Tag Archives: bbc

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – Radio appearances and signings

I’ve got a few exciting pieces of news.

Firstly, I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth on Saturday 7th April, between 11am and 3pm.

I appeared on BBC Radio Solent earlier today, talking about Portsmouth’s Women of World War Two. It is available to listen to on the BBC website; my interview is about 1 hour and 53 minutes in. I’m not sure if you can listen to it from abroad I’m afraid, and it is only online for seven days.

At the time of writing my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ is ranked around 13,000 on Amazon, out of 5.6 MILLION books! That works out at me being in the top 0.2%! Currently, the book is also ranked at #99 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Second World War Military History. #100? Only Robert Lyman’s ‘Operation Suicide’, which I reviewed last week! I have some way to go though before I overhaul Winston Churchill and Stephen Ambrose and reach 90 ;)

On Monday I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Solent, and actually ended up recording two segments – one on Portsmouth’s women who served in the Second World War, for their ‘Women in a man’s world’ series, and a second piece promoting my book in general.

My first book talk at the D-Day Museum on Thursday went very well, and the first happy customers went away with signed copies. Pre-ordered copies have been shipping out via Amazon, some of my relatives received their copies towards the end of last week. If you would like to order a copy, please see the various links immediately to the right of the page.

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Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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Christmas Message from James

After I’ve had a few days of down time over christmas – which for me constitutes divorcing myself from the laptop for a few days! – I have had a chance to sit back and reflect on what an amazing year it has been.

This time last year I had just started work on my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The contract was inked in January, and after a mammoth effort the book was handed into the publishers in June. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about the writing process, the publishing industry and much more besides! In particular, in future I would give myself much more time, and in particular, I would try not to move house three days before the hand-in date!

After a bit of a rest – including a nice trip to the Dartmoor Folk Festival, and settling in to my new quarters in Chichester, I have started work on my project looking at Portsmouth’s fallen heroes from the Great War. Research is still ongoing, and I am still considering how best to present this research, but I do very much have my eyes on the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 in 2014, or the 100th anniversary of the Somme in 2016.

The most popular topics on my blog this year have been ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘, a BBC docu-drama in January, and the visit of the US Aircraft Carrier George H.W. Bush to the Solent in May. Anything to do with the Falklands seems to go down pretty well. Sadly I haven’t been able to post as much as I would like, due to work commitments, lack of internet at times of the year, etc, I am still pretty pleased with the hit rate I am getting. But I won’t pre-empt my review of the year, which rightly belongs on new years eve.

When I think back to the time that I started this blog, it’s almost like it was a different person who started it. I literally began blogging through boredom, and thought that if I was going to spend my mid-twenties singledom reading military books and visiting museums, I had might as well do something constructive with it. Now, over two years later, my first book is due out in a little more than a month, I’ve written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower, and certainly by no means least, I have moved in with my Girlfriend Sarah. I don’t mind admitting that when I started my blog in the summer of 2009 I was still recovering from a period of suffering from some pretty severe depression. Realising that what I have to say interests people has motivated me more than anyone could ever know, and its certainly helped me move on and up in life. I just want anyone reading this to know, that if you really want to achieve something, you can if you work hard enough. It doesn’t matter what illness you may suffer from, or what school you went to, or where you grew up. True, that might mean that you might have to work harder, but in the process you will have earnt it so much more.

I would like to thank you all for your support, participation and kindness throughout the past twelve months. You all really help make it happen. I am always very interested to hear comments, feedback, ideas or the like. We live in a very uncertain and very unpredictable world, and it has never been more important for us to champion the understanding of the past, and in particular study and understanding of military history.

From my Girlfriend Sarah and I, a very happy Christmas to you all.

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British Army programmes on BBC iplayer

I’ve stumbled upon a fantastic collection of programmes on the British Army on bbciplayer, some modern, and some archive. Apparently, unbeknown to me, BBC4 have launched an ‘Army Collection‘, many of which are available to view online. Only, I’m afraid to say, to those of you watching in the UK. But to those of us sitting up in bed suffering from a hideous case of man-flu, its a goldmine!

One series I know will be very popular is The Paras, a famous 1982 documentary. There is also a set of 30-minute regimental histories, covering amongst other the Grenadiers and Coldstreamers, the Paras and the Gurkhas. Some of it is a little basic, and as usual with anything Regimental in the British Army, everyone’s own Regiment is of course the best ever bar none. But when you watch the ‘In the Highest Tradition’ programmes, you realise that all Regiments have their own, equally barmy, traditions and claims to fame. I also realise I could never have made an officer – silver service is not my style, give me take-away any time.

The BBC have also made available a great set of programmes from the Silver Jubilee in 1977, including the Scots Guards Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards. My personal favourite is the Queen reviewing the 4th Division of the British Army of the Rhine on the Sennelager training area in Germany. It involved 578 tracked vehicles, over 3,000 troops, and 27 Regiments. Incredible stuff, and something we will probably never see the like of ever again – it would be unthinkable to bring together a division for just a review! 3 Regiments of Chieftan  Main Battle tanks, 1 Recce Regiment, and 4 armoured infantry Battalions in 432 AFV’s, as well as supporting arms, including Gazelle and Scout Helicopters. Abbott 105mm guns, M109 155mm guns, 175mm guns, Lance nuclear missiles, Engineer AFVs including bridge laying equipment, RAMC Field Ambulances, REME in Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Stalwarts, you name it.

Other treats include ‘how to make a Royal Marine officer’, the life of a Household Cavalry Corporal of Horse, the Pathfinder Platoon in training, training in the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, Panorama behind the scenes at Sandhurst, and the Army in Belize and Borneo.

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Busy time in naval news circles

British crewmen lift a Royal Air Force British...

Harriers on Illustrious - maybe not a thing of the past

It’s been a very busy few days in naval news circles.

Firstly, the BBC reported that the bill for the CVF/QE class Aircraft Carrier project has rised by another billion pounds to nearly £7bn. And according to the reports, it still seems uncertain exactly whether one or two – or any – of the aircraft carriers will be fitted to operate jet aircraft. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston offers an explanation here. My take? Costs rises in big projects are always described as ‘just one of those things’, but when its the public purse thats carrying the can, is that good enough?

Secondly, last Thursday the Portsmouth News carried an exclusive report from un-named senior naval sources that HMS Illustrious is being equipped to operate Harriers. Is it possible that the crisis in Libya, and the RAF’s unconfirmed plea for an Aircraft Carrier have forced a very tacit u-turn from the Coalition Government?Originally Illustrious was going in for a ‘regular’ refit as a strike carrier. Then we were told that she was being fitted out as a Helicopter Carrier to fill in for HMS Ocean while she is in refit, and now the possibility of her being a strike carrier again is floated out. As we discussed here recently, it does not take much to turn a helicopter carrier into a harrier carrier – higher grade paint, plus of course spares and armaments. And crucially Illustrious still has her ski ramp. The Harriers themselves have not been scrapped, and are in storage at RAF Cottesmore. Apparently it would take around two months for them to be regenerated a fit state for operations. It seems like a sensible step to me, but of course a sensible step would have been to keep Ark Royal in the first place.

Finally, the recent issue of Warship: International Fleet Review is good value as usual. A healthy dose of deserved spite directed at the Coalition Government and the Strategic Defence Review, and plenty of sound editorial on how events in Libya and the Arab world have undermined the Defence Review only a matter of weeks after it was published. For me, the big question is, if the current Government can get its Defence Policy so wrong, do we trust them to ever get it right at all? How did the Government allow themselves to be hoodwinked so badly by the RAF? If only some of our politicians had a grasp of history – they would have known that the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to suit their arguments, and apparently won the air war in the Falklands singlehandedly.

Also in Warship IFR, there are some interesting opinions – believable, in my view – that the Defence Review was soft on the RAF thanks to underhand lobbying and bad advice from light blue quarters, and also as a sop to the then Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who was asked to step down as soon as the review was completed. Having read a lot of the thinking from the current CDS, General Sir David Richards, I doubt very much whether he would have wanted the RAF to remain as it has, with most of its expensive toys retained. How did anyone think it was a good idea to have a Defence Review steered by a senior officer who then left, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces?

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The Sinking of the Laconia – Links, previews and interviews

In readiness for the Docu-dramaThe Sinking of the Laconia, due to hit our screens later this week, here are a few interesting links I have found about the programme, the ship and the incident.

BBC webpage
Wikipedia entry
Internet Movie Database
Guardian interview with writer Alan Bleasdale
Suite101 page
BBC press pack with interviews and more
Interviews with the main characters
Werner Hartenstein (U-Boat Captain)
U-Boat.net page

Hopefully on Tuesday or Wednesday I will give you some insight into my personal connection with the Laconia, by sharing my Great-Uncle Tommy’s story.

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Leading from the front by General Sir Richard Dannatt

Richard Dannatt has probably been Britain’s most controversial General since the end of the Second World War. Not afraid to stand up for what he thought was right, he received the support of his men and officers, but at the same time became the scourge of the Brown Government. Not only for his public criticism of Government defence policy, but also for agreeing to advise the Conservative Party whilst he was still technically on the Army payroll.

Dannatt joined the Army in the early 70’s, becoming a subaltern in the Green Howards, a famous Yorkshire Regiment. The early 1970’s were a busy time for the army, with heavy commitments in Northern Ireland. Dannatt served several stints in the province, winning the Military Cross – something which he almost breezes over. Remarkably, Dannatt also suffered a major stroke in his mid 20’s. And even more remarkably, he managed to make a full recovery and serve on to have a full army career afterwards. A picture emerges of somebody who was no doubt a very brave man, with plenty of resolve. Dannatt also served as a senior commander in both Bosnia and Kosovo. All three operations, which involved fighting in and around people and dealing with security and reconstruction, gave a strong understanding of the issues in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Interestingly, Dannatt also gained a Bachelors Degree in Economic History – an interesting subject for an army officer to study. This obviously gave him a better understanding of budgets than most Generals ever manage to obtain! He also served in the Ministry of Defence several times, which ensured that he had a good understanding of how the Whitehall machine worked when he reached the top of the tree – again, not something many Generals master. This probably explains his clever use of media interviews to get his point across, rather than constantly banging ones head against the Whitehall ‘wall’.

But perhaps his greatest achievement was his work to restore the Military Covenant – the unwritten agreement of support between the armed forces, the Government and society. Within several years, homecoming parades for returning troops are packed. Charities such as Help for Heroes are raising millions for troops welfare. You cannot help but feel that the armed forces matter more to people in Britain more than they have done for a very long time, and this is a real and lasting achievement.

It was undoubtedly a mistake to agree to advise the Conservative Party, particularly as when asked Dannatt was still a paid member of the British Army, even though he had stood down as Chief of the General Staff. Dannatt explains that he had hoped to keep the announcement secret until he had left the Army, but that it seems to have been leaked for mischievous political reasons. Dannatt then changed his mind, deciding not to join the Conservative ranks as a Defence minister. As he quite rightly states, it would have undermined the serving Defence Chiefs to have one of their retired counterparts undermining them from a tangent. It was a rare naive moment for somebody who strikes me as a very astute man. The political management of Defence is in something of a strange situation – we have a scenario where politicians are appointed to head a department, usually with no experience of defence at all – and who are nominally in charge or ordering around older, senior commanders who have 30 years of experience behind them, and have fought and led in wars. It is a strange set-up indeed, and I cannot help but think that the new National Security Council fudges the issue even more.

The Memoirs of Dannatt’s predecessor, General Sir Mike Jackson, gave the impression of an officer who – although no fool – was definitely one of the lads. Dannatt strikes me as someone who, although keen to stand up for his men, is more of a thinker. This is shown by the last chapter, which is really Dannatt thinking about loud about what he calls ‘the future’, and where we need our armed forces to be to face threats that might – or might not – transpire. He quotes from General Sir Rupert Smith‘s utility of force, going further to suggest that modern wars will not be just amongst the people, but also about the people. And if we think about it, this is exactly what has been happening since the end of the Second World War. Yet still people hanker after a Cold War style armoured clash, the kind of war they would like rather than the kind of war we are faced with in the real world. The Army spent years doing this sat in Germany, until Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leonne and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan forced a change in thinking. We still have, however, the RAF longing for dogfights over the white cliffs of dover, in much the same fashion.

As somebody who was in charge of Defence ‘Programmes’ political parlance for buying equipment – Dannat has some strongs words to say about Defence Procurement. In particular, he repeatedly questions the RAF’s need to buy and maintain lavish numbers of fast fighter jets, when it is hard to see when exactly we will need them. Meanwhile, the Army struggled by for years with sub-standard vehicles and equipment, for wars that were happening in the here and now. Published before the Defence Review, it was sadly prophetic, as the RAF triumphed once again. Helicopters are one of Dannatt’s keen interests – as Colonel of the Army Air Corps, he earnt his Army flying wings at a relatively advanced age for a soldier! He sees the formation of the Joint Helicopter Command as a fudge, as it placed Helicopter support in an area where it was owned by no-one, and ripe for cuts. At a time when the Army needed as many helicopters as it could get.

This is not perhaps as readable or exciting in its own right as Mike Jackson’s memoirs, but in terms of explaining the past three years – some might argue much further – of political-military development, this book is crucial and will have a firm place in the historiography of the British Army. It’s certainly got me thinking.

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The Sinking of the Laconia… FINALLY!

I have been informed by a reliable source – via the BBC – that the Docu-drama ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ is going to reach our screens on 6 and 7 of January 2011. It will be on BBC at 9pm each night.

The programme was originally due to be on screen in the Spring of 2010. However the BBC asked the producer to edit it from a feature length drama to two shorter episodes. It’s been a long time coming, and there have been several false starts before, but it’s listen on the BBC website so fingers crossed!

For those of you who aren’t aware, my great-uncle Leading Stoker Thomas Daly was onboard the Laconia when she went down, so I’ve got a personal interest in the programme.

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The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War by Dr. Fred McGlade

The Imperial War Museum holds millions of photographs and films created during the Second World War, many of them by the British Army‘s Film and Photographic Unit. They are a treasured resource for military historians. Yet the story of the men who collected this iconic images has never adequately been told.

The beginning of the Second World War found the British Government ill at ease with propgadanda and information. The armed forces in particular seemed to be overly security conscious, and unwilling to inform the general public about their work. Yet total war involved every section of society, and hence it was vital to inform morale on the home front by letting the people know what their menfolk were up to overseas and at home. There were also considerable turf wars, first in Whitehall and then with allies once the US joined the war.

The British Army led the way in producing photographs and films, after forming the Army Film and Photographic Unit. Many of the films and photographs were collected by Sergeant cameramen, who were recruited from existing soldiers who had photographic experience. Hence an ideal combination was found – men who knew how to work a camera, but had also spent some time in the Army. Several of the AFPU men were killed in action, and several more were decorated for bravery. Photographing during wartime was particularly testing, especially in extreme climates such as the desert in North Africa and the jungle in Burma. And like many ‘non-combatants’, the cameramen must have been extremely brave to be in the thick of battle, without being able to take an active part in it.

Personally, for me the most fascinating images produced by the AFPU came from Operation Market Garden. Along with Alan Wood of the Express and Stanley Maxted of the BBC – who also produced some vital reports – three AFPU Sergeants parachuted into Arnhem, and took some iconic images of the battle. Perhaps the most memorable is that of a mortar team of the Border Regiment, their mortar barrell almost vertical in the short range, fighting hard in the cauldron of Oosterbeek. AFPU cameramen also recorded the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, essential for ensuring that the holocaust was not to be forgotten.

There were considerable tensions with the US authorities, however. The US Government was keen to ensure that the US public saw their armed forces taking as active a part as possible in the war. Even though the US was providing by far the bulk of the men and equipment fighting in Europe, to believe some US produced films the americans won the war single-handedly. Sound familiar? Saving Private Ryan, U-571…. obviously Hollywood taking historical licence is not a new phenomenon. But the wartime film showing a band of americans liberating Burma really has to take the biscuit. Just why US public opinion justified lies has never really occured to me.

Fred McGlade has produced an important and interesting record of the work of the AFPU. There are some fascinating images in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and this book gives them added meaning. I’ve always thought that it was a bit strange to use photographs to illustrate a war, but not to ‘illustrate’ the photographs and how they were obtained.

The History of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit in the Second World War is published by Helion

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Turn Back Time – The High Street

The historic marketplace, with the Market Cross

Shepton Mallett, the setting for The High Street (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just watched this fascinating programme on BBC iplayer. Beginning with the 1870’s, each episode takes a look at the culture of the British High Street through the ages. Set in Shepton Mallet, four shops have been transformed into historic themed shops. I’m a big fan of hese ‘history brought to life’ programmes, even if some people sniff about them not being realistic or being cheap.

Of course we all know pretty well that the old British High Street has taken something of a hammering since the advent of the supermarket and out of town shopping. This isn’t necessarily all bad, but it is impossible not to think that shopping in an old school High Street might have been a lot more pleasant than battling your way through the endless supermarket aisles. And not only in terms of shopping, but in terms of community, the High Street was important to life. Its a fascinating glimpse into ways of life that have all but disappeared – how female members of the family would never work in the front of house, how most shopkeepers would routinely deliver items at no extra charge (beating online shopping by a clear century), and how Victorian Butchers would display their wares on the outside of their shops – something that Environmental Health curtails nowadays.  

It was interesting to see how the various traders fared. The Grocers learnt to be flexible, to adapt to what they did or did not have in stock, and to deliver. The Baker struggled to begin with, but fared better after compromising quality for economy – clearly the Victorian consumer was not bothered overly if their bread was fluffy or white enough, but just wanted something to eat at a decent price. The Butcher struggled with modern sensibilities about what exactly goes into sausages, and in trying to sell every part of a pig. Even though we still eat most of the body of an animal nowadays, we have a naive ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude – people were really not used to seeing a carcass being Butchered in front of them. And the Ironmonger struggled to sell to customers, but spent most of his time servicing the other shopkeepers.

Lets take a quick look at Portsmouth High Street. The main thoroughfare in the town, it was an extremely fashionable place, and was described by conteporaries during the nineteenth century as ‘ranking among the finest streets in London’. You could purchase telescopes, barometers, books, miniatures, clothes, and also the usual fare such as food and drink. Everyone would have known each other, and the shopkeepers all moved in the same circles, and lived above their shops. Charpentier’s 1840 guide to the High Street even included a full length panorama of the street, showing each shop and house. On market day in particular you could have walked the length of the street and picked up everything that you needed, and also nearby you had a host of pubs, inns, hotels, coffee shops, banks, the Parish Church and of course the Town Hall and Market House in the middle of the street. Its not difficult to see how communities are more disjointed without this kind of hub.

I’m not sure if it was really necessary to have the annoying bloke from masterchef as the presenter, but thankfully he doesn’t rear his shiny head or open his mouth too often.

Future episodes will focus on the Edwardian, Wartime Britain, the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s; and its that change through time that I’ll be interested to see. The BBC is also running a ‘Hands on History’ campaign tied in with the programme, encouraging viewers to find out more about their High Street. That’s the beauty of a programme like this – it could apply to any High Street in any town in the country.

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British History to make a comeback in Schools?

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia

 

The Education Secretary has announced that British History will make a comeback in the ‘heart of the national curriculum‘, in a back to basics move.

I have to say I broadly approve. Whilst I would not want to go back to the bad old days of names and dates of kings and queens, it seems absurd that children learn hardly anything about British history, but lots about politically correct history from the four corners of the globe. For instance, at GCSE I did about Cowboys and Indians – whats the point of that? For some reason, someone somewhere had the bare-brained idea that if we teach children about British history, they will turn out to be BNP supporters, and if we teach them about wars, then they will want to blow each others brains out. Actually, when it comes to military history, I think the opposite is true. But in general, history teaching in schools is mind numbing. I feel sorry for teachers who want to show some latitude but can’t, thanks to the curriculum.

As Al Murray said, British children seem to think that Nelson is the character with the funny laugh in the Simpsons. A sad indictment indeed. Basic elements of our history should be a given for everyone, and we should be encouraged to look back with pride on things that are worth feeling proud about. If we understand where we came from, and the world around us, we find it easier to place ourselves in it and be sure of who we are. It puts us in context. We do that by starting with our local area and our country, not the social history of the Umboto tribe of the Limpopo valley.

On a related matter, it appears that the renowned Historian Simon Schama has been asked to advise the Government on history teaching. This is a very positive step, to have a history academic advising rather than some shadowy policy advisor. Schama’s background is in Dutch Art and French Social History during the revolution, but he did also of course present the succesful History of Britain series on the BBC. Not always easy to watch, and a bit ‘top-down’, but hey its a step in the right direction.

On a more light-hearted note, the BBC News Magazine has posted a 7 question quiz on British History… I’m ashamed to say I only scored three!

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First Light by Geoff Wellum on BBC2

I’ve just watched the TV adaptation of Geoffrey Wellum‘s ‘First Light‘ on BBC2. Regular readers will remember that I reviewed the book earlier this year.

The TV version is slightly truncated, dealing solely with Wellum’s experiences during the Battle of Britain. The story begins with him arriving at 92 Squadron as a green, 18 year old pilot. The book describes his schooling and training. The programme also tells us very little about his career after the Battle of Britain – after serving as an instructor with an Operational Training Unit, he served in Malta before suffering a nervous breakdown.

It was a very good programme though, with some cracking action shots and archive footage. It seems to have been researched very well, and im terms of details was loyal to Wellum’s book. In particular I think the screenwriters did a very good job of emphasising the bond between the young pilots, and the emotional and psychological effects of such intense, demmanding combat. The scenes with Wellum looking back on his experiences were very thoughtful, and conveyed the dignified reflections of a distinguished man.

Unfortunately First Light is not available to watch again on BBC iplayer (whoever was responsible for that should be ashamed), but you can read more about the making of the programme here on the Director’s Blog.

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Filed under Book of the Week, On TV, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

How to build… Britain’s Secret Engineers

Aside from having a gramatically suspect title, this was another interesting instalment in the BBC’s ‘how to build’ series, that kicked off with a look at the Astute Class Nuclear Submarines several weeks ago.

QinetiQ is, essentially, the UK’s former Defence research and development in privatised form. Since formation in 2001 and floating on the stock market in 2006, QinetiQ has expanded and taken on concerns globally, including in the US. I’m not sure I personally agree with the country’s defence technology expertise being hived off to the private sector, even if the Government does retain a controlling stake. But thats an argument for another day!

The main focus of this programme is the work to make eight Chinook heavy lift helicopters ready for acceptance by the RAF. They were initially purchased in 1995 as CH3 special forces versions, at a cost of £259m. However, due to problems with their operating systems they never actually made it into service, and instead have been sat in storage for years. Reportedly, they could not fly in cloud. It was, to quote, the Defence Select Committee, a ‘gold standard procurement cock-up’. One that seems even more ridiculous, given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan it was decided to strip the spare Chinooks down, refit them to CH2 standard and get them into use as soon as possible.

The work is largely being carried out by QinetiQ at Farnborough and Boscombe Down. We watch the project manager overseeing the final stages of the fourth Chinook, as the wiring is completed – a mammoth task indeed. One person I do not envy is the young engineer who climbed inside the fuel tank to work on a fitting inside – not for the claustrophobic, and he could only stay in there for short periods due to fumes. One of the final – and most interesting – parts of the project was the fitting of the rotor blades, something that looked paticularly fiddly.

Another interesting project is the Tallon unmanned bomb disposal vehicle, primarily being developed in America. Made out of very few parts, and with a highly maneouvreable arm, four cameras giving 360 vision, and enough power to pull a small family car, the Tallon is a prime example of the Defence industry reacting to the needs of the armed forces. Not only that, but QinetiQ are also developing the Tallon for civilian use. A fine example of how developments inspired by military needs can have spin-offs for civilian use too.

Its difficult to place too much stock on a TV programme, but the impression gained is one of a hard-working bunch of people who seem to appreciate that what they are working on is very important to the troops on the ground in Helmand. Its a shame however that the future looks bleak when it comes to UK Defence procurement, ie there isnt going to be much of it for the foreseable future. Therefore its probably wise for QinetiQ to be diversifying into civilian markets, such as developing stealth technology to prevent wind turbines interfering with air traffic control radars.

A company like QinetiQ should be the heirs of great British military inventors and designers such as Barnes Wallis, Donald Bailey and R.J. Mitchell. In particular, the UK Defence industry has fallen far behind when it comes to the export market – more should be done to create jobs for companies such as BAE and QinetiQ.

How to Build… Britain’s Secret Engineers can be watched on BBC iplayer

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How to build a nuclear Submarine

I watched this documentary on BBC2 last night. It followed the building of the Royal Navy’s new class of Astute attack submarines. Aside from the usual PR feel of the programme, it was an interesting look behind the scenes at what goes into building a nuclear submarine.

What I found really interesting was the emphasis on how important shipbuilding is to the town of Barrow. The launch of Astute came 10 years after the launch of the last nuclear submarine, and in those intervening years most of the shipbuilding skills had been lost, and apprentice schemes had to be started up from scratch. And thus we follow 19 year old Erin Browne as she works on one of the subs wiring up the electrics.

We get to see how the submarines are built in sections, which are then moved – by road! – into the shipbuilding hall and welded together. We see how the command section is built and then slotted into place. We get a rare close up look at the living conditions on a nuclear submarine, and the process of getting a nucler sub ready for sea – its not every day, after all, that you get to see a nuclear reactor switched on!

What has to be worrying is the likelihood that orders for new ships will be few and far between after the current Defence Review, leaving towns like Barrow facing mass unemployment and all of the social problems that come with it.

How to build a nuclear submarine can be seen on BBC iplayer until Sunday 18th July 2010.

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