REVIEWS

TELEVISION

There’s a great historian in my living room: Now I know the Kaiser’s strut and Hitler’s jig

DOUGLAS MARSHALL July 1 1969
REVIEWS

TELEVISION

There’s a great historian in my living room: Now I know the Kaiser’s strut and Hitler’s jig

DOUGLAS MARSHALL July 1 1969

TELEVISION

There’s a great historian in my living room: Now I know the Kaiser’s strut and Hitler’s jig

DOUGLAS MARSHALL

THAT TELEVISION is, in a sense, a space ship no longer astonishes us. We’ve become blasé about the medium’s see-it-now immediacy, its ability to cross vast distances in microseconds. When American astronauts plop down on the eerie surface of the moon this summer, we shall expect to be there. It’s almost routine for parents in Iowa to see evening newscast shots of their sons dying in Da Nang that morning.

But what about the fact that our living-room TV screen also regularly relays pictures of our fathers dying at Caen in 1944 or our grandfathers folding up like rag dolls on Vimy Ridge in 1916?

That television is, in another sense, a time machine is perhaps more astonishing in the long run than McLuhan’s global-village concept. We are just beginning to grasp the potentiality of film as a medium of visual record coupled with TV as a medium for mass reproduction of that record. What we are looking at is a revolution in the philosophy, interpretation and communication of history.

The essence of the revolution is that from here on, barring catastrophe, there will always be a record of how important people walked and talked. Today a journalist can safely describe someone as “looking like the late British actor, Leslie Howard.” Despite the fact that Howard was killed nearly 30 years ago in a plane crash, we see him often enough on late-night reruns of The Petrified Forest and Intermezzo for the comparison to be meaningful even to teenagers. It wouldn’t be meaningful, however, to use Sir Henry Irving as a model. Poor Sir Henry. He missed immortality by a mere two decades. His Richard III exists only as a handful of dusty rave notices; the Richard Ills of John Barrymore and Sir Laurence Olivier will be seen repeatedly by posterity.

Television’s capacity to pipe the historical record into every home is having a profound impact on our thinking. Although my conscious memories begin about the time the Bismarck was sunk, TV leaves me with the feeling that I’ve been around since the Titanic went down. I’ve seen the doomed Czar frolicking with his family at the sum-

mer palace and watched Lenin launch the 10 days that shook the world; I’ve seen the Kaiser strut and Hitler dance his jig of triumph; I have been twice to Nuremberg and I stood among the airport crowd when the man with the umbrella promised peace in our time. My father knew Lloyd George? Hell, I sometimes think I knew Lloyd George.

The CBS Victory at Sea series, produced in the early 1950s, was a pioneer attempt to work the TV time machine. Since then there have been a number of excellent historical documentaries but none has communicated as much see-it-then excitement as the two British series currently running on Canadian networks.

Both are scheduled on Sundays. CTV quite properly has given its showcase W5 slot to The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten. The 12-part program shouldn’t be missed by anyone wanting to know what this century is all about. In many ways Mountbatten, whose great - grandmother Victoria died shortly after he was born, is the 20th century. He is part of the fairytale world of royal Europe that crumbled with the guns of August. But he is also the modern fighting man who led the 14th Army back down the road to Mandalay. And later in India he was the enlightened liberal who presided over the dissolution of the British Empire.

The program, three years in the making, sparkles because of Mount-

batten’s constant presence. It stands, he says, as his only official biography. He deliberately chose the medium of TV film rather than print because of his lifelong fascination with the cinema — and the 150 reels of his private home movies are woven through the series. Mountbatten is both the last of the Victorians and the first of the practical McLuhanites.

The CBC meanwhile has inexplicably slotted its Sunday offering, The Lost Peace, at the ebb hour of 12.45 p.m., a time when most people are doing anything but watching television. This 26-part BBC masterpiece is a successor to The Great War series but has better documentation. Subtitled A History of Disillusion, it shows graphically what went wrong between 1918 and 1933. The popular view of the 1920s is of an indigo age in which a generation Charlestoned its way down a champagne trail to damnation. This program, for the first time on television, digs beneath the decade’s surface frivolity to examine the fundamental forces that were reshaping society — the revolutions in political philosophy, the collapse of a centuryold economic theory, the development of the mass age.

The seeds of many of the principles that guide us today were planted between the Treaty of Versailles and the rise of Hitler. There are important lessons to be learned from the failures of that period. I think it is almost criminal that the CBC isn’t presenting this imaginative recreation of history to a prime-time audience — especially when its summer schedule is pockmarked with repeats of shows that shouldn’t even have been broadcast once.

Finally, talking about failures, an historical documentary on Vietnam is long overdue. This may be the bestcovered war in history but the daily images of death and napalm generate only confusion. We see a blurred stream of coups and Tets and bombings and bodies. An electronic historian should edit all this footage into a series that puts the situation in perspective. Then, perhaps, those parents in Iowa will understand why they are watching their sons dying. And maybe do something about it.