An exercise in nostalgia – Jeremy Paxman’s Churchill: the Nation's Farewell

Churchill: the Nation's Farewell and Modern Times: the Vikings Are Coming turn to life old and new.

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Churchill: the Nation's Farewell
BBC1

Modern Times: the Vikings Are Coming
BBC2
 

Jeremy Paxman’s documentary marking the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s funeral (28 January, 9pm) began with a statement of intent: it would attempt to discover what Britain makes of its wartime leader now. In the end, though, the sole person to ponder this important question was Boris Johnson, who said something feeble about how, were he alive today, Churchill would probably google himself with some alacrity. But the film was a straightforward and highly effective exercise in nostalgia and I surprised myself by blubbing throughout. The tears only stopped when Churchill’s grandson Nicholas “Fatty” Soames appeared, his entitled vastness working on me like a sudden slap. What a voice. What a face. For a moment, I was too startled to weep.

Footage of postwar Britain always undoes me: all those mushroom-shaped hats and cheap overcoats, all that greyness and stoicism and bright, new hope. The sombre, straight-backed crowds in the BBC’s amazing colour footage of the funeral were every bit as fascinating as the details of the event, a production that had been seven years in the planning. What had brought them out, I wondered? (And what did they have for tea when they got home?) Paxman interviewed some of those who were there – a bearer of Churchill’s preposterously hefty coffin; the trumpeter who sounded the last post at St Paul’s – but it was a former docker whose funeral-day confession startled the most. The men who dipped the jibs of their cranes in respect as the coffin was borne by boat down the Thames performed this service, he insisted, only because they were paid to do so; most of them despised Churchill. “We didn’t work Saturdays,” he said, gleefully resting his case.

It was hard to square this with the ex-soldiers who stood to attention on the sidings as a steam train carried the coffin to Oxfordshire for burial, the old deference and a new modernity pushing up against one another so uncomfortably. But in 1965, such friction must have been present in almost every household. In these moments, with Clemmie’s mourning veil a seeming rebuke to each minidress, I understood what my grandparents must have gone through with my parents: their bad haircuts, their undignified clothes, their shamefully loud divorce. For a pretty conventional film, this was some epiphany. It’s a shame that Paxman had acceded to his director’s demand that he zip round town in a Mini, a Union flag on its roof and a caddish silk scarf around his neck, as if he were Austin Powers.

What would my grandparents have made of Sue Bourne’s Modern Times documentary The Vikings Are Coming (29 January, 9pm)? I expect they would have been horrified. But then, I didn’t watch it with much equanimity either. I don’t have a moral position on the decision of women to go it alone as mothers using Danish sperm donors (Denmark, where donors can remain anonymous, exports sperm to more than 70 countries). But I do think it is depressing to hear sensible, educated people talking of childlessness with the same deep horror and disdain that they would once have reserved for spinsterhood.

In 2015, it seems, it’s finally OK not to have a man in tow. But no children? Disaster. You might as well be dead. My exas­peration burned red hot as, one by one, Bourne’s subjects spoke so blithely of the “completeness” that they expected to feel on becoming mothers. Why didn’t she interrogate this? Perhaps, craving access, she had become too close to her subjects to ask any truly difficult questions.

Lots of things about her documentary made me anxious: the sense that the market has invaded even the realm of childbirth (buy your sperm online and have it shipped!); that sperm is, as someone joked in the film, far more easy to score than, say, a puppy; that some people have a pretty weird idea of the way genes work (donors were rejected on grounds so superficial, the women might as well have been shopping for shoes); that female perfectionism is a kind of illness. What bothered me most was the simple, unshakeable correlation in these women’s minds between motherhood and never-ending happiness and fulfilment. If only life – that precious thing they were all trying so hard to create – were so simple. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling