Tuesday, April 03, 2007

TV Review: Timewatch - Remember The Galahad

BBC2, 2.4.07

Journalists thrive on anniversaries, and 25ths are tricky ones. Some editors lap them up, others pass. Which makes the slightly uncertain step of British television into the potential populist frenzy of the quarter-century landmark of the 'liberation' of the Falklands all the stranger. The present writer hasn't heard the demotic verb 'to yomp' once, and the onetime hero Colonel H.Jones, yomper extraordinaire, SAS hero and, ipso facto, tabloid demigod, has bothered my airwaves just the once. Remember The Galahad, an examination of the destruction of the troop-carriers Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram on June 8 1982 and the loss of 50+ soldiers, was a similarly queasy mixture of unquestioning acceptance of MOD propaganda, lip-quivering famiial testimony, kiddie-crammed Polaroids of yore and crisp reportage of serial authoritorial balls-ups.

The military mentality thrives also on memorialising, a cultic devotional ritual dating from the Great War; 'we will remember them' simply did not exist as a culturally-assimilated and organised mass usage prior to Rupert Brooke's, mostly because those killed in military actions had not previously been conscripted. Loss and grief were private, not public, affairs. For the military, though, most anniversaries have a symbolism, and for the victims of those events so commemorated that goes double. This ritual can whitewash unjustified actions or top-brass bungling as much as it can mourn heroic rearguarders such as the Royal Sussex Regiment in the retreat to Dunkerque in 1940.

Easter weekend's indulgence for sludgily sentimental TV to fulfil its spirituality quotient should doubtless allow a lot of self-congratulatory shite about the heroic roles of Peter Snow and Brian Hanrahan in the 'war' with token and sentimentalised tributes to 'the fallen'. Remember The Galahad was the wobbly opener to this solemnity-fest, as uneasy as a Bach prelude played by an apprentice organist on his first Good Friday, and while a sense of perspective was maintained, one doesn't hold out much hope for a critical perspective of Thatcher's adventure. Given the fact that the red-top argot and attitude that sets all other media discourses since the Falklands, this is nigh-on an impossibility.

Early impressions depressed. A documentary about young British soldiers burned to death by Argentinian bombers does not per se encourage hopes of historical or political acuity or balance. The very fact that there was no pre-title warning about 'disturbing' footage should have been a warning, given the horrible nature of the incident. The historical context of the Falklands, its seizure and settlement by Britain in the 1830s, was entirely ignored. Statements such as 'the world's media looked on' as the ships burned is probably unprovable. One would imagine that this didn't top the news agenda in Belgrade, Stockholm, Rome or Tokyo that day. There was no mention of the unprecedentedly high levels of MOD censorship in the coverage of the Falklands, which is why Remember The Galahad featured no pictures of roasted epidermis peeling like blackened chewing gum, no screams on the soundtrack, no bleeding that won't stop. The macro level was replaced by the micro, of personal and individual tragedy.

There was quietly indemnifying power, though; one squaddie admits that 'outside training... you never really know what the enemy is going to do'. The same man provided a gruesomely poetic account of being caught in a fireball. And yet these were men who went away to die - possibly - in the charge of appalling superiors who were filmed in front of bookshelves full of calf-bound hardbacks in which they looked more comfortable than those who may have been located thus by directors or producers, making cut-glass excuses of the sort that wouldn't wash in places like Pontlottyn and Maesteg where some of the poor bloody infantry came from. Officers, who still always have a chance to find a way out since the days of doing the honourable thing with the pearl-handled revolver came to an end.

All the subordinates on the two burning hulks had sailed out with a Cpt Hurricane faith in adventure as secure as their parents' faith in the power of the chapel and of their God, a folk faith, a fake faith. Did they really have no comparative idea of war? Did their own pain or media discourse blind them to other British forces losses such as the explosion of the Hood or even Basra 2007? The first day on the Somme? Did none of them, these horny-handed hardboy descendants of Nye Bevan, think to retort 'screw you, Thatch, and screw that bunch of South Atlantic sheep-shaggers?'

It is sometimes said of the Welsh that they have a penchant for self-pity, especially in the face of perceived English injustice, yet one obviously brave regimental Sarnt-Major declared that 'nobody was to blame' apart from the MOD. This heroic dignity in the face of tragedy bordered on the over-indulgent.

The inevitable conclusion, the descent of survivors into the inebriate cycle of postwar shock, an acronymic hell where PTSD becomes TDA, GBH and ABH and DOA, was rushed, but intrinsic, to the tale. Simon Weston, the inhuman redness of whose disfigured face is chromatically significant of the tragedy, has become steadily more critical of the glorification of conflict, and may for that reason have lost his tabloid status as plucky hero. You can hear them now; come on, Simon, give us a little more...

It is the grim postscript to the Falklands - it will be instructive to see how subsequent treatments of this blundering military cock-up treat its darkside. Will TV continue to pursue its worship of tabloidism, its myths, its denial of all reason, or will it begin to finally rethink this shabby episode? I counted the jury out; I haven't counted them back in again.

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