Ten Days to D-Day

Monday, May 24, 2004 by

Given that Radio Times appears to have thrown its lot in with the swelling ranks of media commentators and topical quiz show panelists taking pops about the amount of television obsessed with World War II, we’re approaching another one of those cultural tipping points where the recurring throwaway observation becomes the ubiquitous punchline to never-funny jokes. The last time this happened was only a couple of years ago in the shape of the “I Love Last Tuesday” boom, which penetrated even as far as that enduring benchmark of hand-me-down idleness, Steve Wright’s voiceovers for TOTP2.

Now all we need is Tim Dowling to knock up the statutory charmless column for the Media Guardian, usually a fantasy schedule of some sort revolving around reality shows with dopey-sounding names, and the War will be well on its way towards a place on the same stamping ground shared by nostalgia telly, docusoaps and BBC sport: an arena perpetually revisited by folk out to bemoan the decline of British TV and construct tortuous theories about shifting social trends – or if you’re Mark Lawson, both.

Of course, there are more programmes about World War II on television than there once were, but only because there are more television channels than there once were. In truth the portion of TV schedules preoccupied with the conflict is no greater than it was 30 or 40 years ago, perhaps even the reverse. After all, far more of the protagonists were still around in the 1960s and ’70s, and were forever turning up in documentaries and talk shows – as a glance at the collected TV reviews of Clive James will confirm.

To mourn the preponderance of this or that genre of programme is tantamount to admitting you’re tired of TV itself. And since TV is only, at the end of the day, reality beamed back at us with just enough added elucidation or entertainment to stop us switching off, you might as well go the whole hog, cut all ties with the outside world, and retreat into splendid isolation atop an ivory tower until you wonder why everyone you can see from your window is walking around in gas masks. That, or write a letter to Points of View in the hope Terry Wogan will agree with you.

Television’s always churned out both very good and very bad programmes about World War II, and if that ratio has skewed at all during the last few years, it’s been towards the former. Advanced hindsight and technology have combined to produce by and large far more substantial and accessible output than the commanding yet proscriptive efforts of The World at War and its ilk. The role played in such programmes by dramatic recreations has also been totally overhauled. No longer is it necessary to have an amateur re-enactment society clambering over sand dunes looking embarrassed. Nowadays, even if the production team can only afford to employ a dozen extras for that crucial sequence charging at the German lines, there’s always a computer that can turn it into a clash of thousands while adding enough rain to make the whole thing feel suitably unpleasant.

The looming season of programmes commemorating the 60th anniversary of D-Day, besides tempting criticism of overkill from familiar quarters, looks set to showcase just such advances in historical documentary-making – certainly since the time of the 50th anniversary in 1994. They’re also likely to highlight a handful of equally instructive shortcomings. At least Ten Days to D-Day managed to head off the chief perennial complaint straightaway: that of the same old story being retold yet again from no obviously new perspective. Hitherto undiscovered and unreported diaries and journals formed the backbone of this two-part programme, tracing a collage of events covering the lead up to and execution of the invasion. Instead of a parade of top name generals and politicians spouting military history in front of dusty maps, the focus was very deliberately rotated 180° onto the everyday individuals – individuals, we were told, “who held the outcome in their hands.”

As such, various humble combatants from within in the forces, behind enemy lines and on the home front were introduced, and their respective testimonies brought back to life through a generous helping of dramatic reconstructions. These had been very evocatively staged. The colour contrast of the film stock was turned way up for anything involving the English countryside, picturesque villages and farmers herding cows, then swapped for a washed-out greyness as soon as anything to do with the war appeared – army trucks, guns, penning a letter to the “pride and joy” back home. A familiar trick, but not overdone.

Mixed in was plenty of genuine archive footage, plus recollections from the same personnel in the present day. This was unexpected, but made for a refreshing change. To see all our witnesses effectively speaking both then and now made for imaginative cross-cutting between first hand excitement and fear from 1944 and first hand sober reflection from 2004. It also dispensed with the need to invest in any “did-they-survive?” conjecture on the part of the viewer, which in this particular context would only have cluttered up what was already a highly stylised production.

But while great care had been taken in recreating notable events from the titular 10 days, less attention seemed to have been paid to maintaining an air of consistency between all the numerous strands of action. As the programme unfolded, the spotlight jumped with increasing clumsiness from one point of view to another, then onto a third unrelated scene, then back to the first, and so on. Sure, this told us a hell of a lot about things that were going on in the run up to D-Day, but never how or why they were happening. Ironically, for all the source material being paraded on screen, the brisk pace and frantic editing ended up creating distance rather than insight. Events passed so quickly you felt guilty for not being able to take them all in. The swaggering narration from Ralph Fiennes and hooting soundtrack didn’t help. Both were straight out of the World at War approach to TV history-telling, that implies importance can be conferred upon an event through the swift application of a shouty voiceover and a parping orchestra.

Packaged for an international market – “London, England, 3am” – Ten Days to D-Day subtracted as much structure and sense from its subject matter as it did enhance it with atmosphere and compassion. Swapping decent organization of material for a concentration on sentiment and tone, the programme left you with a keen sense of what all of the featured personnel felt about their role in the invasion, but precious little about why they were involved in the first place. By wrapping everything up in a mixture of reportage and soothsaying (“He doesn’t know it yet, but his regiment will suffer many casualties …”), the bigger picture was lost. And when you’re dealing with as picture as big as the largest invasion force ever in world history, that’s some doing.

Over the next couple of weeks there’ll be as many programmes about D-Day as there are ways to re-tell its story. Few will come close to imparting as strong a sense of its humanity as this one, while quite a few more will offer up a far clearer and more useful take on its scope and significance. All, however, will give Dead Ringers enough material for at least another two series.


Comments are closed.