Britain’s Secret War Babies – Channel 4

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  This programme was about two people seeking to find their fathers, African-American GIs stationed in Britain during the war.  It was sad to hear that many black GIs with white British girlfriends had been unable to marry them because the US Army had refused permission, even when there was a baby on the way.   That left the women concerned with a choice between bringing up a child alone, with the stigma of illegitimacy and the additional issue of raising a mixed-race child in areas which were otherwise 100% white, or giving the child up.

In the two cases covered by this programme, one woman had been kept apart from the child’s father by her own mother, who didn’t want her daughter and grandchild moving to America, and the other woman had married a British boyfriend who’d ill-treated both her and her son when he realised that the child couldn’t be his.

Both the stories had happy endings in the programme, in that the biological fathers were identified, and half-siblings who were happy to meet the two “war babies” found; but, as the programme said, many people haven’t been able to trace their fathers, and many children grew up in care because their mothers couldn’t keep them and mixed-race children were difficult to place for adoption.  The presenter seemed determined to stress the negative aspects of everything, but even taking a more balanced view, it’s quite a sad part of wartime history.   Some couples would have been unable to marry anyway, because one or both partners were already married, because of family objections or because they just didn’t want to, but hundreds of children could have had very different lives if there hadn’t been that US Army objection to mixed marriages – marriages which would have been perfectly legal in Britain.

The presenter clearly had an agenda and kept trying to turn things on to it, but the human stories won through, and at least each of the “war babies” involved found their American relations and were welcomed by them.  Happy endings.

 

 

 

The Great (second series) – Channel 4

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This really is a load of rubbish, and yet it’s strangely watchable, because it’s so bad!   I was going to say that it was like a very crude Carry On film; but Carry On films are funny, and this is just stupid.   They’ve deliberately got all the history of Catherine the Great’s life wrong, even things which could have been got right without altering the script, e.g. Catherine’s husband being Peter’s grandson (they’ve said that he’s Peter’s son).

At the start of the second series, Catherine has succeeded in overthrowing Peter – but she’s expecting their heir, who was actually born several years earlier.  And the set-up in this bonkers programme is that Catherine rules part of the palace, but Peter and his supporters are holed up in one wing.  No-one seems concerned with such trivial matters as running the Russian Empire or foreign policy.   Peter has a number of lookalikes, who keep getting shot, and there’s a lot of arguing over food.  And dead bodies are hanging around.  And at one point there was a crocodile running round the court.

It’s so bad.  It’s terrible.  And yet it’s worth watching just to marvel at how bad it is!

India in 1947: Partition in Colour – Channel 4

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It would have been nice if, to mark the 75th anniversary of “Freedom at Midnight”, one of our TV channels had shown a programme focusing on everything that India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have achieved since independence.  But no.  Instead, we have to rake over whether or not Nehru was having it off with Edwina Mountbatten, and slag off Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah for not making a better job of an impossible situation.   Don’t get me wrong: the violence and the refugee crisis that followed partition was horrific.   But something focusing on the more positive aspects of independence, and the 75 years since then, would have been a lot more welcome.  The colourised pictures were interesting to see, but only really formed a backdrop for the negative narrative.

No-one got a good press in this, but, as I’ve said, it was an impossible situation by 1947.  I’m not sure that anyone could have done much better, and I’m not sure how helpful it was just to go on about the alleged faults of the three main leaders.  Gandhi, incidentally, was completely ignored.

Mountbatten was slagged off over the partition plan, but the programme claimed that he had nothing to do with it anyway, and it was all the work of the civil service.   Both Mountbatten and Nehru were slagged off for having a close personal relationship and leaving Jinnah out in the cold.  Or, rather, out in the heat, when the others took off to the Hills.  And of fiddling the border decisions to suit India.

Jinnah didn’t get a very good press either.  It was pointed out that Islamic fundamentalists tried to assassinate him because they were so angry about partition.   But other Muslims didn’t want to be a minority in a mainly Hindu India.  Jinnah was in a no-win situation: they all were. The programme also talked about complaints regarding the borders, but, wherever the borders had been, a lot of people would still have felt that they had to move.

Even the British Army came in for criticism.   Excuse me, but how were 50,000 troops supposed to deal with violence on such a scale? And the head of the Boundary Commission was criticised for having dysentery.  Oh, and for not being “an Alpha Male”.

The one person who got a tiny amount of praise was Edwina Mountbatten, but they were far more interested in her relationship with Nehru than in her work with refugees.

The narrators did concede that, by mid-1947, the fear and violence were out of control, and there wasn’t much that anyone could have done to improve things.   But they just seemed determined to be negative about everything.   The programme didn’t even point out that Freedom at Midnight created the world’s largest democracy.

And it said nothing that we haven’t heard a hundred times before.  I’d far rather have seen a programme about how India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have progressed since 1947, and I’d really have liked to have heard just one word of positivity.   This was almost 100% negativity.  Two hours of negativity.

Lost Treasures of Rome – Channel 4

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Back in the day, when we “did” Pompeii at school via the Cambridge Latin Course, we had to draw pencil-and-ruler diagrams showing the layout of the Stabian baths.  Kids today, however, have got programmes like this, which use computer generated images of Romans wandering round the bathing complex (er, suitably covered to preserve their modesty 😄) and using strigils.  How much cooler is that than a boring old diagram?!  Also, the Cambridge Latin Course made it sound as if the baths were mainly for men, whereas this programme told us that there were hot tubs (well, hot baths) where groups of women would sit and gossip.

Don’t get me wrong: I have fond memories of the Cambridge Latin Course.  But my 11-year-old self would have loved all the CGI Romans wandering across the screen during this programme 😄.  And I’m sure that the Roman Life sections of the textbooks never mentioned the ladies’ spa.

There was an awful lot of digital reconstruction in this programme, of everything from funerals to slave markets to animal sacrifices.  There was even CGI food.  But there was a lot of proper archaeology as well, with cavers being brought in to assist … and we learned that, when they weren’t in the hot tubs or using the strigils, Pompeiians spent a lot of time eating street food, going to sporting or musical events and drinking locally-produced wine.  It sounds like some sort of paradise 😄!

Amazingly, around a third of Pompeii still hasn’t been uncovered, even after all these years of work – and there’s so much there that archaeologists are able to try to piece together individual life stories, such as that of a slave who obtained his freedom and became a wealthy man.   The technology used by the Pompeiians themselves was impressive, too, especially when it came to heating the baths.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an archaeological programme use so much CGI before!   It seemed a bit odd seeing all these cartoon-ish type characters trotting around in the middle of a serious documentary, but it was certainly entertaining, and I hope that this series makes its way into schools because I think it’ll really bring things to life for pupils studying either Latin, ancient history or classical civilisation, especially younger kids.   CGI Romans – whatever next?!

The Strangeways Riot: 25 Days of Mayhem – Channel 4

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I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot.  Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof.  And they used to wave back to us.  We thought we were *it*.  Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us.  The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us.  I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.

The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time.  The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison.  A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top.  We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees.  Capital city?  Stuff that.  Manchester ruled!

We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that.  It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.  No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?

And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool.  Two people died.  Scores of others were injured.  £55 million worth of damage was done.  The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered.  There was nothing cool about it.  It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup.  And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us.  But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.

I’m doing that again now, aren’t I?  Making it all about me and my world.  Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …

I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event.  At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.

Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news.  I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.

In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot.  Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it.  Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years.  Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.

Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys.  The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out.  And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting.  Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified.  Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.

And that’s what we remember.  The prisoners on the roof.  We had no idea what was going on inside the building.  But all sorts of reports were coming out.  There was talk of massacres.   Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds.  A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners.  And the authorities were going mad about this.  The rioters had everyone’s attention.  Everyone was listening to every word they said.

I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about.  Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job.  It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”.  Can you imagine if that’d happened?   Don’t even go there!  Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot.  And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on.  Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military.  The editor of the Manchester Evening News.

So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege.  A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof.  And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down.  So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in.  Bangers.  Embedded in potatoes.  It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance.   And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.

Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video.  They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering.  Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.

Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt.  It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots.  Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”.  And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.

Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”.  It was one of the biggest national events of its time.  And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus.  Strange (pun intended).  Very strange indeed.  Thanks to Channel 4 for this.  I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.

 

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.