objects in the room where they’re sitting (television, lights, etc) and the impact they have on their lives. He then moves out of shot, leaving an empty frame for a few seconds, an obvious visual cue which gives the audience some “thinking time”. It’s a good example of the way Burke challenges the viewers not to be passive observers, but instead to interact with the arguments and theories he’s generating.

In addition to Burke’s sometimes provocative statements, Connections boasts impressive visuals, thanks to the skills of director Mick Jackson. Jackson’s later and very varied CV includes the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard, the devastating nuclear drama Threads and the Ray McAnally political serial A Very British Coup.

Connections allowed Jackson a wide palette in which to craft some striking images.  And he was granted a very healthy budget – the series took fourteen months to shoot, travelled to nineteen countries and took in a hundred and fifty individual locations along the way.

Jackson’s eye for the unusual can be seen in the first episode as even the simple act of Burke travelling in a lift is presented in a memorable way. But this isn’t simply gloss for the sake of it – Burke makes the point that just as we have become increasingly dependent on technology, so our understanding of how it works has decreased sharply. Does he know how a lift works? No, he just accepts that it does.

I take going up in the world like that for granted. We all do. And as the years of the 20th century have gone by, the things we take for granted have multiplied way beyond the ability of any individual to understand in a lifetime. The things around us, the man-made inventions we provide ourselves with, are like a vast network, each part of which is interdependent with all the others.

This increasing dependency on technology is examined during The Trigger Effect as Burke looks back to a massive power-cut which engulfed New York in 1965. With discordant music (courtesy of Richard Yeoman-Clarke from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the help of those who were present, re-enacting their roles, it’s presented in highly a dramatic fashion.

connections-02

“What does survival without technology look like?”. Burke effectively paints a nightmarish picture of the stuggles inherent in existing in a world without electricity (tapping into many of the themes developed in numerous post-apocalyptic dramas, such as Survivors) and then links this back to show how previous civilizations, such as the Ancient Egyptians, could be said to have been the first technological nations. He therorises that once an invention – such as the plough – is created, it must inevitably lead to further inventions through the ages (even if the connection between them isn’t immediately apparent).

The series’ aims are restated at the start of Death in the Morning.  Burke reflects that because knowledge of the future is impossible, tracing a modern man-made object back thousands of years is somewhat akin to a historical detective story, with twists and wrong turns along the way. He sets things up nicely by teasing us that the modern intention of this edition “affects the life of every man, woman and child on Earth” but doesn’t say what it is. Instead, his story begins two and a half thousand years earlier in the Eastern Mediterranean and is concerned with money, but will have become something totally different when we reach the present day. How we get from there to here, the intuitive leaps Burke makes and the visual imagery along the way, all help to make this a typically captivating instalment.

Highlights of later episodes include Burke’s imaginative arguments which connect the Little Ice Age of 1250 – 1300 AD to a whole host of later inventions, including the chimney and diverse objects as buttons and knitting (episode six, Thunder In The Skies).  Also of interest is Eat, Drink and Be Merry, which discusses how modern credit – the plastic credit card – can be traced back to the Dukes of Burgandy, the first state to use credit.  This then springboards into the problems of keeping food fresh (a particular issue for large armies in the nineteenth century) and Burke then presses on to show how these innovations led to the Saturn V rocket which took men to the moon.

The final edition, Yesterday, Tomorrow and You, neatly summaries everything that we’ve learnt in the series to date and returns to a theme posed by Burke posed at the start of the series, concerning the way that the world is developing increasingly advanced technology at a rate faster than our ability to understand it.  Should we be concerned about this, or just accept that change is inevitable?

With its globe-trotting camerawork, Connections engages on several levels.  Not only is it a visual treat, but it’s an intellectual one as well.  It may flit from subject to subject, but James Burke remains the series’ solid centre and his quirky approach helps to ensure that the series is much more than a series of dry lectures.  Picture quality is what you’d expect from material of this era – had fresh prints been struck from the negatives it could have looked much better, but as always it’s a question of cost.  What we have is perfectly watchable though.

Nearly four decades on, the series still engages, entertains and stimulates – a testament to the work of James Burke, Mick Jackson and the whole production team.  Warmly recommended.

Connections is released by Simply Media on the 7th of February 2016.  RRP £24.99.

connections 03.jpg

Another Six English Towns – Simply Media DVD Review

another

Another Six English Towns, originally broadcast in 1984, was the third and final series in which Alec Clifton-Taylor cast his expert eye over the architectural merits of a variety of English towns.  My review of the first two series can be found here.

The format remains unchanged.  Architectural historian Clifton-Taylor inspects the streets and notable buildings of each town, dispensing approbation or disfavour as he sees fit and quietly applauding those towns which have managed to preserve their status without recourse to the horrors of modern life (high rise buildings and pebbledash being two particular bête noires of his!).

We open in Cirencester, the capital of the Cotswolds, which finds Clifton-Taylor in an approving mood.  He’s particularly taken with the pleasing mixture of styles on display, commenting that “in the market place, the buildings burst forth into a chorus of painted stucco”.  The town’s mansion, Cirencester House, complete with a ten thousand acre park, also catches his eye.

Up next is the fishing town of Whitby, which nestles on the North East coast.  The ruins of Whitby Abbey are striking and whilst St Mary’s Church may look somewhat unprepossessing from the outside, inside it’s quite a different matter.  Clifton-Taylor regards it as “a thrill. Absolutely unforgettable. Not a work of art, but a most illuminating social document.”

Bury St Edmonds has an impressive collection of Georgian buildings, created with different varieties of coloured clay, although Clifton-Taylor is a little miffed that “they are so smothered with Virginia creeper that one can hardly see what colour they are!”  This town has rich pickings elsewhere though – the town hall (reconstructed by the notable eighteenth century architect Robert Adam) appeals, as does the Theatre Royal, designed by William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery.

Clifton-Taylor travels to Wiltshire for the fourth episode, his destination being Devizes.  He’s saddened that the twelfth century castle no longer remains (on the site is something he dubs as a pantomime recreation from the Victorian period) and reacts in horror when he sees that some of the eighteenth century timber houses have recently “been smothered with that most repellent material – pebbledash!”

He remains in a slightly caustic mood when he reaches Sandwich, sorrowfully reflecting that the original character of some of the 16th century brickwork has been submerged under fresh coats of paint.  But the Salutation, a house and garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869 – 1944), is much more to his taste.  Clifton-Taylor has little hesitation in regarding him as “the greatest English architect of the last 100 years”

The series concludes with Durham.  He’s impressed with the Cathedral, especially the vaults, which have remained unchanged for eight and a half centuries.  Clifton-Taylor is also taken with a public convenience, built in 1841, concluding that “few loos, surely, can hold their heads so high!”.  An idiosyncratic, but delightful, moment.

A lovely snapshot of six English towns frozen in time some thirty years ago, Another Six English Towns will certainly appeal both to those who have already collected the first two series, as well as anyone who is familiar with the featured locations and wishes to compare then to now.

Shot on 16mm film, the picture quality is on a par with the earlier releases.  The prints are rather faded and dirty in places, but still perfectly watchable.

Alec Clifton-Taylor maintains the persona of a kindly headmaster, eager to give credit where it’s due, but also quite capable of expressing irritation and exasperation (albeit with his impeccable manners always intact).  An impressive series of travelogues, Another Six English Towns also educates and informs, as Clifton-Taylor is effortlessly able to show how different periods of architecture can live side by side in harmony (or not, as the case may be!)

Another Six English Towns is released by Simply Media on the 23rd of January 2017.  RRP £19.99.

towns

Six English Towns/Six More English Towns – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

Originally broadcast on BBC2 during August and September 1978, Six English Towns saw Alec Clifton-Taylor cast his experienced eye over the following towns – Chichester, Richmond, Tewkesbury, Stamford, Totnes and Ludlow.

Clifton-Taylor (1907 – 1985) had been a respected, if fairly obscure, architectural historian, so it may have come as something of a surprise to him that fairly late in life he became a recognisable television figure.  It’s easy to see why this happened though – he had a pleasingly direct style and his ease in front of the camera meant that he was able to deliver both brickbats and bouquets in an authoritative, but accessible, way.  Put simply, Alec Clifton-Taylor had the air of a faintly distracted schoolmaster who dispensed learning lightly but with passion.

At the start of the first edition he sets out exactly what he’s aiming to do.  “These are not guidebook programmes. Our main concern will be with buildings and especially with houses. I’d like every programme to be an exercise in looking.  Looking at the changing styles and fashions.  And at the traditional building materials of England.”

One of Clifton-Taylor’s abiding interests was the way that towns prior to the industrial age used materials which were readily at hand.  He therefore had some criticism of the Victorian era, since the age of steam meant that materials could be transported around the country with an ease that simply hadn’t been possible before – therefore the characteristic look of towns began to fade a little.

When visiting Chichester he says that “the cathedral apart, brick and flint are what give Chichester its essential character, the right materials in the right place.” He’s therefore delighted to find examples of good brickwork – and this moment is one that gives pause for thought.  We may pass similar buildings each day without giving them a second glance, but one of Clifton-Taylor’s skills was to find interest in what may appear to be commonplace.  And after watching the series it’s made me appreciate the buildings in my area a little more – how different styles and eras may exist side by side, for example.

When watching the series now it’s impossible not to wonder how the towns look today.  Clifton-Taylor had forthright opinions on how modern buildings (especially high-rise ones) shouldn’t encroach on the old.  Sadly, I’m sure that some of the places he visited over the course of three series have lost some of the features which so pleased him.  When visiting Richmond, he was taken with the way that the old railway station had been sympathetically turned into a garden centre.  He comments that it’s “a shining example of what enterprise and imagination can do to save an excellent building no longer required for its original purpose.” It’s therefore pleasing to note that the building still exists today and – following the closure of the garden centre in 2001 – now serves the community as a heritage centre.

The remainder of the first series has plenty of interest. The House of the Nodding Gables in Tewkesbury, the impressive churches of Stamford and Totnes’ slate decorated houses are just a few examples. The final edition of the series, Ludlow, saw Clifton-Taylor visit his favourite town and there was plenty which appealed to him there.  Ludlow exemplifies his concept of a pattern of building – stone for the church, the bridges and the castle, wood for the medieval houses and brick for the houses of the Georgian period.  He’s less impressed with some of the Victorian additions though.

Six More English Towns followed three years later in 1981.  This time Clifton-Taylor visited Warwick, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Saffron Walden, Lewes, Bradford on Avon and Beverley.

The opening episode has some predictable highlights, such as Warwick Castle, but less well-known buildings – such as Lord Leycester Hospital – are of just as much interest.  He wasn’t at all enamoured with the modern council building though – a monstrosity in concrete which obscures views of the impressive-looking church.

Berwick-upon-Tweed finds Clifton-Taylor appreciating the character of the town even if there’s nothing of outstanding importance or interest, although some of the architectural flourishes don’t really meet with his approval.  “Even the carved lions on the gate piers seem perplexed”.  Elsewhere, he’s not impressed with the amount of traffic which flows through Saffron-Walden, declaring that most of it should be “firmly re-routed.”  The series closes with Clifton-Taylor’s visit to Beverley, North Humberside, of which the medieval Minster church is of special interest to him.

A third and final series, Another Six English Towns, would follow in 1984 and this will be issued on DVD in early 2017.

Six English Towns/Six More English Towns won’t be everybody’s cup of tea – a man wanders about looking at buildings – but if you’re interested in history, architecture or English towns then there’s plenty which should catch your attention.

Six English Towns was released on the 12th of September 2016 and Six More English Towns will be released on the 7th of November 2016.  Both have a RRP of £19.99.

towns

Somewhere at Sea/Back at Sea/All at Sea – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

This trilogy of programmes – Somewhere at Sea/Back at Sea/All at Sea – charts the leisurely journey of Timothy Spall and his wife Shane as they take their 50 foot Dutch barge, the Princess Matilda, on a trip around the British coast.

Broadcast between 2010 and 2012, it’s a treat from start to finish.  The gorgeous camerawork is a major plus point, but a large part of the series’ appeal is down to Spall and Shane.  Gleefully admitting right at the start that he’s never had a sailing lesson in his life (everything he’s learnt has come from books) he’s a genial enthusiast who effortlessly draws the viewer in.

The shows are the antithesis of travel programmes such as Around the World in 80 Days.  There we saw Michael Palin racing against the clock, whereas here there are no time restraints at all.  And if you think that three years is a long time to travel around the British isles, they’d actually started out on this journey some four years before the cameras started rolling!

Despite the fact that they have a camera crew in tow, the programmes have the feeling of being completely unplanned.  They know their destination, but it’s the unexpected obstacles they encounter along the way which makes for entertaining television.

This is evident from the opening episode of Somewhere at Sea, as the Princess Matilda makes its way to Falmouth.  Spall is looking for a berth for six weeks, as he needs to pop off to make a film, but after deciding not to book ahead he’s disappointed to find there’s no room at the inn.  They eventually find somewhere to haul anchor, but there are further problems to come.

After completing his film, Spall is keen to set off and navigate around the Lizard (a dangerous stretch of water which isn’t for the faint-hearted).  But poor weather scuppers his plans and if things don’t improve he and Shane face the prospect of having to sit out the winter in Cornwall.

As the weather’s no good for sailing they decide to explore the local landscape.  An impressive country church catches his eye and he takes the opportunity to quietly meditate.  Shane explains that following his illness (Spall was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1996 but has since been in remission) he’s always had an affinity with churches.  It’s a moment that could easily come over as sentimental and mawkish, but Spall’s directness and honesty shines through.

6889

The second episode sees them finally make their way around the Lizard.  It was clear that the thought of navigating such a challenging stretch of water was a concern for Spall, but a pep talk from the local lifeboat crew buoyed him up (if you’ll forgive the pun).  His boyish enthusiasm as he takes the wheel of their lifeboat (which cost two million pounds, funded entirely from donations) is rather delightful.

Things take a slight downward turn in the final episode of the first series as a number of problems take their toll.  First their anchor breaks and then Spall, making his way into Padstow harbour, sinks a marker buoy. Shane is far from impressed and makes this plain to her husband, although the pair soon make up.

Back at Sea opens with the Princess Matilda docked at Penarth, Wales. It’s been there for the winter, but now that spring’s arrived the Princess Matilda is able to set sail once more. Spall’s rather anxious though – the barge has been in dock for six months and the prospect of tackling the tricky Irish Sea fills him with a certain amount of dread. Once again this provides the viewer with a good example of Spall’s character. Many actors would find it impossible not to continue acting when the cameras were on them (playing the part of the stoic captain) but Spall’s fears and vulnerabilities are always on view.

The second episode of series two sees them visit Liverpool and then move onto Lancashire. But things again don’t quite go to plan. Spall drifts off course, which means he misses the high tide and is therefore unable to reach the safety of Glasson port. So they’re forced to drop anchor out at sea overnight, which Spall says was “a mixture of fun and horror”. But a trip the next day to buy some kippers cheers him up!

The remainder of the second series sees the Princess Matilda visit the Isle of Man (where they meet up with their son Rafe), Belfast and then deep into Scotland. By the time Back at Sea draws to a close, Spall and Shane are slightly more than halfway through their round-Britain trip, which sets things up the third series, All at Sea, nicely.

All at Sea opens with the Princess Matilda battling the North Sea around the coast of Scotland. It’s by far the roughest weather they’ve encountered so far, but they eventually reach their destination, Stonehaven harbour. They move on almost straightaway though and Spall confesses that the ever-changing weather is “doing my head in”. The stresses of the North Sea are clearly taking their toll.

But their greatest problems are not to be found in the bitter weather off the coast of Scotland, but rather closer to home. Heading to Chatham Marina in Kent, Spall had to call the Coastguard for assistance after losing his way. An RNLI lifeboat was dispatched and they were able to guide the Princess Matilda to her destination. Prior to their arrival we see Spall getting more and more frayed around the edges, which certainly provides a dramatic end to the series.

Also during All at Sea, Spall visits Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city that effectively treated him like one of their own after the success of Auf Wiedersehen Pet. Melanie Hill, who played Hazel in the show, pops aboard for a tour around the docks.

With oodles of breathtaking scenary, Spall’s self deprecating humour and a soundtrack of classic 1930’s and 1940’s tunes, all three series are perfect viewing for the armchair mariner.

Somewhere at Sea was released on the 29th of August 2016.  Back at Sea will be released on the 3rd of October 2016.  All at Sea will be released on the 7th of November.  All three titles cost £12.99 each.

6892

Full Steam Ahead -RLJ/Acorn DVD Review

6828

Many people, including myself, have a certain fascination with steam engines.  When the Flying Scotsman made a recent trip through my neck of the woods I did make the effort to see it (although since I have a railway line at the bottom of my garden I didn’t have to venture very far!)

Today it’s easy to view the age of steam through nostalgic eyes – it seems to transport us back to a simpler, slower and less cluttered age.  The reality is very different however.  The steam age heralded an intense period of change in British life – as virtually every aspect (from trade and transportation to health and recreation) was reshaped.

So whilst part of the attraction of Full Steam Ahead is the chance to see an impressive selection of engines chugging their way through the picturesque British landscape, there’s also many painless history lessons to be learnt along the way.

Ruth Goodman, Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn are old hands at this sort of thing (thanks to series such as Victorian Farm and Edwardian Farm).  As with all popular historians they are enthusiastic and engaged, although they also manage to impart a great deal of factual knowledge.  In addition, they delight in attempting many tasks both directly and indirectly connected with the railways.  Driving steam engines is clearly great fun, whilst some of the other jobs are harder and much more labour intensive (a reminder that the railways only came into being thanks to the sweat and toil of tens of thousands of workers).

It’s sobering to stop and think just how disconnected Britain was before the railways.  Since there was no easy way to transport bulky goods and materials around the country, it was perfectly normal that everything a person owned would have been made within, say, a ten mile radius of their home.

The age of steam (and mass production) brought an end to this way of life and created the consumer society.  Now people were able to buy the same goods anywhere in the country and many local trades (thatchers, wheelwrights) began to die out.  When Ruth Goodman says that the steam age had a far greater impact on British society in Victorian times than the internet has in recent decades, it’s easy to see what she means.

Produced in association with the Open University, Full Steam Ahead runs for six episodes, each of sixty minutes duration. The narrator is Philip Glenister.

Episode One – Ruth, Alex and Peter begin their exploration of the steam age by learning how it shaped domestic life, from slate roofing tiles to coal fires.

Episode Two – Alex and Peter become navvys in order to understand precisely how the railways were built.  This episode also discusses how the first passenger trains came into being. I love the notion that it all happened after the railway owners spotted workers hitching a ride on the coal trucks. This created a lightbulb moment as they realised there might be money to be made from ferrying passengers about!

Episode Three – Another way in which the railways transformed British life is detailed here, namely diet.  Before the railways, the country was struggling to feed itself – the age of steam saw a culinary revolution.

Episode Four – Ruth, Alex and Peter take a trip on the most famous locomotive of them all, the Flying Scotsman, to understand how the railways facilitated the transportation and delivery of mail.

Episode Five – Life on the railways before Dr Beeching is looked at, whilst Ruth examines the work of the GWR prosthetic limb department.

Episode Six – The series concludes with an examination of how cheap rail travel opened up freedom of movement for working-class Victorians.  No longer tied to the city or towns where they lived and worked, they could now venture further afield.

Apart from being a visual treat, Full Steam Ahead can also be used as a stepping stone for further learning.  The Open University’s webpage has further reading materials, as well as the chance to obtain a free double-sided poster detailing many of the aspects from the programme.

The DVD includes two special features – a ten minute behind the scenes documentary and a photo gallery.  All episodes are subtitled.

Full Steam Ahead is a fascinating series and comes warmly recommended.  It’s released by RLJ/Acorn on the 5th of September 2016.  RRP £19.99.

6819

World War Two: 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly – Simply Media DVD Review

164454- Chief Crazy Horse Sleeve.indd

In 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly, Professor David Reynolds re-examines the North African and Italian campaigns of WW2.  He starts by posing a question.  “Why did we and the Americans spend a lot of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, rather than crossing the Channel?”

If the main battleground was Russia, they surely the next key area was to be found in occupied Europe – so why was Churchill obsessed with campaigns in North Africa and Italy?  Reynolds is able to produce a number of convincing arguments.  As a man of Empire, Churchill understood the importance of Egypt – if the Suez Canal was lost, then Britain faced ruin.  But there were also more pragmatic reasons – neither the British or the Americans had the capability to launch a full-scale assault across the English Channel and into France in 1942.  But Churchill needed a victory, any victory, in order to shore up morale.

Given that defeat had already followed defeat for the British since 1939, another failure (he envisaged a bloodbath of the scale of the Somme if they attempted a landing in France) might have spelled the end.  Possibly not for the British war effort but certainly for him as leader, as the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps and Anthony Eden were circling.  The perilous state of Churchill’s own personal standing during this period is a matter of historical fact, but since it often gets overlooked it’s an interesting area to explore.

So once Monty scored a victory at El Alamein, Tunisia and Italy began to look like tempting prospects – offfering the British and Americans chances to score what should have been easy victories.  Surely Hitler would be too occupied with Russia to be able to adequately defend these theatres of war?

6756

It wasn’t to be and Reynolds declares that Churchill’s bright idea would become a dark obsession.  Partly this was because Churchill underestimated Hitler, but the British prime minister also received faulty intelligence.  The work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park has become well known during the last few decades, but Reynolds shows that they weren’t infallible.  Often this was because they didn’t have access to the top level of German high command and given the chaotic nature of the German command structure (thanks to Hitler’s knack of micro-managing) the information they received, whilst not deliberately inaccurate, wasn’t correct either.

David Reynolds is an engaging guide.  You get the sense that he relishes being away from his day job (as a professor of International History at Cambridge) and that he also enjoys throwing some quirky scenes into what otherwise might be a fairly dry viewing experience.

He opens the first episode with a fairly conventional piece to camera, except that he’s walking along a beach, his trousers rolled up and the waves lapping at his feet!  He also can’t resist doing the voices of the various players (his conversation between Monty and Churchill is one such amusing moment) and another comic touch occurs when he describes an interesting meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Churchill was a guest in the White House and, returning to his bedroom after a visit to the bathroom, was slightly surprised to find the president in his room.  Dressed in only a towel, Churchill told Roosevelt that “the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States” and promptly dropped the towel.  Reynolds re-enacts this scene although thankfully he was fully clothed.

The occasional moments of levity don’t detract from the fact that Reynolds is an authoritative historian who seems to delight in reaching out to a wide audience.  Across the two 45 minute episodes he’s able to succinctly sketch out all of the key points from this period of the war, sometimes offering a fresh outlook on familiar topics (but always giving well argued reasons for his statements).

A ninety minute television documentary can never hope to have the same scope as a reasonably detailed book (and Reynolds’ own writings are recommended for those who want to dig a little deeper) but 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly (like his other documentaries available on DVD – 1941 and the Man of Steel and Long Shadow) are all fine examples of popular history documentaries.

1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly is released by Simply Media on the 5th of September 2016.  RRP £19.99.

6755