Top medal

Television - Andrew Billen is surprised at how smoothly Clarkson swapped cars for tanks

Tuesday had Jeremy Clarkson lecturing us on the qualities of the Tiger Tank. "It was the king of the German divisions, the biggest armoured vehicle they had ever made. It weighed 57 tonnes. Its armour plating was four inches thick. The shells it fired were from an 88mm gun. It could blow any of them to kingdom come with complete impunity."

And (you expected him to go on) it went from nought to 50 in 20 seconds and averaged 30 miles per gallon in town. What on earth, I wondered, persuaded the BBC to choose a Top Gear presenter to front The Victoria Cross: for valour (4 November, 9pm, BBC2)? Was this the latest round in the BBC's bizarre game of presenter-subject Consequences? After Rolf Harris on Old Masters and Jeremy Clarkson on military history, what next? Trinny and Susannah on comparative religion?

Yet if Clarkson can make cars interesting to me (and he can), he could probably sell the history of needlework to peak-time ITV1, and his subject this time was almost too rich. In fact, he had two subjects, the first being the story of the Victoria Cross itself and the second the tale of Major Robert Cain, considered to have won the outstanding VC of the Second World War.

The programme did more than its duty by the first, reminding us how the VC's introduction 150 years ago, during the Crimean war, was resisted by the military establishment, which liked gongs to be reserved for officers, but was enthusiastically supported by the Queen and Prince Albert, who designed its spec. It is the proudest and humblest of medals, dull in hue, fashioned out of old Crimean canon bronze and made to the simplest design. Yet because only 1,351 have been awarded in a century and a half, and only 15 of its recipients are still alive, it has immense rarity value. As Clarkson said with typical hyperbole, it's almost impossible to win.

Those who do so, he suggested, embody the same paradoxical mix of pride and humility. They were generally at peace with themselves and "no longer needed to prove anything". Yet they were also extremely likely to boast about what brought them to this state. One complained that it seemed "a bit odd" to win a medal for doing what he was trained to do. Another said it made him feel like "a freak in a freak show".

Clarkson gave us the facts in tabloid bullet points but went on to ask the broadsheet questions. With 631 awarded in the First World War, 182 in the Second, and only 11 since, was the greatest medal in the world in danger of becoming extinct? Was bravery going out of fashion? No, he concluded, but in the age of high-tech, remote-control warfare, the conditions for bravery are disappearing. As for whether any of us, given those conditions, would exhibit such heroism, his view was quite possibly: the rogues and saints with VC after their name have been succeeded by people who, in their civilian jobs, were considered quite "ordinary".

The second story Clarkson told nevertheless veered towards hagiography. Robert Cain of the South Staffs Regiment excelled at the great cock-up at Arnhem, September 1944's Bridge Too Far. Its numbers devastated, its remnants in retreat, the British army was cornered in the village of Oosterbeek in Holland. Yet Cain, with pitifully inadequate equipment, and with most of his comrades dead, fought on, early on killing five Germans on his way back to his base, then single-handedly slowing the progress of three Tiger Tanks, at a cost to his eardrums and eyesight, and finally, his head covered in blood, firing a mortar from under his arm until the Germans before him retreated.

You could fault Clarkson's language at some points. "He bagged five Germans single handed" is no way in which to discuss battle. "This easygoing, married father of two" is a tabloid contraction too far. For his commitment to alliteration, cliche and exaggeration, Clarkson is the new Alan Whicker. His rhythmic delivery follows that strange tradition of over-emphatic iambic perfected by Fyfe Robinson, Tony Bastable, John Stapleton and the first few generations of Blue Peter presenters. Yet he makes you listen. I doubt whether Sir Michael Howard, BBC2's resident military historian, would, even as he winced, fault the clarity and vividness of his storytelling.

Nevertheless, why Clarkson? The answer came in the kind of dropped intro Clarkson would never have been permitted back in his early days on the Rotherham Advertiser. At the very end, Clarkson announced that Cain, who after the war returned to work as an oil industry executive, had died of cancer in 1974. Clarkson had never met him, which was a pity. "Partly because I am absolutely fascinated by VC winners and partly because I am married to his daughter - who never even knew he had won the VC until after he died: he'd never thought to mention it."

So my uncharitable thoughts about the mismatch between tale and teller were entirely wrong. The Victoria Cross: for valour demonstrated the oldest values of BBC documentaries. A film was made because someone passionately believed he had a story he had to tell. And someone up there had allowed him to do so.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times