Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.
And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
— Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)
From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)
Friends and readers,
I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.
The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.
LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)
Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.
I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.
The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)
The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….
In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.
We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.
It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.
The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.
Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.
Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills
It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.
The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.
The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.
Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.
A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.
A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.
There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.
Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.
And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.
After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.
Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)
Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.
Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently
As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.
Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)
Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)
I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.
What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?
A landscape still from Regeneration
I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too
As the Team’s Head-Brass
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations