DIANA MOSLEY: ADOLF, OSWALD AND ME
Channel 4, Sunday
SEVEN WONDERS OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORLD
BBC 2, Thursday
THE CURSE OF BLUE PETER
THE WEST WING
UNDERSTATEMENT IS one of the defining qualities of the British upper classes, so it's said. Although never loudly or boastfully, of course. There may be something in that. Watching Diana Mosley: Adolf, Oswald and Me, I was struck by just how little rope its subject needed to hang herself.
Many obituaries of Lady Mosley depicted her as a flower of aristocratic womanhood with a few rather eccentric opinions. This programme provided a useful antidote. Diana Mosley was a Nazi. To be a Nazi is not a political standpoint, and thus tolerable. It is a moral one, and insupportable. So was she. That hasn't stopped a legion of apologists from trying to support her. But nothing her defenders say could muffle the clunkers which, in her final interview, fell from Mosley's own mouth and landed with a series of heavy thuds upon her immaculate carpet.
Mosley was not merely unrepentant, she was defiant, with a face like a chisel and a voice to match. She thought the ideas of her second husband, the Hitler acolyte Oswald Mosley, “sounded so sensible and wise, and it turned out that they were.” During her years of hobnobbing with the Third Reich's leadership, the issue of the Jews “just never cropped up.” That said, it was those unmentioned Jews who “started the quarrel.” Oh, and Hitler was actually a delightful man who did a very droll impression of Mussolini. What a card.
Hannah Arendt famously remarked upon “The banality of evil”. What we saw here was the vapidity of evil, a rigid shell enclosing a mind empty of doubt or conscience and untroubled by a pinprick of self-knowledge. Mosley believed that she had been interned during the war “simply for having lunch with Hitler.” She denied that her husband championed anti-semitism, which was like denying he had a moustache.
Refusing to see what was in front of her own face was Diana Mosley's crime. The same crime brought Nazi architect and slavedriver Albert Speer 20 years in Spandau prison. The Mosleys, released from internment to public protest, got a happy life at pasture, eventual social lionisation and, at the last, fawning eulogies. Their story epitomises in shabby microcosm faults that dog this country still: snobbery, denial and a prizing of airs and graces over the most basic decency.
You might feel better about Blighty after viewing Seven Wonders of The Industrial World, which began with Isambard Kingdom Brunel's giant steamship, The Great Eastern.
The docudrama was filmed in mock fly-on-the-wall style, as if it were an episode of Trouble at the Top - a conceit that relied on naturalism of acting, direction and computer graphics. Despite the inevitable period costume rhubarbing, posturing and hat-raising, it was generally convincing, with Ron Cook particularly good as Brunel. His high-concept pitch to the moneymen (“a Crystal Palace of the sea!”)
reminded me of countless meetings I've sat through myself, none of them remotely so productive.
The Peter Principle tells us that, succeeding with ever grander projects, Brunel was bound to overreach himself and fail. Hindsight writes that off as the price of his vast contribution to the modern world. Contemporary thinking was not so kind. The Great Eastern ran gluttonously over budget and schedule, and claimed at least eight lives - including, indirectly, Brunel's own. Popular excitement about the launch, wrote The Times, was “not to be wondered at, when we consider what a splendid chance presents itself of a fearful catastrophe.” The vessel proved “a commercial disaster but an engineering triumph.” Heaven help those who back a visionary. History may commend them, but their bank manager won't.
Unlike The Great Eastern, this glossy, ambitious and expensive show represented money well spent. Lavishly recreated, the shipbuilding work was thrilling to witness: “Inside the ship's hull, children squeeze between the walls of metal, handling white hot rivets at temperatures of over a thousand degrees.” Tell that to the little bleeders when they moan about their homework.
Unless they're slacking off to watch Blue Peter - in which case fling a quilt over the telly. According to The Curse of Blue Peter, they are risking exposure to the most depraved creatures on the box.
Asked why so many Blue Peter presenters come to grief, showbiz journalist Kevin O'Sullivan said, very sensibly, “They all fell from grace because they were caught out being grown-ups, and that is the curse of Blue Peter.” That he said it within 30 seconds of the opening titles rendered the remaining hour of laboured sensationalism redundant. But it would have been redundant anyway. To entertain us, a scandal must be either fresh or forgotten, and most of this stuff was wearingly familiar.
Somewhere beneath the hammy “curse” contrivance and the oafish, witless narration lay a very watchable programme, twitching in agony. Blue Peter is a unique and uniquely troubled TV show, and the story of how it came about, how it has endured, how successive presenters felt harried, bullied, belittled and misused on it, was absorbing. But someone decided the only way to sell that story was to piggy-back it on John Leslie's press cuttings and louse it up with the same old lazy format and sub-celebrity tat. If you don't have the true tabloid instinct for making gossip sharp, simple and funny, it's impossible to fake it. They could have made a fine, straightforward documentary and, I'll bet, done no damage at all to their ratings.
Over on The West Wing, it was election day. Jed Bartlet, a sagacious Democrat president so pure of heart that even his illegal conspiracies are virtuous, took on Governor Robert Ritchie, a Republican yahoo who is, effectively, Dubya in a pantomime cape. You can see why Americans love this show. It's what their government would look like if the founding fathers' dreams had been realised. And you can see why politicians love it. It's a magic mirror in which each one can be the fairest of them all. I love it because it applies the meticulous standards of US sitcom writing to sophisticated drama. . . ah, who am I kidding. I love it because it's a beautiful, polished soap opera and it makes me feel tearfully patriotic for a nation I don't even belong to.
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