Celebrity chums

Television - Andrew Billen gains an insight into the mindset of the media mob

It was no ordinary Sunday. While ITV was doing its customary Formula One coverage live from Monte Carlo, from Paris, Channel 4 was bringing us La Traviata in bite-sized chunks with a running commentary from Howard Goodall, in the Martin Brundle role, and the scrumptious, bomber-jacketed soprano Ali McGregor in Murray Walker's seat. Would Eteri Gvazava be up to performing Violetta's big numbers before so many television viewers, Goodall asked his pundit. She wasn't sure, but concluded at the end that she'd pulled out the big one for the death scene: and, indeed, Gvazava conked out beautifully, unsteadier than the unsteadicam that filmed the last act, just before the bells of Notre Dame chimed midnight (which was odd, given that, had this programme been as live as it pretended, it would now have been 1am in France).

Meanwhile, BBC1 was also live in France, fixating on the shores of Dunkirk, where the anniversary of Britain's finest retreat was being commemorated for the 60th and, we were promised, final time. The available pictures fought against the history: a montage of a Saga outing and a royal visit pasted on to a seaside postcard.

The last visit to the beaches did not help by reducing David Dimbleby to playing Thora Hird on a special Songs of Praise. This was a peculiar piece of casting, for Dimbleby is not as Establishment a figure as he looks, or as his father was, having that rare ability of being able to rise to a historical moment and interrogate it at the same time.

He did not flinch, for example, from using the cliche of the "little ships" to describe the 570 paddle-steamers and fishing vessels, but he pointed out that it was the Navy ships at the jetty that rescued two-thirds of the 338,000 people. From his standby historians, Dimbleby wanted to know if our ships were biased against saving French servicemen and why Hitler gave the retreating forces three days' grace. He called upon Helen Young at the BBC Weather Centre to explain the irenic part the high-pressure system had played that June.

But even Dimbleby did not dare question the clergyman who invited the survivors to "thank Almighty God for the deliverance of so many from these beaches".

Thank him for that and tear him off a strip for letting 68,000 be killed, injured or made POW? Yet Dunkirk: the final tribute was one of the best-judged OBs the BBC has managed in a while, and certainly one of the more intelligent - certainly brighter than the scheduler who thought that 50 minutes of 'Allo! 'Allo! was an appropriate filler between visits.

Given the heroism of the generation before yesterday's, it was probably not kind scheduling, either, to choose the day to begin Joan Bakewell's three-part elegy for her own lily-livered contemporaries. My Generation (Sundays, 8pm, BBC2) would have been better dubbed "My BFs", since I doubt if one of the almost septuagenarian gang who Bakewell interviewed had not previously appeared either on Late Night Line-Up or round her dinner-table. Where, for example, was Baroness Thatcher? Her rise from provincial grammar school to Oxford fitted the demographics of Bakewell's taxonomy closely enough.

This group biography of chums was built round a group photograph by Terry O'Neill (another chum) of 13 of them. Neil Ascherson stood behind Jonathan Miller; Ned Sherrin paunched over Margaret Drabble. It was weird watching Bakewell tug this school photograph, so much part of my generation's cultural landscape, into the rear-view mirror. You could call the show self-indulgent. I do call the show self-indulgent.

As a portrait of the mindset of the most powerful media mob since Dr Johnson's circle, it could hardly be bettered. It certainly explained the conformity of these non-conformists, puzzlingly represented in recurring images of wheatfield and racing greyhounds. The British history through which they grew up was a homogeneity, a series of shared cultural and political sensations, like an orderly progress through a sauna, from wartime childhood through Fifties studenthood to Sixties celebrity.

In this telling, the war bombed and bonded them, and rationing gave them a taste of state-served equality. Evacuation to the country and the bomb-sites that pocked our cities donated places for them and their imaginations to run wild. The Butler grammars sent them zooming off to Oxford; Suez disillusioned them with the ways of politicians.

Naturally, there was some diversity in all this. The women turned out not to have been liberated, said Claire Tomalin, and flung themselves like gadarene swine into marriage and motherhood. (In one of the most bizarre scenes she can ever have filmed, Bakewell was shot ironing a shirt.) And sexually, some of the blokes were conspicuously more equal than others. Miller and Ken Loach recall university as a sexual cornucopia, but poor Anthony Howard cheerfully owned up to having been a virgin throughout his Oxford career, an admission that fitted better the programme's surprising emphasis on the asceticism of this poshly fed generation.

"I've always felt excess was wrong," said Ascherson. "It would have been considered improper to have looked at careers in terms of money," said Margaret Drabble. I can't wait for the instalment that tells us where it all went wrong and the greed, cynicism and vanity set in. I've a funny feeling that Bakewell will blame Thatcher. But I suspect that BBC expense accounts may have their own sorry story to tell.

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.