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WWII Dramas

Small-screen stories of 1939-45 and its impact

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In 1905 the poet and philosopher George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". Since the end of the Second World War, the 1939-45 conflict has been replayed hundreds of times, first in the cinema and latterly on television, especially after war movies started to peter out in the latter half of the 1960s.

Although traditional, essentially heroic or merely nostalgic versions of the conflict, like the romantic We'll Meet Again (ITV, 1982), continue to be screened, from the 1970s onwards a much more complex interpretation became possible as the distance from the original events grew greater and viewers became more sophisticated. This was certainly noticeable in a variety of biographical dramas, such as the impressionistic Orde Wingate (BBC, 1976); Ian Curteis' three-hour Churchill and the Generals (BBC, tx. 23/9/1979); Oppenheimer (BBC, 1980), starring Sam Waterstone as the scientist who developed the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs; and Don Shaw's compelling Bomber Harris (BBC, tx. 3/9/1989), with John Thaw as the man who ordered the RAF's fire bombing of Dresden. Conversely, courting controversy didn't stop Mosley (Channel 4, 1998), a lightweight biography of the British fascist leader, from being a critical and ratings disappointment. Two fascinating portrayals of Adolf Hitler are especially worth noting however: The Gangster Show (BBC, tx. 7/11/1972), starring Nicol Williamson, taken from Brecht's 'The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui', and Frank Finlay's celebrated portrayal of the Fuhrer's last ten days in The Death of Adolf Hitler (ITV, tx. 7/1/1973).

True events also inspired such vivid dramas as It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow (ITV, tx. 8/10/1975), which recreated the events which caused hundreds to die when panic broke out in Bethnal Green tube station during an air raid, and David Pirie's Rainy Day Women (BBC, 10/4/1984), a fascinating dissection of a remote rural community's descent into barbarity as a result of invasion fears. Also fact-based was Jack Pulman's splendidly funny Private Schulz (BBC, 1981), which unusually told its story from the perspective of the Germans.

The closest the Nazis actually came to reaching Britain was their occupation of the Channel Islands from June 1940. One of the earliest depictions of this was Terence Dudley's comedy 'A Piece of Resistance' (BBC, The Wednesday Play, tx. 19/10/1966). Much more substantial was the true-life drama The Dame of Sark (ITV, tx. 29/12/1976) starring Celia Johnson, while the pilot sitcom Owner Occupied (ITV, 1977), starring Hannah Gordon, never developed into a series. The most sustained dramatisation, however, remains Enemy at the Door (ITV, 1978-80), an adroit look at the difficulties endured by the British islanders facing the spectre of collaboration after the fall of France.

The war in France and the low countries inspired such works as Jean-Paul Sartre's 'Men Without Shadows' (ITV, Television Playhouse, tx. 25/10/1957), Robert Barr's Moonstrike (BBC, 1963) and the harrowing The White Rabbit (BBC, 1967), starring Kenneth More as a real-life officer who, after being caught in France, was tortured relentlessly by the Gestapo. Manhunt (ITV, 1970), Fair Stood the Wind for France (BBC, 1981) - adapted from H.E. Bates' novel - and the popular Wish Me Luck (ITV, 1988-90) all dealt with RAF men stuck behind enemy lines, as did the hugely successful Secret Army (BBC, 1977-79), set in Belgium, which was also notable for the prominent role women played in the stories.

Women in war have, when on rare occasion given prominence. either been portrayed highly glamorously or extremely roughly. Good examples of the former include The Camomile Lawn (Channel 4, 1992), the biopic The One and Only Phyllis Dixey (ITV, 1/11/1978), with Lesley-Ann Down as the wartime stripper, and the humorous transposition of the naughty 1940's strip (sic) cartoon Jane (BBC, 1982; Jane in the Desert, 1984). Interestingly, dramatisations of the plight of women overseas have been much grittier, especially Tenko (BBC, 1981-84), set in a Japanese PoW camp, which was a huge ratings winner. The peripatetic Fortunes of War (BBC, 1987) followed its heroine from Bucharest to Egypt as she slowly found an identity separate from that of her husband. The risible Jenny's War (ITV, 1985) had Dyan Cannon as an American looking for her son behind enemy lines, while Dennis Potter's considerably more impressive Christabel (BBC, 1988) featured a fine performance from Liz Hurley as a British woman trying to track down her German-born husband who has been arrested for sedition by the Nazi authorities.

The British far away from home are a major theme in war dramas, whether it be the prisoners in Colditz (BBC, 1972-74), or the British children who were sent away from major cities to avoid Nazi bombing raids. Examples include Jack Rosenthal's magnificent The Evacuees (BBC, 3/5/1975), Goodnight Mr Tom (ITV, 25/10/1998), starring John Thaw as the curmudgeonly title character, and two adaptations of Nina Bawden's Carrie's War (BBC, 1974; 2004). The most formally daring depiction of children during the conflict, however, remains Potter's classic Blue Remembered Hills (BBC, 30/1/1979), in which adult actors play working-class boys and girls frolicking in the countryside.

While sagas of upper-class family life like The Camomile Lawn have been much more common, John Finch's gargantuan 52-part serial A Family at War (ITV, 1970-72) bucked convention by being set in Liverpool and amongst working people, as did Rosenthal's The Evacuees (based in Manchester and Blackpool) and his adaptation of C.P. Taylor's And a Nightingale Sang (ITV, 17/4/1989) set in Newcastle. The bomb disposal series Danger U.X.B. (ITV, 1979) remains most notable, apart from its nail-biting suspense sequences, for its depiction of the trials and tribulations of its lower-class sappers, who have come to work in London from all over the British Isles.

Although recent war dramas such as The Cazalets (BBC, 2001), which had to be left without an ending, and Uncle Adolf (ITV, 2005), with Ken Stott as Hitler, have not fared well in the ratings, Anthony Horowitz's detective series Foyle's War (ITV, 2002- ), set in Hastings, has been a major success and is undoubtedly the most popular war series on British television for over a decade.

Sergio Angelini

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Blue Remembered Hills (1979)

Blue Remembered Hills (1979)

Dennis Potter recreates a 1940s West Country childhood, using adult actors

Thumbnail image of Carrie's War (1974)

Carrie's War (1974)

Memorable children's drama set in WWII Wales

Thumbnail image of Cazalets, The (2001)

Cazalets, The (2001)

Drama about how the wealthy Cazalets are affected by World War II

Thumbnail image of Colditz (1972-74)

Colditz (1972-74)

Tense drama about Allied captives in a WWII German prison camp

Thumbnail image of Danger U.X.B. (1979)

Danger U.X.B. (1979)

White-knuckle drama following a bomb-disposal unit in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Enemy at the Door (1978-80)

Enemy at the Door (1978-80)

Powerful drama set in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands

Thumbnail image of Evacuees, The (1975)

Evacuees, The (1975)

Jack Rosenthal WWII drama about two Jewish boys evacuated to Blackpool

Thumbnail image of Family at War, A (1970-72)

Family at War, A (1970-72)

Epic saga following a working-class Liverpool family from 1938 to 1945

Thumbnail image of Fortunes of War (1987)

Fortunes of War (1987)

Romantic wartime drama starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson

Thumbnail image of Private Schulz (1981)

Private Schulz (1981)

WWII comedy drama about a reluctant SS soldier with big dreams

Thumbnail image of Rainy Day Women (1984)

Rainy Day Women (1984)

Poignant drama about wartime tensions in a remote English village

Thumbnail image of Secret Army (1977-79)

Secret Army (1977-79)

Gripping WWII drama about the Belgian resistance

Thumbnail image of Sword of Honour (1967)

Sword of Honour (1967)

Adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh trilogy about WWII

Thumbnail image of Tenko (1981-84)

Tenko (1981-84)

Gruelling story of women PoWs in a Japanese camp in Singapore

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