Questions from the past
IN any week when there is a programme in the occasional series One Pak of Eyes it is almost certain to prove the most interesting piece of television of the seven days.
There are two reasons for this. One is that the B.B.C. chooses someone with something to say for these television essays and lets them talk without overmuch worrying about balance and fairness, and the other is that the programme is given a pretty hefty budget. This is a factor it is easy to ignore, but it is of considerable importance.
Take Saturday's essay "Return to the River Kwai" by John Coast, a former prisoner of war. The size of his budget enabled him not only to go out to the Far East and place himself in the actual spots where he endured those terrible months 25 years ago, but it also meant he could whisk up from their quiet lives in Japan some of the men on the opposite side of the encounter and ask them on the spot the questions that had waited for a quarter of a century.
The fact of these questions being put at the very places where the nightmare events that had given rise to them happened was a genuine contribution to the debate. We are human beings with bodies as well as minds and the physical effect on our bodies of the actual location they arc in is a weightily significant fact. Only television can give it full play.
And what was the reaction of the camp commandant, the sergeant-major and the interpreter to the brutal facts Mr. Coast placed before them in his vivid setting? The answer seemed best summed up for me by the interpreter blinking earnestly and exclaiming with genuine puzzlement "Is that true?"
They were all three unable to believe such things had happened. "Nowadays," said one of them, "the Japanese are a. quite changed and peace-loving people." Well, certainly it is easier to believe this than it is to believe that a whole nation is succeeding in hiding a brutal side and waiting only for the right opportunity for it to break out again.
Perhaps. however, the nearest link Mr. Coast contrived to establish between the horrors of then and the smoothness of now was in an interview with his former colonel, a man as unembittered by the past as Mr. Coast himself. He strongly advanced the case that the sort of tack of elementary consideration the Japanese high-ups showed was a tradition of which their own men were equally victims.
telligence and reality of script, direction and acting here served to show up all the more clearly the bland assumption made throughout that the Russians were "the enemy," the baddies about whom nothing was too bad to say.
It is of course a problem, minor but still tricky, for the writers of such entertainments in peacetime to find an enemy who can be happily blackened. But a certain responsibility exists to do so, the more especially where the product is of good quality. A really believable programme can insidiously build up prejudice in one group of men for another group that could at some future time have terrible effects.
On the other hand it is easy in the tolerance that distance
in-time brings to forget that wars can be fought for good reason. At a certain distance from World War One, for instance, a whole literature of disenchantment grew up.
So far there has been little of that in the aftermath of World War Two. Almost all of us still believe those savage years were necessary. We hear no talk of the whole worldshaking struggle having been no more than a contest between rival industrial groups.
But in what was no more than an aside in all that Mr. Coast had to say about the forced building of that long raitway through vilely cruel country (and the over-diversity of his comments was a penalty paid for untrammelled authorship) he labelled the whole complex of events of which his experiences were a part as "the futile war." How much of a straw in the wind was this?
Certainly one might have got a feeling of futility from the odd sight with which the programme began. This was a quick look at the booming local tourist industry which flourishes not even in the true past of the area but on the fame of the film based on the book "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (which the author Pierre Boulle told us took complete liberties with the facts in order to sustain its thesis). But to derive a sense of futility from this is surely going too far.
An equally valid comment, after all, could be that of a Chinese-born farmer Mr. Coast also interviewed. He had no doubts about the railway. It had brought progress. It had opened up the country, and this was clear good. Perhaps the last provocative words should be his "You Westerners," he said impatiently, "you always put too much value in human life." That Ieft me thinking.
Could be good
Saturday, ITV: "Machine." Play by Hugo Charteris centring on the dilemma caused by the shortage of kidneys machines.
Sunday, BBC-2: "Civilisation." This programme in Sir Kenneth Clark's series is centred in the Vatican and includes areas not usually seen by the public, including the Pope's gardens.
Wednesday, BBC-1: "For Final Glory." Portrait of Richard Holloway, former protesting Scottish Episcopal priest, who at 35 is "less confident of identifying villains."