One of the most vociferous critics of the BBC is the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. He has routinely attacked the public service broadcaster for its ‘lefty bias’ and he’d like to see it emasculated. He presents his general view in this column written for the Telegraph. To be fair to Heffer, his is a fiercely independent voice rather than a mouthpiece for the Conservative Party, but even so it is strange to see so partisan a commentator given what is effectively carte blanche on BBC4 (a channel he would like to see closed down) to explain his own take on a specific issue about British film culture in ‘Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory‘.
BBC4 specialises in documentaries of various kinds, often using archive film materials and sometimes, as in this case, introducing a season of films. Heffers’ programme, which he wrote himself, follows a familiar pattern with ‘straight to camera’ presentation by the man himself plus clips from the films he wants to discuss and interviews with actors, directors and experts. The experts here are Peter Hennessy, well-known historian of post-war Britain, and Matthew Sweet who has built a reputation through books and TV programmes like this as a popular film historian. They provide useful observations on Britain and British films in the 1950s but neither of them engage with the central question of how representations of national identity might work in a specific film culture. There are in fact no alternative voices to challenge Heffer’s own simplistic notions.
Heffer has just one strategy to nullify criticism. He mentions the critics of the 1950s war films and then simply re-asserts his own position without actually engaging in debate. Then he moves on. In the Independent today, TV critic Tom Sutcliffe suggests that the programme was most enjoyable because it was so amusing – and that this was all down to Heffer’s presentation. Sutcliffe suggests that it isn’t subtle but “I suspect that Heffer may think that subtlety is subversively un-British in itself”. It’s true that it was amusing in this uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t make up for the lamentable analysis. It’s unlikely that BBC4 will broadcast a more carefully prepared analytical essay about British national identity as represented in its war films – but it might be interesting to see an opposing ‘personal view’ of what representations of 1939-45 in British films might mean to British audiences.
Some of the films Heffer discusses are showing on BBC4 over the next few days. The films themselves are certainly worth watching. What Heffer doesn’t say is that there were other films that featured wartime narratives (and what happened to service personnel after they were demobbed) but that overall the numbers of war films have been over-emphasised in the histories of the period.