War damage

Television - Andrew Billenon a military mystery

Thirty years after Oh! What a Lovely War scotched them, some of the myths of the first world war have reconstituted themselves. A dewy, rather than hard-nosed, consensus has concluded that the British fought for nothing between 1914 and 1918 but that we should be proud anyway. Poppy-wearing has become liberal as well as conservative chic. BBC1 duly wore its wreaths with ostentation last weekend. There were not only the customary visits to the Albert Hall and the Cenotaph (with "highlights" later on BBC2), but a special Casualty with a first world war subplot on Sunday night followed by All the King's Men, another glossy take on the Gallipoli story. Everyone was proudly pious that this latter drama had been made, not least the channel's controller, Peter Salmon, who told us at the Edinburgh Television Festival this summer and in the Independent last week that his "Century of Conflict" season was a personal mission from a boy born into a family of dead soldiers.

Unfortunately, All the King's Men was very ordinary, Alma Cullen's screenplay simply embellishing the long-conceded case that the slaughtered were not idiots. A few years ago casting David Jason as Captain Frank Beck, the Sandringham estate manager who led his groundsmen to their doom in Turkey, would at least have brought the conundrum alive. Would this familiar comic figure be capable of displaying moral intelligence or of attaining a tragic dignity? But we are used to taking Jason seriously as Inspector Frost, and the script resisted the lesser challenge of having him play someone a level above his usual social cut, which surely an estate manager and army captain would have been (in the film Beck boasts that the Greeks did not appear very often in his education: oh yeah?).

After a long first half shilly-shallying around the Sandringham paradise, Captain Beck rounded up his estate workers and shipped out to Gallipoli; but we quickly flitted back to pastoral Norfolk again, as if the movie was not sure where the real story lay. No sooner had the Sandringhams gone over the top than we were with their relatives waiting for news on a sooty railway platform. Could the company really have been spirited away by a "golden mist", as an eye-witness claimed? Well, obviously not. No one believed that, even at the time. The question was whether they had been shot in action or captured by the Turks and then shot. For the logic of the drama, the film ticked the second box. A golden myth needs to be countered with the worst possible reality.

This was a problem, though. Since All the King's Men simultaneously believed that the Sandringham deaths were glorious, its director Julian Jarrold needed to honour the myth too and duly wrapped Sandringham Lake and much of his pretend Turkey in a golden haze. Just as some directors reveal their love for violence by filming it in slow motion, Jarrold displayed his preference for deference by having Queen Alexandra's guests, Beck among them, shake open their napkins at a banquet in slo-mo.

Maggie Smith played the king's mother with a unwonted serenity that suggested the old queen was the wisest woman in the world, knowing exactly which lies Britain needed to uphold to get through the war and which it needed to expose. Assured that Kitchener was confident of victory at Gallipoli, the wise old bird replied: "Let us hope his confidence costs us less in Turkey than it has in France." At least, however, she was allowed to be aware there was a moral dilemma at hand. Beck just looked dim. "They can't mean us to walk to our deaths," he wondered aloud, and then led his men there anyway. Watching his men at the end being shot in the head by the Turks, he wailed, "My boys, my boys, my dear boys". What was this? Goodbye Mr Chips?

The best character and the best played, was Patrick Malahide's cynical doctor, Howlett. Ian McDiarmid as the queen's investigator, Pierrepoint Edwards, was good too, but did not have time to explain why he kept the fate of the Sandringhams to himself. Otherwise, the characters were cut-outs: the young lovers, the virgin intellectual, the gays who come out in combat, the honourable conchie etc. The producer, Gareth Neame, enthused in the Radio Times: "The story of the Sandringhams is the first world war in microcosm." But almost every line suggested the characters knew they were in a historical allegory.

"Before you speak of massacre, speak of betrayal and see if the blame doesn't lie closer to home," the Turkish commander instructed Pierrepoint Edwards like a fifth-form history teacher trying to make his class really think. Pierrepoint Edwards replied: "Lunacy, the whole campaign. Thousands and thousands wounded and for nothing." (Give that man an alpha-plus.) So, blame on both sides; the English duped by generals we never saw; the Turks the real bounders and the royal family in the clear (no wonder Prince Edward oiled the film-makers' access to Sandringham) - all that and Rupert Brooke's Soldier read over a Tommy's grave. From Oh! What a Lovely War to this historically dubious, oddly cosy, wholly orthodox Sunday night's entertainment in 30 years: a Century of Unearned Consolation more like.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.