“History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always – eventually – manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.”
Yes, Constant Reader, another documentary. Mainly because I’m sure you’re tired of reading interminable posts about comedy, and there’s no proper telly on the books till TARDIS Thursday (which may or may not happen). So: The British Army of the Rhine it is.
A brief summary of the background is required if you want to understand this review. I’ll try and make it interesting.
Basically, ever since WWII, there’s been a British army presence in Germany: at first to prevent fascism (or, as one of the commentators in a radio clip from about 1950 called it, a “disease of the mind” – I jest not) from ever arising again, and to get Germany to “put their house in order” (incidentally, it occurred to me that Germany is surprisingly well-organised given that the entire country was completely smashed only seventy years ago – in fact, it’s proverbial for organisation and efficiency). Although I don’t think British tanks blowing up villages for target practice helped much with this. Then, of course, the Cold War came along (announced by a clip of JFK appearing, apparently a propos of nothing) and we are told the shocking fact that “the British army would only be able to withstand an attack [of the Russians] for 48 hours before capitulating”. 48 hours? Really? And was this common knowledge in Britain? That one fact has totally realigned my perspective on the Cold War.
Well, as we all know, the Cold War ended happily (i.e. no one killed each other) and then…why did the British presence in Germany persist again? I don’t think this was really explained very well, apart from a reference to an agreement with the German government that they could stay. It’s only now that the big bases over there are starting to shut down, on the basis, I suspect, that they are massively expensive to run and apparently serve no real purpose.
Thus endeth the history lesson for today. As to the actual programme: it was filled with fascinating tit-bits of information about army life – did you know they used to have special army money to spend on the bases? Like Monopoly money? Well, neither did I. And there’s the testimony from actual army people who were there: my favourite part was when one of these said, “The three German phrases we learnt were: “One beer”; “another beer”; and “he pays”.” That does tell you something about army people’s priorities.
A slightly quirky note was the soundtrack – all golden oldies like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Downtown” (which is not by the Beatles, by the way) but sung in German. That was slightly surreal.
The ubiquitous black-and-white film clips in which everyone speaks RP: “Yerss, well, one joins the army because…” Sentimental moments like the bit describing the immensely popular radio programme “Two Way Family Favourites” in which people at home could request songs for family members serving abroad and vice versa. Of course, immediately following this lovely idea is a reminder of how prescriptive 1950s Britain could be in these matters: a soldier couldn’t request a song for his girlfriend or fiance, only for his family.
It’s all narrated by Denis Lawson (you know, the new Irish copper on New Tricks), who’s very unobtrusive and neutral – it’s a straight documentary in that respect, no melodramatic tales of distressed Germans or anything. The facts and the clips and the people who were there are allowed to speak for themselves instead of being forced into a narrative. That’s always good.
Oh, and I’ll leave you with this observation: when the British Forces Broadcasting Service launched their new TV station, drink-driving offences among Rhine soldiers dropped to almost zero. Who said television was bad for you?