50 Years of Mr Men – Channel 4

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Who was your favourite?   My favourite Mr Man was Mr Tickle, because I loved the fact that he could reach downstairs and get food out of the kitchen without getting out of bed.  I dread to imagine what that says about me.  And my favourite Little Miss was Little Miss Splendid, which is weird because she’s extremely annoying 😁.   We had the books.  We watched the cartoons.  And we even had a tape of Mr Men/Little Miss songs, which we made poor Mum and Dad play in the car.

Matt Lucas, who presented this programme to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mr Men books (the Little Misses didn’t appear until 10 years later), is a year older than me, so pretty close in age.  Our generation grew up with the Mr Men and Little Miss books, but I love the way that kids in primary schools today seem as keen on them as we were.  The Mr Men and Little Misses are so cool 😊.

I’m not sure that I really need to see Matt dressing up as Mr Bump, or visiting a house which was full of Mr Men memorabilia, but it was fascinating to hear about the history of the books, from the Hargreaves family and from some of the people involved in making the original cartoons.  And the amount of merchandise available is astounding.  All from Roger Hargreaves from Cleckheaton trying to amuse his young son, who’d asked what a tickle looked like.

I actually felt a bit sad hearing about the Hargreaves family selling the “brand”, to a Japanese company, and I gather that it’s since been sold on again, to a Korean company, but it’s nice to know that Roger’s son Adam is still involved.  Amazingly, the books were self-published in the early years, because publishers didn’t fancy them!

Mr Greedy and Little Miss Plump have apparently been accused of fat-shaming.  And Little Miss Bossy has apparently been accused of promoting negative stereotypes about women.  You just knew that something like that would have happened, wouldn’t you 🤦‍♀️?   But, in general, the books are as popular now as they’ve ever been.  Happy 50th birthday to the Mr Men!

 

It’s A Sin – Channel 4

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I’m fairly sure that this is the first TV series to be named after a Pet Shop Boys song.  I’d assumed that “It’s A Sin” was going to be the theme tune, but, disappointingly, it wasn’t – although we did get plenty of other amazing ’80s music throughout this first episode.  More to the point, it’s, rather strangely, the first British drama series to focus on the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s.

Unlike Philadelphia and the Mark Fowler EastEnders storyline in the early ’90s, this didn’t start with someone having already been diagnosed with HIV and or AIDS, but with four young gay lads leaving home to start new lives in London, in 1981.  All hopes and dreams, bright lights and parties, pubs and clubs.  Well, for three of them, Ritchie, Roscoe and Ash, along with their friend Jill, anyway.  The fourth lad, Colin, was shy and quiet and sat in watching TV.  I’m glad that Colin was there.  Not everyone can be confident and outgoing.

And it was good fun: they had good fun.  It was much lighter than I’d expected it to be.  I knew that there was a storyline involving a confrontation between Roscoe and his homophobic religious family and I was expecting something like the very emotional scene in Pose which saw Damon being physically thrown out of the house by his stepfather and having to sleep on a park bench.  Instead, Roscoe just told them where to shove it, and was next seen having a wonderful time partying the night away in gay bars, going through one bloke after the other.

Sadly, there are probably more Damons than Roscoes, but Russell T Davies has spoken very movingly of wanting those who died of AIDS to be remembered for the joy of their lives and not just for the tragedy of their deaths, and also of wanting to pay tribute to the friends, relatives, medical staff and activists who supported them.

Boys just wanna have fun … and it’s all so poignant, because we know what lies ahead, and we know that some of these young lads are not even going to see their 30th birthdays, and that those who do are going to be mourning the loss of some of the people closest to them.  Towards the end of the first episode, Colin’s colleague was hospitalised with a mysterious illness … and, as soon as we saw the lesion on his face, we knew what it was.  But, in (by then) 1982 none of them had any idea.  Then he died.

In the next episode, we’re – ironically, given that this was filmed before the Covid-19 pandemic –  going to see how some of the characters refuse to believe that AIDS exists, and think that it’s a bizarre rumour spread by homophobic sections of the media, or else think that it’s been released deliberately by a Soviet laboratory.  Russell T Davies has talked about people trying to raise awareness being thrown out of gay pubs and told to take their leaflets with them.  It’s difficult to accept that there’s a deadly disease out there.  Until you start hearing about people dying from it.

Speaking of filming, most of it was filmed in Manchester, Bolton and Darwen, and it’s co-produced by Nicola Shindler from Whitefield.  There – that’s got my local plugs in!   We will apparently see the characters walking round a shopping centre in Eccles.  I know that people really need to know that.

The series starts in 1981, the year of the first death from AIDS in the UK. I was only 6 in 1981, and I can’t actually remember when I first became aware that HIV and AIDS existed.  We saw a character reading a newspaper article about a “mysterious illness” with no name.  That was in September 1982.   HIV wasn’t even identified until 1983.  But I do remember exactly when I first became aware of just how serious the AIDS situation had become, and that was in the summer of 1985.  Rock Hudson had pulled out of Dynasty due to ill-health, and, after it’d initially been given out that he had liver cancer, it was announced that he had AIDS.

He sadly died a few months later, aged 59.  As ever, a story about a big name celeb made a lot more headlines than a story involving ordinary people, but it was quite a pivotal moment, because he was the first really famous person to say that he had AIDS.  My friends and I were absolutely obsessed with Dynasty at the time, and older people obviously knew him as one of the world’s leading film stars, and it did raise awareness of what was happening.  What it couldn’t do, at that stage, was change attitudes and educate people.

In fact, there was quite a lot of controversy, because his character had snogged Krystle Carrington, and people were genuinely concerned that he might have infected Linda Evans, who’d been unaware of his condition.  When you think that we’ve spent most of the last year being told not to get within 6 feet of anyone who’s not in our household/bubble, those fears in 1985 don’t seem as strange as they would have done a couple of years ago.  At that time, even medical professionals were saying that it was inadvisable to kiss – as in full-scale kiss, not a peck on the cheek – someone who was HIV positive.  Most people didn’t believe some of the wilder scare stories, that you could catch it from toilet seats and that sort of thing, but there was a lot of scaremongering going on.

That was 1985. By late 1986/early 1987, everything had changed: it seemed as if everyone was talking about HIV and AIDS.  There was the big government campaign, with the pictures of tombstones.  It was horrible, but it did frighten people into being more careful and that will have saved a lot of lives.  “Hands, face, space,” sounds like something you chant during a nursery school game.  “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” scares the hell out of you.

And the famous pictures of the Princess of Wales opening an AIDS hospice, and hugging and shaking hands with patients without wearing gloves, did a lot to dispel fears that you could catch it just from casual contact.  But there were still people who thought you could.  The Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders, in 1990, probably did more to educate people in the UK than anything else did, because it went into so much detail.  Like a lot of people who were teenagers at the time, I certainly learnt more about HIV and AIDS from Mark Fowler than I did from any other source.

EastEnders were, as well as educating people about HIV and AIDS, making the point that anyone could catch it.  The character of Mark wasn’t in any of the high risk groups.  It was difficult: if they’d done the storyline with a gay character, people would have said that they were going along with the idea that it only affected gay men, and they were trying to avoid that … but it’s odd that, even now, none of the British soaps have “done” a storyline in which a gay male character’s been diagnosed with HIV.

Tony Warren, the late creator of Coronation Street, did address the AIDS pandemic in his novel The Lights of Manchester, though.  I read that in 1992.  A gay man moves from Manchester to San Francisco, and is gloriously happy there because he feels a sense of belonging in a city with such a big gay community. Some years later, he comes home for a visit and tells his best friend that his address book’s now full of crossings out, that there are hardly any names left on some pages, and that it’s pure good luck that he hasn’t contracted HIV himself: he hadn’t been careful because, at the time, he hadn’t known that he needed to be.  It’s a shame that that never made it on to TV: it was a very powerful conversation.

Then, in 1993, Tom Hanks won the Best Actor award for Philadelphia; and that was how far things had come.  Going back to 1986, we’d had James Anderton, the infamous “God’s Cop” Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, saying some really horrendous things about people who had AIDS.  Graham Stringer, who’s now an MP but was then the leader of Manchester City Council, had a right go at him.  By 1993, I don’t think a public figure would have said what Anderton did … but even then, when Arthur Ashe died, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, remarks were made about how he was a victim, in a way that someone who’d contracted it from sexual contract or shared drugs needles wasn’t.  Did Philadelphia, in which we saw characters expressing those attitudes even as they saw the Tom Hanks character suffering, help to change opinions?

The power of books, films and TV.  And music.  I was supposed to be seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the Manchester Arena last May.  The concert was rescheduled for this May, which, at the time, seemed like light years away: the pandemic was going to be over and done with by Christmas.  Yeah, right.  I don’t think It’s A Sin was ever meant as a campaigning song, but Red Letter Day must have been.  And Jimmy Somerville’s Read My Lips (Enough is Enough) actually demanded more help for HIV/AIDS patients.  The first episode ended with Smalltown Boy.  Do people who weren’t ancient enough to have been around in the ’80s and ’90s know these songs?   And was that Juliet Bravo that they were watching on TV in one episode?

Yes.  The power of TV.  I hope that this series achieves what Russell T Davies wants.  It’s been 40 years since the first death from AIDS in the UK, and a series like this is long overdue.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

The Queen and the Coup (Channel 4) and King George VI: The Accidental King (Channel 5)

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The Queen and the Coup was very exciting in that it featured several interviews with my university personal tutor, whom I’m glad to see appears to have got over his penchant for wearing red and purple braces.  Lovely man.  It was very nice to see him on screen.   Other than that, the main point of the programme was to claim that the entire recent history of Iran, and of poor relations between Iran and the West, is down to American diplomats getting the Queen, our beloved monarch, mixed up with a luxury Cunard liner.  Right.  King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old – strict dad, stammer, Navy, supportive wife, wonderful dad, abdication of brother, war, death – but it was very watchable, and it’s so good to see George VI getting the credit he deserves.  It tends to be the flamboyant monarchs who get the attention, and they’re not always the ones who most deserve it.

The Queen and the Coup, then.  In the early 1950s, the Iranian government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was planning to nationalise the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.  This was not good.  Not as bad as Nasser planning to nationalise the Suez Canal, but still not good.  The Anglo-Persian bigwigs were very cross.  So was Clement Atlee, who claimed to oppose British involvement abroad but was more interested in the oil money than his supposed policies/principles. The US also got involved, and it was decided to chuck out Mosaddegh and boost the power of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

However, there was a snag.  The Shah, being a bit of a wuss, wasn’t really up for this, and planned to scarper.  But then the Americans got a message to say that Queen Elizabeth thought the Shah was a jolly nice chap, and wanted him to stay.  This message was passed on to the Shah, who was so chuffed that he did, indeed, decide to stay.  Unfortunately, it turned out the Americans had got the wrong end of the stick.  The message was not from Her Majesty.  It was from RMS Queen Elizabeth, the Cunard liner, on which Anthony Eden (Attlee’s government having been ousted) was sailing to a conference in Canada.  They decided not to tell the Shah about this.  So he stayed.  And there was a coup.  And everything going on in Iran now, and indeed everything that’s gone on in Iran since 1953, is because of this.

Er, what about the 1979 coup?  And, seriously, the Shah stayed because he thought the Queen wanted him to?  I love the Queen, but that’s pushing it!  Was he after tickets for Ascot or the Royal Box at Wimbledon, or an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party, or something, and changed his mind about his own future and his entire country’s future because of it?   Come on!  But it was very nice to see my old personal tutor interviewed.

King George VI: The Accidental King was same old, same old, as I said, with the same team of gossips who’ve been around for all the new royal programmes which have been on Channel 5 recently.  But I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It’s so sad that he died so young, but it’s such an inspirational story – the big shot, glamorous, popular brother totally mucks up, and the shy, nervous brother, lacking in confidence but boosted by the love of his wife and children, takes over, and helps to lead the nation, the Empire and the Commonwealth through the darkest period in history.   Lovely, lovely programme.

I really am enjoying all these royal programmes.  Keep them coming!

VE Day: The Lost Films – Channel 5, and VE Day In Colour – Channel 4

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VE Day: The Lost Films was excellent.  It’s amazing how some of these amazing home movie reels have lain forgotten in people’s homes for decades.   The pictures of the huge crowds celebrating VE Day in the centre of London are very familiar, but how wonderful to be able to see also the celebrations in other cities, towns and villages around the country.  And, although Emilia Fox acted as narrator (and did a very good job), most of the voiceovers came from ordinary people who remember VE Day, rather than “experts”.

As well as the celebrations of the end of the war in Europe, there were also joyous scenes of liberated prisoners of war being welcomed ashore in Liverpool, brought there by ships from neutral Sweden and greeted by huge crowds; but we also saw shots of the terrible bomb damage, and heard people talk of the sadness of accepting that some of their loved ones would not be amongst the men returning homes.  But there was an overwhelming sense of joy.  The scourge of Nazism had been defeated, the King spoke about “deliverance” and “thanksgiving”, and there was a lot of talk about “the end of fear” – the fear of air raids and potentially even invasion was over, and, except of course for those with loved ones fighting in the Far East, the fear that someone of yours would be killed was over at last.

I was expecting VE Day In Colour, billed as showing “Britain’s biggest party”, also to show street parties, conga chains, etc, but much of it was coverage of military parades and other official celebrations, in different parts of the world.  It was interesting, and it was good to see the great sacrifices made by the Soviet Union acknowledged, but it didn’t do what it said on the tin!   And it could have done with more structure: it jumped about a lot, with no narrator to hold it together, and the sound changed quite randomly, from wartime music, to speeches by the King and political leaders, to radio or cinema commentary from the time, to comments from “experts”, to comments by people who’d lived through it.  But it was the same overriding message – joy, and, even more than joy, relief.  The Nazis had been defeated.  The war was over.  Loved ones would be coming home.  People could finally return to some sort of normality, and look to the future.

We can’t have the commemorations which we were supposed to have to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day, but we can watch these films, and at least try to think what it must have been like to have had all that weight lifted off your shoulders after almost six years of war.

Quite a lot of the film in VE Day: the Lost Films was also in colour, and particularly interesting as we got the background stories of the people who’d made it.  Colour film was very hard to get hold of, unless it was for official purposes, but one of the film makers whose work featured in this was with the US Army Pictorial Service, and others had managed to get some through jobs or contacts.  The black and white film was great, too.  There was a sad lack of film from the North West of England 😦 , although one of the women interviewed was from Oldham, but we were able to see celebrations in Bradford, Hull, Gateshead, Wakefield, Kettering and Dumbarton, and also in three villages – one in Hertfordshire, one in the Fens, and also Chapeltown near Sheffield, which I think is the “Tin Town” in the Elsie J Oxenham Abbey books.  Plus plenty of film of the huge crowds in London, and the Royal Family and Churchill on the balcony.  And a few shots of New York, Paris and Johannesburg – I’ve seen plenty of pictures of New York on VE Day before, and the odd one of Paris, but not Johannesburg.

Such huge crowds, even in the smaller places.  The absence of the young men was striking, except in Chapeltown where many of the men were in reserved occupations in the mines, but huge crowds of women, children and older men.  Singing, dancing, everyone hugging and kissing each other.  Street parties.  In Scotland, pipers were playing and people were in national dress.  And, everywhere, people were lighting the darkness, literally – with bonfires being lit after dark, and candlelit processions being held.

All over the country, bunting was up, and flags were being waved – mainly Union flags, but also the Stars and Stripes, and the flag of the Soviet Union too.  At this difficult time, 75 years on from VE Day, we stand with New York, and we need to stand with Moscow too.

VE Day in Colour showed quite a lot of coverage of the celebrations in Moscow, and from other parts of the world too – the US and France, and also Allied soldiers celebrating in Germany.  Strangely, it even showed celebrations in Linz.  And, movingly, we saw pictures of Dachau, and heard from some of the survivors.  Quite a lot of the sound was from American broadcasters – with one rather bizarre moment when an NBC broadcaster spoke movingly about nothing lifting human hearts as high as peace, and about mothers waiting for their sons to come home, followed immediately by a chirpy voice telling us that this broadcast had been brought to us by a brand of toothpaste!

It did have some of the domestic street party/conga chain stuff I was hoping for, though, even if not as much as the Channel 5 programme did.  York, Newcastle, North Shields and Great Yarmouth were amongst the places featured.

No street parties for the 75th anniversary.  And certainly no gathering in big crowds – oh, when, oh when, will we be able to do that again?  But I’ve found some red, white and blue paper plates which I think are left over from the Diamond Jubilee, and I’ll see what I can do with some meringues, cream and red and blue fruit!   This is a very important anniversary of a very important day, and it deserves to be marked.  Thank you to the TV and radio broadcasters for all their efforts in marking today at this very difficult time, and, above all, thank you to those who won the war.

 

 

 

Great Lives: Enid Blyton – Radio 4 and The Tiger Who Came For Tea – Channel 4

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There was quite a contrast between these two Christmas Eve broadcasts, and not in the way I might have expected.  The tiger, who can be pretty scary, was just good fun in this lovely, cheerful interpretation of Judith Kerr’s books, with music by Robbie Williams, whereas the programme about Enid Blyton, who’s brought so much joy to so many children, was rather sad, focusing on her unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her own family rather than on her books.

Like a lot of children, I grew up with Enid Blyton.  I was so obsessed with the Noddy books that I knew them off by heart.  I insisted on having them read to me for bedtime stories, and, if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a bit out, I’d howl with indignation.  I drove my dad mad to make up more stories about Amelia Jane, because there weren’t enough of them to suit me.  Nearly everyone in my class at primary school was into the Famous Five, the adventure and mystery books, and to some extent the Secret Seven, and the girls at least were very keen on the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books.  When someone scribbled on the walls of the boys’ toilets, we tried to look for clues, like the Five Find Outers would have done.  The culprit never was officially unmasked, but I have my suspicions as to whom it was!  And my sister and I solemnly collected bits of food from our tea, to have for midnight feasts … although, at that age, we never managed to stay up till midnight!

As far as the criticism which Enid Blyton now gets showered in … well, it never occurred to me, as a little kid, that the golliwogs were any sort of racist symbol, any more than it occurred to me that Aslan’s resurrection in the Narnia books was any sort of religious allegory.  I blithely assumed that, had I gone to Malory Towers, I’d have been best mates with Darrell and the rest of the in crowd, never stopping to think that they’d have made mincemeat of a fat swotty kid with a Northern accent. And I still don’t see why people think the books are sexist.  OK, Anne in the Famous Five books and Lucy-Ann in the Adventure books are rather wussy, but they’re only two characters.

I can understand a lot of the criticism of the books now, though, but I do feel that Enid Blyton gets a lot of criticism which other authors, apart from Laura Ingalls Wilder, don’t.  No-one complains that The Tiger Who Came To Tea is sexist because Mummy’s at home making cakes with Sophie whilst Daddy’s at work, or calls Shakespeare as a bigot because of his portrayals of Shylock and Fagin, Dickens a bigot because of his portrayal of Fagin, or Jane Austen as a snob because all her heroines are from posh backgrounds.

The programme was ambiguous about all that.  You can argue about it until the cows come home.  But it did talk a lot about the poor quality of her writing.  One of my primary school teachers once complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like Enid Blyton!  I only wish I did, given that she sold over 800 books.  Teachers had a real down on Enid Blyton in the early 1980s, and I think they always have done … rather paradoxically, given that most kids love the books.  The programme did claim that there wasn’t much competition in the children’s book market during Blyton’s heyday, and that that was why her books were so popular, but I thought that that was rather unfair.  Kids like the books because they’re exciting … and the books probably do have to be about the upper middle classes due to that, because only kids from well-to-do families are likely to go to boarding school or go away for the entire school summer holidays.

It also said a lot about her difficult family life – the breakdown of her first marriage after both she and her husband had affairs, the way she airbrushed her first husband, the father of her two children, out of her life, her difficult relationship with both her mother and her children, and the trauma she suffered when her father ran off with another woman when she was in her early teens.  Her mother, understandably in the society of the times, pretended that he was just working away, and it’s thought that that’s partly why Enid became  so involved in telling stories.  It even said that she had fertility problems because the trauma of her father leaving affected her physical development.  I’ve no idea if that’s medically possible or not, but that’s what it said.  And it does have to be said that she doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.

All rather miserable, really.  But it praised her business acumen, and pointed out that, as a woman in a man’s world, she had to be tough.  Even more importantly,  it acknowledged that her books have got so many kids into reading.  And she deserves respect for that, and that’s why hers was a great life.

It also talked about food!  There is so much food in her books … mostly published at a time when rationing was in force and children could only dream of all those enormous teas and picnics.  And, of course, food is key to The Tiger Who Came To Tea as well, although that was published long after rationing had ended.  The tiger is a bit scary, as I’ve said, because he eats them out of house and home and even uses all the water from the tank … but no-one wants scary stuff on Christmas Eve, and this production was all smiley and happy!  I wasn’t convinced about Mummy wearing a green dress, a blue cardigan and an orange coat all together, nor about Daddy going to work in checked trousers, but never mind!   Purists may have found some of the cartoon scenes a bit too modern, but I thought it was all good fun, and a perfect antidote to the doom and gloom that the soaps seem intent on serving up over the festive season.  It was a real treat.

So that was Christmas Eve, for supposed adults who still like children’s books!  If you’re reading this, thanks for doing so, and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all the best for the new year xxx.

My Grandparents’ War – Channel 4

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What a wonderfully inspiring, and timely, account of how Helena Bonham Carter’s maternal grandfather, a Spanish diplomat, saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews trying to flee Nazi-occupied France, by issuing transit visas which enabled them to cross Spain to reach the safety of Portugal and its Atlantic ports.  He sacrificed his career by acting without the authority of his government, and, as someone with a Jewish father and a Jewish wife – through whom Helena is related to the Ephrussi family of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” fame, incidentally – he may well have had concerns for his own safety; but he put all other considerations aside to do what he felt was right.  So too did Helena’s paternal grandmother, who helped many Czechoslovakian Jewish refugees to enter Britain, and spoke out publicly against the Nazis to the extent that her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist.

War heroes come in many different guises; and I hope this programme got the viewing figures it deserved, because plenty of people could learn a lot from the stories of Don Eduardo de Propper Callejon and Lady Violet Bonham Carter.  Helena, who was able to meet the descendants of some of those whose lives they saved, must be so proud of both of them; and I think it’s probably done viewers good to be reminded that the world can produce people like them.

This was the first of a four-part series in which actors and actresses will be exploring their grandparents’ role in the Second World War. Like Who Do You Think You Are, it’s exploring history through individuals’ family history, and showing them talking to both relatives and experts, but it’s different in that it’s focusing on recent events, involving people whom the celebs concerned knew and loved – although, sadly, in Helena’s case, they died when she was very young.  And, as is said in so many programmes about the Second World War, most people who lived through it didn’t talk about it: so many of us don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to about our relatives’ roles in the war.  It’s also, like the recent Gary Lineker programme, reminding us about the contributions made by people in areas that are sometimes neglected: the Arctic convoys and the war against Japan are going to feature in the programmes to come.

The Propper de Callejons were part of the exodus of around two million people leaving the Paris area as the Nazis approached.  They went, like the French government, to Bordeaux, and Eduardo Propper de Callejon signed up to thirty thousand exit visas at the Spanish consulate there.  He was signing them day and night: his hands were seizing up and he was having to bathe them in salt water. Without him, most of those people would have been murdered by the Nazis.  He saved their lives. One of those he saved was Ludwik Rajchman, who went on to become the founder of UNICEF, and we saw Helena meet his granddaughter, in a very emotional scene.  She’s still got some of her family’s passports from that time, bearing Eduardo’s signature.

The Spanish government had ordered that no visas be issued without the passports first being sent to Madrid. Even if the authorities there had agreed to issue the visas – highly unlikely, given the pro-Nazi sympathies of Franco’s Foreign Minister – it would have taken too long: the Nazis were advancing rapidly through France. So Eduardo signed them anyway, and, as a result, he was demoted, and his career never recovered. We were told by Helena’s uncle and cousin that he never got over that, but also that he never sought praise or recognition for the heroic work he’d done. However, in 2008, 36 years after his death, he was recognised – thanks, interestingly, to the testimony of Otto von Habsburg, who’d also fled Paris for Bordeaux and was issued with a visa by Aristides Sousa de Mendes, the Portuguese consul, with whom Eduardo was working – as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem; and we were shown a video of the ceremony.

When I went to Lithuania, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to a lady whose grandmother had saved her Jewish neighbours by hiding them throughout the Nazi occupation. If she’d been caught, she would presumably have been killed along with them. She was also recognised by Yad Vashem.  You’d like to think that, in those circumstances, you’d have been that brave, but, in reality, most people would not – and I suppose you can’t really blame people for that, but you can have the highest admiration for those who were.

Meanwhile, in London, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, nee Asquith, a close friend of Winston Churchill, was giving public speeches against the Nazis well before the war had even begun. Her name was placed on a Gestapo blacklist, and she would have faced imprisonment and probably execution had Britain fallen. She also criticised the authorities here for not taking in more Jewish refugees, and personally sponsored refugees to enable them to enter the country.  In another emotional scene, Helena met a woman – a Liverpool woman, by the sounds of it – whose family had been able to leave Czechoslovakia the day before the borders were closed, after Lady Violet agreed to act as their guarantors. Her own middle name was Violet, given in tribute to Helena’s grandma. Without her intervention, the family would probably have died in a concentration camp.

The Bonham Carters might well have decided to leave London when the Blitz began: it’s hardly as if they were working-class East Enders with nowhere else to go. But they stayed, and, not only that, but Lady Violet volunteered as an air raid warden – and we were reminded that around 2,500 air raid wardens were killed during the Blitz. On top of that, and being a governor of the BBC, she campaigned for equal way for female full-time air raid wardens, who were only getting paid 70% as much as men doing the same job.

What an incredible family. And it didn’t even stop there – we also heard about how Helena’s uncle, Mark Bonham-Carter, hit the headlines by escaping from a POW camp in Italy and walking 400 miles to reach the British lines. Sadly, his brother-in-law, who also escaped from a POW camp, was shot dead. Violet was hit very hard by her son-in-law’s death, but continued her work in both politics and the arts.

Channel 4’s history programmes aren’t always the greatest, but this one was superb – although, quite frankly, it would have been difficult to go wrong with an incredible family history like Helena Bonham Carter’s.  Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 don’t generally bring current political events into programmes about the horrors of the Second World War era, and that’s a good thing – but I think it’s worth saying that, at a time at which hardly more than a day seems to go by without yet another parliamentary candidate having to be removed because of inappropriate remarks on social media, it really is particularly moving and reassuring to hear stories like these.  You’re rather moved to wish that senior politicians had even a fraction of Eduardo and Violet’s integrity. If anyone’s reading this, and didn’t see the programme, you might want to try finding it on Catch Up: it really is worth watching.

Prince Albert: a Victorian hero revealed – Channel 4

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It’s very nice that Channel 4 are showing so many programmes on Royal history, and it’s brilliant that thousands of documents from the Royal Collection are being digitised and made available on-line, but I didn’t feel that this programme really said very much.  That wasn’t really its fault, more a reflection of the fact that there’ve just been so many programmes about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert recently.  Interesting as they are, it’s time to focus on someone else instead.  Maybe Queen Anne, following the success of The Favourite?  Or George III and George IV, to tie in with Sanditon?  I see that Lucy Worsley’s been prancing about in a Regency-era bathing costume.  One for ladies, I mean! Or the first three Edwards?  There’s plenty of choice!

Obviously there’s a lot of interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the moment, partly because of the popular ITV drama series and partly because of this year marking the bicentenary of their births, but we really are being inundated with programmes about them!  Er, yes, OK, I know, I don’t have to watch them all!  And I did quite enjoy this, even though some of it was rather patronising – I’m sure viewers were well aware that most people in the 1840s didn’t have the vote, and that conditions for the urban working poor were pretty dire, and didn’t need either fact pointing out as if it were some sort of startling revelation!   It was especially interesting to see the personal photos and other items in the archive – particularly poignant was the copy of Peveril of the Peak (which I have still never read, despite there being a pub in town named after it and despite the fact that I’ve been to Peveril Castle) with a bookmark still at the place where Victoria, who’d been reading it aloud to Albert, had got up to when he died.

It was basically a quick run-through of his life and times – a bit about his childhood, then (with Vltava playing in the background, for no apparent reason) his marriage to Queen Victoria, his early unpopularity, his keenness to promote the image of them and their children as the perfect family, his involvement with the design of Osborne House, the effect on him of the big Chartist demos in 1848, his interest in improving housing and education, and the Great Exhibition.  And it was all very interesting – his concern for social issues was very admirable, and his work ethic very impressive.  He was an incredible man, and he had a huge impact on this country and beyond.

It’s just that there’d been so many programmes about him and Queen Victoria this year already.  At one time, every historical documentary on TV seemed to be about either Henry VIII or Elizabeth I.  Now they’re all about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  A bit more variety, please!!  Come on, George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert and Queen Caroline would make for a brilliant documentary …