Review of Joseph Levine's The Secret History of the Blitz
Simon & Schuster, 2015
The potent notion of the “Blitz Spirit” has resonated down the decades since the end of World War II, continually reinforcing a self-image “in extremis” for many English people: that they were, and remain, an especially plucky breed, who blithely kept calm and carried on through the worst that Hitler and the Luftwaffe could throw at them during the peak of the bombing campaign of 1940-1941. “London Can Take It” was the rallying cry at the time, with George Formby’s ukulele and permanent grin part of the propaganda struggle being fought alongside the real war, just as important to the ultimate and inevitable victory to come.
That at least became, and perhaps still is to a large degree, the received wisdom; the popular view of the Blitz that, as so often happens, mixes myth with reality to a degree that makes it difficult to disentangle the one from the other. The idea of a determined, phlegmatic and united population coming together to defy a common foe is the one that remains uppermost in the popular consciousness. Unfortunately for this initially comforting view of our national reaction to extreme threat, there are many stories —some previously untold or simply ignored— that refuse to align with this rather straightforward narrative. It is these experiences that Joshua Levine has unearthed and given long overdue exposure. His scouring of Mass Observation surveys from the time, the Imperial War Musuem's archives, oral histories and other sources gives a voice to the previously unheard.
Thus we get personal testimonies from those on the frontline of the Blitz: the men, women and children forced together in underground shelters, the “helpless and homeless,” living in a state of constant fear, anxiety and disorientation. There were also the “chatterbugs and pessimists” whose careless talk and sometimes selfish, sometimes criminal actions did indeed cost lives. For the criminal underworld the Blitz was a golden age, whilst the previously unblemished could be enticed or inadvertently fall into criminality through the potent mix of adversity and opportunity. Problems of looting, bomb site “rubber-necking,” and black market operations abounded —the latter not always of the “cheeky chappie spiv” variety exemplified by the fictional Private Walker from the BBC television comedy Dad’s Army.
From the stories that Levine relates concerning the Blitz in London and other cities such as Coventry and Southampton that were also very badly affected, we get an insight into the fear and psychological trauma that are too easily overlooked in the sepia-tinted view of heroism on the home front. People were living in the moment, which led to a liberation of the mind and body in many respects: sexual freedoms and opportunities presented themselves and many people took them, behaving in ways that they would never previously have envisaged for themselves. Philip Larkin’s ironical suggestion in Annus Mirabilis that “sexual intercourse began in 1963,” following the Chatterley trial of that year, completely overlooks 1940 and 1941 with their numerous one-night stands, the wives and partners of soldiers away at war seeking comfort and physical intimacy elsewhere. Many gave little thought to what might happen in the future, since the bleak truth was that they might not live to see it.
Levine is careful not to dismiss the truth in the idea of the “Blitz Spirit,” acknowledging the extraordinary resilience and altruism that so many people did display throughout this period and the important contribution that their experiences made to political, social and economic developments both during and after the war, not least to the arrival of the welfare state and the attainment of a large degree of political consensus that lasted for decades.
Levine’s achievement in this very human and compassionate selection and analysis of previously untold stories is to add the gritty, sometimes uncomfortable reality of some aspects that do not fit within the neat outlines of the “Blitz Spirit” narrative. In doing so, far from undermining the achievement of so many ordinary people in finding ways to get through the days of the Blitz, he makes it appear—to this reader—all the greater. Mass Observation testimonies and other less traditional sources enable a more realistic and nuanced appreciation of the period in this fascinating and enlightening reassessment.--Steve Cox
Oliver Crocker's All Memories Great and Small: Review and Author Interview
Miwk Publishing, 2016
For those of us of a certain age, All Creatures Great and Small was an essential part of our Sunday night viewing schedule throughout the late 1980s. The timeless stories of Yorkshire vets James, Siegfried and Tristan by James Herriot (Alf Wight), with their gentle humour and well-observed characters, charmed and delighted millions of viewers every week. In fact, you could say that All Creatures Great and Small kick-started the tradition of a rural drama on a Sunday night, leading to shows such as Heartbeat, Doc Martin, and more recently Downton Abbey. Last year was the centenary of Alf Wight’s birth, and Oliver Crocker was inspired to write the commemorative book All Memories Great and Small.
He explains the background thus: “I got the boxed set of All Creatures one Christmas. I had studied at York University, but never experienced the Dales. After watching the boxed set, I discovered that Skeldale House in the TV series is now a guesthouse and the pub across the road was used as the Drovers Arms in the series. So we arranged a visit and I felt as if we were in All Creatures. Whilst we were up there we went to the World of James Herriot museum, which has the magic of the TV set —his surgery, his instruments, his home. Given the centenary and the rumours that HBO were looking into making a new series, I wanted to buy a book about the BBC series, and it turned out that no-one had written a book about it. Apparently this was because the BBC used to do annuals, but not books as such.”
The book is painstakingly researched and lovingly compiled, beginning chronologically at Episode One and including the Radio Times synopsis. It is guided by Crocker’s decision to let those involved speak, rather than offer his own opinions and critiques. This style of writing, based on interviews with all the surviving cast and crew, builds up anecdote upon anecdote until a complete picture emerges. Crocker explains the reasoning behind the method: “I never wanted it to be a critical review of every episode — instead I wanted it to tell the story of the production. All Creatures is such a gentle story that I didn’t think it needed a critique. It’s the sort of show to watch with a cup of tea and relax by, not like watching Sherlock. Coincidentally, they have started repeating the show on Drama, and I have had people tell me that they are reading the book as the episodes are being broadcast. I very much wanted it to be like a written audio commentary.”
Crocker already had plenty of experience in doing interviews: “I used to make special features for DVDs, and I used to track down cast and crew and celebrate the work they’d done. I’ve interviewed people from Z-Cars and Dixon of Dock Green. I initially thought about doing this as a podcast, as all the DVDs are out now, so that it was too late to do special features for them, but instead I finally decided to do a book.”
The interviewees themselves don’t hold anything back. Christopher Timothy is frank and honest about the role and the impact that it had on his career, and relates a wonderful anecdote: Alf Wight once complimented him on being the James Herriot that he had written. Carol Drinkwater is also very open about why she left the series. Robert Hardy, arguably one of the greatest actors of his generation, talks about character development and what he brought to the role, whilst Peter Davison is as engaging and entertaining as I remember him from Dr Who events. Memories of those no longer with us, like Lynda Bellingham, writers Johnny Byrne and Brian Finch, and script editor Joy Lale, are an essential part of the story and help to memorialise them and the work that they contributed to this iconic series. The interviews, which also include producer Bill Sellars, at the helm from start to finish, and directors such as Tony Virgo, are in fact the story of BBC TV from the late seventies right through to the changes at the end of the eighties. It is fair to see All Creatures as a production from the golden age of television. When it started in 1978 there were only three TV channels, and by the time it bowed out in 1990, we had just entered the multi-channel era.
I observed that it was quite a coup to get interviews with the entire surviving cast. How did that come about? “I was lucky that I had bought books by Carol Drinkwater for my Mum and she had signed them and sent them special delivery to me, so she was the first of the regulars that I wrote to. We spoke and she said, have you spoken to Christopher (Timothy – James Herriot), Tim (Robert Hardy – Siegfried Farnon) and Peter (Davison – Tristan Farnon)? I hadn’t, but she put a word in for me. I interviewed Chris after one of his theatre tours had finished and he invited me to come and see his play. I asked Peter Davison for a phone interview and he suggested a meeting —he promised me an hour and in the end he gave me three! I had ninety minutes on the phone with Robert Hardy and then met him at the centenary gala dinner. The whole cast were down to earth. What shone through was that they all cared about the show and felt a sense of responsibility to the source material.”
The overall impression left by the interviews is very positive, as Crocker notes. While he has himself worked in TV and had varied experiences on set, from this project he got the feeling that with All Creatures, “everyone was having fun. I loved the quote from Carol Ganniclifft (now Churchill) who was a make-up artist —‘when I think back, I think of sunshine’.”
Alf Wight’s daughter Rosie wrote the foreword for the book. Crocker explains: “I wanted it to have full approval from the family. I wrote to Rosie and Jim before I had a publisher and explained what I was doing. I asked them for a foreword, and Rosie was nervous as it was the first foreword that she had ever done, but it was brilliant. She has done some signings up in Thirsk with me, and the whole Herriot family have been tremendously supportive. She said that her Dad would have loved this book, which was great.”
Crocker is sceptical about the HBO project’s chances of success without the original cast. “Robert Hardy’s performance as Siegfried is mesmerising in every scene—my wife finds him exhausting but I find him addictive! They are all such clever actors. Christopher Timothy’s character is the only one who actually goes on a journey. Tristan is always the clown and Siegfried is always erratic, but James starts off naive, falls in love, and ultimately becomes the one of whom it can be said that you can’t pull the wool over his eyes. Christopher is a clever guy and he takes us on that journey — he’s the only actor whom I can picture as James Herriot.”
He comments on the paradox in the popular view of the show. “It was popular when it was broadcast because it was cosy nostalgia, and now people are looking back at it with another layer of cosy nostalgia. It was actually a very harsh period—the cold of the Dales, the slow build up to the Second World War— but they managed to keep a warm feel to it despite it all.”
All in all, writing the book seems to have been a wonderful experience for Crocker, as is fitting. He particularly enjoyed spending time in the Dales: “It’s a beautiful part of the world, with air that smells sweeter, and sweeping valleys. I go up regularly for book signings and enjoy the local beer, and of course the food is so good. I think Yorkshire should still be proud of James Herriot. There’s a whole generation growing up who aren’t familiar with his works. He was a very accessible writer, and very clever in a humble, witty way. They teach Shakespeare in schools —why not Herriot?”
Yorkshire had a major impact on the crew who worked on location, as well —Crocker notes that “it’s amazing, even now, how many of them remember the names of the local pubs. Some stayed at the Wensleydale Heifer, where Robert Hardy was apparently always very generous at the bar, and there were log fires to warm them up after a cold day.”
With all the behind-the-scenes stories of cold filming on the moors, recalcitrant animals, and the public perception that Christopher Timothy was James Herriot, as well as a plethora of previously unpublished photographs, this book is the essential companion to All Creatures Great and Small. I myself am currently working my way through the DVDs of the complete series, and it is wonderful to dive into this book as I go along. Crocker has done full justice to the series and the people behind it, who clearly had unbounded love and respect for the source material and adored working together. This shines through in the anecdotes that Crocker relates, and the quality of the TV drama that they made together, which has proved to be ageless. --James R. Turner