The US and the Holocaust – BBC 4

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This three two-hour episode Ken Burns film made for some very uncomfortable viewing at times, and was clearly meant to.  I don’t think it was meant as direct criticism of the US, but it certainly raised some questions about isolationism and tight immigration controls at a time when the media’s full of reports of terrible persecution.  Viewers were informed that, even after the war, when people had seen the newsreels showing what had happened at the concentration camps, polls showed that most Americans opposed admitting refugees.  It also reminded the viewer of some of the less savoury elements in parts of American society, ending with footage of recent hate crimes and the storming of Congress.  There was certainly a great deal to think about.

The first episode, about the situation up to 1938, didn’t say anything that I didn’t already know.  I studied US immigration history in depth at university, so I knew all about the quota-based system and the eugenics-based arguments behind it.   The revival of the Ku Klux Klan, the WASP-only clubs, hotels and even housing estates, the German-American Bund, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic propaganda, Charles Lindbergh’s American First movement … it was all familiar.  But hearing it all together, in this context, was definitely food for thought.   It was even pointed out that Hitler admired the Jim Crow laws and the deportation of Native Americans from their homelands.

The programme did try to present a balanced view, and it was made clear that, the majority of people in the US were horrified when reports of persecution began to come in, especially after Kristallnacht.  And the US did take in more refugees from Nazi-controlled lands than any other country, and there were some major anti-Nazi protests.   As the programme pointed out, organisations in the US which wanted to help were in a difficult position, with Hitler claiming that anything they did showed that Jews controlled American politics.  There was, however, also a fear that too much open protest by Jewish groups would lead to a rise in domestic anti-Semitism.

It was Roosevelt who called the Evian Conference to discuss the refugee crisis.   Pretty much every country represented there refused to do any more to help.

There were some absolutely heartrending accounts, mainly told through first person interviews with elderly people who’d been children at the time, of desperate attempts to bring loved ones to safety in America, only to be thwarted by red tape and demands for unaffordable financial bonds.  There were also accounts from Holocaust survivors, including Anne Frank’s stepsister.  It wasn’t just the quota system: it was the need to prove that the individual wouldn’t be a burden on the state.  It was a far cry from “Give me … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”.  What vision of America did people actually have?   Or do visions not matter, only practicalities?  Unrestricted immigration isn’t practical, but should exceptions be made when people are clearly refugees, not economic migrants?   These are difficult subjects, and there was a lot of food for thought in this.   And of course it wasn’t just America.  Other countries did little to help either.

You got the feeling that FDR, left to himself, might have eased immigration controls, and brought the US into the war earlier.  But he was working in the face of overwhelming isolationist feeling amongst the American public.   Given the loss of American life in the Great War and the problems caused by the Depression, that was understandable.   It’s not the United States’ job to be the world’s policeman.   But was it her duty to stand up against the Nazis?

Of course, Pearl Harbour brought the US into the war, against the Nazis as well as against Japan.  By 1942, reports of mass killings were coming in, from prisoners who’d managed to escape and from the Polish Resistance, and then from Soviet forces as they advanced westwards.   There were some calls to prioritise trying to rescue prisoners, but the authorities felt that they had to concentrate on winning the war – and, at that point, Allied planes would have to have left from Britain and wouldn’t have been able to reach Poland.   Once the Allies were in control of Italy, the planes would have been able to reach the concentration camps, but didn’t have the precision to guarantee that they’d hit the gas chambers and not the housing blocks.

A poll in early 1943 showed that over half of Americans didn’t believe the reports of mass killings of Jews.   Even when the Soviets liberated Kyiv and American photographers took pictures at Babyn Yar, some of the American press presented the reports as Soviet propaganda.  It was stated by the programme that the government didn’t want people to feel that the war was being fought for Jews, in case that damaged morale.  I was expecting someone to point out a parallel with the Union side in the Civil War there, not making it a war about slavery – “Let us die to make men free”?? – but no-one did.   Most shocking was the attitude of the State department, which deliberately suppressed reports of atrocities which the Polish Resistance managed to smuggled into Switzerland, and stalled moves by the World Jewish Congress to send funds to help Jews in Hungary and Romania, then not under direct Nazi control.

By this point, the programme showed us, American Jewish groups were lobbying for action to stop the mass murder of European Jews, including a number of large scale rallies.   Eventually, in 1944, Roosevelt set up a War Refugee Board, which worked with diplomats from neutral countries to gain their protection for Jews in Hungary, and also bombed Hungary in a move to stop deportations.   After US reporters sent home pictures from Majdanek, liberated by the Soviets, people accepted that something truly horrific was happening, even if they couldn’t quite take in the scale of it.

When it came to the liberation of the camps and the end of the war, the programme did move away from American attitudes and focused on the accounts of the survivors, and of veterans who’d been amongst the liberators and one of the men who’d been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.   But then it told us that, even then, public opinion in America was against admitting refugees, and reminded us that the quota system didn’t end until 1965.

Then it finished with footage of some of the hate crimes and extremist marches which have taken place in the US very recently, and of the storming of Congress.   I honestly don’t think that this was meant as an attack on the US, which I love, which I’m sure Ken Burns, his fellow film makers and all those involved in the making the programme love, but it was a reminder that we – in the UK and everywhere else, as well as in the US – don’t always see what’s happening abroad as our problem, and that there are dangerous elements even within our own societies.  If you’ve read all that, thank you.  If you want to watch it all, it was shown in the US last year, and has been shown in both the UK and Australia, and possibly elsewhere as well, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow.   It’s long and sometimes chilling, but it’s worth watching.

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Stock Aitken Waterman: Legends of Pop – Channel 5

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Back in the day, it was considered a bit uncool to like Stock Aitken Waterman songs; but everyone did anyway.   How could you not?   They were just so catchy!   The trio are probably most associated with their big hits of the late ’80s and early ’90s, working with either unknowns, like Rick Astley and Sonia, or soap actors looking to break into the music business, like Kylie and Jason.   But they worked with some big name established acts too, people like Bananarama and Donna Summer, who went to them because they admired their success.

This first episode focused on their early years, how they got together and some of their early singles.   It went into quite a lot of technical detail, which was something different, but it was largely an exercise in ’80s music nostalgia.  And, hey, I’m always up for a bit of that!  Loving this, thank you Channel 5!

How the Holocaust Began – BBC 2

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There are a number of Holocaust-related programmes on this week, leading up to Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday.  This one focused on the mass shootings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen as Nazi troops advanced into the Soviet Union, and the complicity of many local people in those massacres.  It made for chilling viewing.

It included aerial photographs and film shot by the Nazis, and records showing the numbers of people killed in each mass shooting.  Many of the graves have never been found, but an American team’s working on locating them, using radio wave and imaging technology as well as the film and photos.  We saw some of their work.

The programme followed the route of one of the four teams of Einsatzgruppen.   So many burial sites, some of them very close to town and village centres, exist, and the numbers killed are so high, that one team of Einsatzgruppen couldn’t have rounded up and killed them all.   It’s known that some local people were complicit in the killings.   Presenter James Bulgin spoke to a woman whose relatives were killed by fellow Lithuanians from their own town.  Local people could also be seen on the photos, watching – as James said, as if it were some sort of spectator sport.

James spoke to a 97-year-old lady who witnessed one of the massacres: it took place in a field next to her home, in a town where 80% of the population was Jewish.  We heard how local people forced the Jewish population to the killing site, and Lithuanian policemen then carried out the shootings.  The locals then looted the homes of the murdered.

I think the idea of the programme was partly a reminder that the Holocaust didn’t begin with organised death camps, and partly a reminder that many local people participated in the massacres.   A Lithuanian author spoke of the abuse she’s received since publishing a book on the subject.

It wasn’t just Lithuania: it was Latvia and Ukraine as well.   I’ve been to Babyn Yar, or Babi Yar to use the more familiar Russian name.  There’s a memorial there now, but there wasn’t then.  The programme showed a filmed account given by a survivor.   It’s the best known of the massacres, but it was only one of many.

James explained that, until late 1941, there’d been no programme of mass shootings in Poland.   And that there was concern about the mental health of the soldiers carrying out the shootings.   He then met a team working to uncover burial trenches in Poland where people were forced into pits and covered with boiling quicklime.   As he said, the idea of a Final Solution had been formulated but they were testing different methods of killing.

They eventually, of course, concluded that the answer was gas chambers – first used in 1939, on disabled people.  And so the death camps were set up.

This was truly horrible.   It can’t be very nice for the teams working to find the mass graves, but they’re doing a job which they feel is very important.   And, as James concluded, what happened wouldn’t have been possible without collaborators.   All in all, an interesting but chilling hour’s TV.

No Place Like Home – Channel 5

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I get very excited whenever a TV programme mentions the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, as this one did!!  I don’t usually watch this series, but I made an exception to see Victoria Derbyshire revisiting her childhood haunts in Bury, Rochdale and Littleborough, and enjoyed every minute of it.

It started by talking about a tannery works in Littleborough, which was founded by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and produced two-thirds of the leather used in Army boots during the Second World War.   Then it was on to central Rochdale, for the familiar stories of cotton mills, the Cotton Famine, Frederick Douglass’s visit to the town, and the mill workers’ support for Abolitionism.   The woke brigade are always so busy trying to make out that Britain was always linked with slavery that it was heartening to get this reminder of how strong Abolitionism was in mid 19th century Lancashire.

Then finally it was on to Bury, to visit the wonderful Bury Market, Victoria’s old school – Bury Grammar – and the Peel Tower, and also Warth Mills in Radcliffe, which was used as an internment camp as depicted in The Girl in.the Pink Raincoat.  All in all, it was a fascinating trip round some areas which I know very well, and made for very entertaining watching.

Made in the 80s – Channel 4

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I’m not quite sure what the first episode of this was getting at, other than annoying me immensely by referring to the Soviet Union as “Russia”.  It sounded from the blurb like a fairly positive documentary, celebrating Britain’s many contributions to the world to the 1980s.  But it was actually mostly doom and gloom.  Most of the first episode was devoted to fears of nuclear war, with interviewees ranging from Holly Johnson to women involved in the protests at Greenham Common talking about … well, fears of nuclear war.  And it was rather obsessed with Raymond Briggs, but only in the context of, you guessed it, fears of nuclear war.

It also featured The Snowman, Countdown, Margaret Thatcher doing a Saturday Superstore phone-in, a brief mention of the Falklands War, and some talk about Saatchi and Saatchi.  But most of it was, yes, about the threat of nuclear war.

It did say a few positive things about British film makers; and it praised Margaret Thatcher’s important role in improving relations between the West and the Soviet Union. But most of it was miserable.  Where was the 80s music (other than Two Tribes, which was played because it talked about the threat of war)?  Live Aid?  Royal weddings?  Sport?  Anything, you know, cheerful?!

An hour centred on the threat of nuclear war, when I was expecting pop, rock and brightly-coloured clothes.  Thanks a lot, Channel 4!!

Malory Towers Christmas special – CBBC

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  This had nothing to do with the books, but it was a very enjoyable bit of festive fun.  I’m so pleased that the TV adaptations have been popular enough to merit a Christmas special.  I grew up in the days when the educational Establishment disapproved of Enid Blyton books, so it’s wonderful to see the iconic stories being rehabilitated into popular culture.   It’s also interesting to see the much-maligned character of Gwendoline Mary being fleshed out and made more sympathetic.

This was just a two-part special in which, for various reasons, the characters featured in the main series ended up spending the Christmas holidays at school, but it carried on the themes of friendship, togetherness and teamwork, which are what the TV adaptations have really emphasised.  And Matron sorting out a broken-down car, and saying that she (like my grandma) drove ambulances during the War (no need for rescue by passing males!), was a nice touch.  It won’t work for purists, because it had nothing to do with Enid Blyton’s writings, but the spirit of the stories was there, and it made for a really lovely hour’s watching.

Royal Mob – Sky History

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This – well, the first episode thereof – was acted out in a slightly silly way, with names flashing up on the screen to tell the viewer who each character was.  And it was odd that the girls’ brother was never mentioned.  But how brilliant to have a TV series about the fascinating Hesse-Darmstadt sisters – Victoria, later Princess Louis of Battenberg and grandmother of Prince Philip, Ella, who married Grand Duke Sergei and later became a nun, Irene, later Princess Henry of Prussia and, of course, Alix, who became the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna.  (Two other siblings died young, one of diphtheria and one of haemophiliac bleeding.)

The first episode largely covered the romances of the three elder girls, as well as their relationships with their British and Prussian relatives.  It rather unfairly claimed that Queen Victoria, played by Michele Dotrice – ooh, Betty! – tried to use her grandchildren’s marriages to extend her power over Europe, which was nonsense, but most of what it showed was interesting, if nothing new.  Thanks for this, Sky History: I enjoyed it.

The Larkins (Series 2) – ITV

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It’s wonderful to have this back.  There’s been nothing on on Sunday nights for weeks, other than the Strictly Come Dancing results show!   It’s just nice, gentle, easy watching.

The posh new family are rather silly and caricatured, but never mind.  In fact, a lot of it’s a bit OTT, even farcical, but the village setting’s so lovely, and there’s no doom and gloom.  It’s just nice.  And there aren’t a lot of “just nice” things about.

Kids’ TV: The Surprising Story – BBC 1

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I nearly turned this off after five minutes.  Need the BBC turn *everything* into a culture war?  Fair enough, the Wombles were into recycling long before most other people were, but saying that Bagpuss introduced kids to the world of industrial disputes sounded preposterous even by the BBC’s standards.  In case anyone’s wondering, the mice once went on strike!

And I would not, TBH, compare the Teletubbies’ arrival in America with Beatlemania.  But I kept watching and, to be fair, it got better!   When you think about it, children’s TV over the years has been at the forefront of a lot of things.

There was a lot of talk about the role of women and ethnic minorities on children’s TV, but, fair enough, children’s TV did play an important role in that.  I honestly can’t remember whether or not I ever thought it was a big deal that a black lady (Floella Benjamin) was on Play School, or that female presenters on Going Live (I never really watched Blue Peter) took part in daredevil stunts.  I don’t think I did, and that’s probably a really positive thing.  It just seemed normal, and that’s important.  They also talked about the involvement of disabled presenters, in more recent times.

There was a fair bit of nostalgic indulgence, which was what I was really after.   We used to watch You and Me at primary school.  A group of annoying boys used to sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo” to the theme tune.  And my sister and I watched Why Don’t You … although I can’t say I even remembered there being a Belfast gang, never mind having my views on Northern Ireland influenced by it!  We often watched ITV’s Saturday morning programmes, though, not the BBC’s.  Number 73 was our favourite.  But, yes, it was quite a big deal that Margaret Thatcher went on the kids’ TV phone-in, and the problems write-in did tackle some very distressing issues and help people to cope with them.

And, yes, Grange Hill, Children’s Ward and other programmes tackled some of the biggest social issues of the day.  “Just Say No” is the one everyone remembers, but there were others too.  I do think that there was a bit too much pushing of culture wars in this programme, but it was genuinely interesting, and all the points it made were valid.   I’m out of touch with kids’ TV these days, but I really enjoyed the reminiscing about the programmes of the ’80s.‏

Michael Palin: Into Iraq – Channel 5

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Babylon, Ur, the Tigris and the Euphrates.  They’re names out of childhood religious studies lessons, and Michael Palin got to see them all!  As well as Kurdish New Year celebrations, Islamic holy sites, oilfields, marshes, salt flats, and so much more.  This was brilliant.

I was expecting ancient ruins, war damage, historic souks and the Rivers of Babylon from the start.  Instead, the first episode was all about Kurdistan.  Well, that’s the least that the Kurds deserve after the way the West let them down after the war of 1990.  The programme actually started in Turkey, with the very delicate subject of Kurdish rights there and an emphasis of how limited they are, before moving into Iraqi Kurdistan where everything was far more positive.   We were shown signs of how wealthy a minority there are now, and, although it *is* a minority, even less well-off people seemed very positive about life for Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.   We also got to enjoy the incredible Kurdish New Year celebrations.

The second episode included a lot of different aspects of this very complex country.  We saw Michael visit some of Iraq’s oilfields, and hear about how oil was discovered in the country during the period of British rule in the 1920s, then have to wait at military checkpoints as operations were being carried out against ISIS.   He visited the 9th century Great Mosque of Samarra, before going on to Saddam Hussein’s home town of Tikrit, and hearing about a horrific massacre carried out by ISIS.  Then on to fascinating Baghdad.   He also noted that very few women were out in public, and that women weren’t even allowed to sit in certain areas of restaurants, or any areas at all unless accompanied by a husband or fiance, and spoke to a young woman about the problems that that presents.

The final episode saw him visit Babylon.   How amazing to be able to visit one of the most famous ancient cities in the world.  Unfortunately, little of what he saw was actually ancient: Saddam Hussein reconstructed it in the 1980s!   Oh well.  Then on to the Shia holy city of Karbala, which was incredible.  He also visited a school, where a classful of quite young children spoke perfect English.  Then on to Nasariyah, from where he visited the Great Zigurrat of Ur.  Yes, Ur, the Sumerian city from which Abraham is supposed to have set off.  Bizarrely, there was no-one else there, whereas Karbala had been heaving.  And then by boat to see the marshes, now thankfully recovered from the damage done by Saddam Hussein, but sadly threatened by rising temperatures.  And then on to the coast, where he saw the salt pans and also the ambitious construction of a vast new port.   It really was very interesting and at times awe-inspiring.  It was just such a shame that the ruins of ancient Babylon had disappeared under walls put up in the 1980s!

Michael Palin’s a very engaging presenter, and there are so many different facets to Iraq.  Very, very interesting series.