The BBC at War

‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ was a familiar cry among baby boomers – but few have the opportunity to turn the answer into a primetime TV documentary.

Jonathan Dimbleby’s father Richard was the BBC’s first war correspondent. Dispatched to the frontline during the ‘phoney war’, when the guns in Europe were largely silent, Dimbleby asked if the Allies couldn’t fire off a few rounds to add some background colour to his radio reports. He was told in no uncertain terms this probably wasn’t the best tactical reason for breaking a ceasefire.

According to Dimbleby Jr, the big problem for the Beeb – as no-one called it back then – was how to honour the truth without compromising national security or morale. Initially, it avoided the issue altogether by broadcasting hour after relentless hour of organ music, prompting one listener to write that he would ‘rather face the German guns’. When the Corporation did eventually get its act together, Dimbleby was incensed at being continually red-pencilled by the Ministry of Information, at a time when even the weather forecast was censored lest it should prove helpful to Herr Hitler.

In Berlin, Joseph Goebbels remained untroubled by fussy ideas about the truth: the head of the Propaganda Ministry (the name ought to have been a clue, really) recruited the British fascist William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce as a sort of early shock jock, tasked with stirring up discontent back home. The BBC responded with the avuncular figure of JB Priestley, whose wartime ‘Postscripts’ captured the imagination of millions, until Churchill decided he was too much of a lefty, and that his own thundering oration might set a better tone.

Then, as now, the press barons were constantly trying to do the BBC down, arguing it shouldn’t be allowed to report anything that hadn’t already been in the papers. Given that the Daily Mail’s proprietor had recently written to Hitler congratulating him on his successful annexation of Czechoslovakia, we perhaps ought to be grateful they didn’t prevail.

The BBC is usually more comfortable donning a hair shirt than self-mythologising. But with a hostile new Culture Secretary and a tricky Charter renewal to navigate, this fascinating history of its contribution to Britain’s Finest Hour could scarcely be more timely.

TV extra: 



The word ‘robot’ was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R., in which a bunch of androids develop self-awareness and rise up against their human overlords. And that’s pretty much been their MO ever since. Humans, adapted from the Swedish drama Äkta Människor, cleaves to this well-worn formula but still manages to intrigue, thanks to its intimate, domestic milieu and a hypnotic central performance from Gemma Chan as eerily submissive synthetic servant Anita – who might make you think twice before asking Siri for help again.


The Clangers

What a relief to discover this cherished childhood favourite hasn’t been subjected to some dreadful CGI makeover. Quite the contrary: those lovable space mice are still hand-knitted, and still talk in those swanee whistle voices, while the charming stop-frame animation is the same used by creators Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin nearly 50 years ago. The only missing piece is Postgate’s narration – but as he’s been replaced by the twinkling tones of Michael Palin, even that feels like a direct hit to the nostalgia neurons. My three-year-old son loved it, too.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 18, 2015

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