The power of Piers and the glory of Britain’s ‘few’

Celebrity is a great power now: it can insert its denizens into charities, politics and business boardrooms. And journalism.

It has now placed Piers Morgan in the CNN chair of 76-year-old American Larry King, master interviewer for 25 years. Morgan celebrated the assumption by calling for President Obama to come to his studio, as soon as convenient, for an interview. It puts a kind of seal on the degradation of CNN: a channel that could once have shared the New York Times motto of “All the news that’s fit” has been rendered nerveless by the soaring success of Fox News. It experimented with populist ranting through the medium of Lou Dobbs, a once-reliable business editor (now resigned); it promotes celebrity reportage through Anderson Cooper, whose reporting philosophy is “I think you have to be yourself, and you have to be real”. It now has Morgan.

Morgan has been really himself for many years, ascending through journalism via show business writing, editing the News of the World, then the Daily Mirror. He survived a charge of insider trading, buying £67,000 worth of shares just before a company, Viglen, was tipped in his newspaper’s City column; he was fired after he printed fake photographs of British soldiers abusing civilians during the Iraq war, which he virulently opposed. Since then, he has achieved fame on UK and US television, especially judging popular talent shows. His occupation of King’s chair makes clear the channel’s – and increasingly the journalistic profession’s – blurring of a line between celebrity and public distinction, fame and substance.

No such debasement in British television’s efforts to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, whose critical period was the summer of 1940. Much was owed to “the few” young pilots who hurled their Hurricanes and Spitfires against the waves of German bombers. Much, too, to the shifts of German strategy, from bombing ports to bombing airfields then to bombing cities – the last of these a revenge for raids on Berlin, horrifying (but not morale-breaking) for Londoners especially, but crucially important for replenishing fighter command and restoring exhausted pilots.

First Light (BBC2 Tuesday) was a dramatised documentary on the war service of Geoffrey Wellum, in a Spitfire from the age of 18, awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross before he was 20. Wonderfully vivid in the cockpit and in the air, poignant in its depiction of the loss of life and of illusion, the drama remained at too much of a remove from the main characters – such as Wellum’s girlfriend, his commanders, his comrades in 92 Squadron – fully to realise them.

Peter Snow & Son (Dan) did a family number on the Battle of Britain (BBC4 Tuesday), which had the elder’s trademark graphics well deployed (except that waves of German bombers were flying, it seemed, into him rather than London). It underpinned the vital importance of radar and explained, as First Light had dramatised, how the strain and tear of battle drained the young men, subjecting their bodies to g-forces which could momentarily black them out (as Dan, at too great length, demonstrated in a flight in a two-seater training plane) and requiring the pilot, as one explained, to “have the whole sky in his mind”.

Some things that went unreported – but which Andrew Roberts draws out well in his absorbing book Storm of War (2009) – were the relative flaccidity of the attacks on Britain, and especially the lack of planning and resources put into the invasion plan, Sealion. These stemmed from Hitler’s conflicted view of Britain – part contempt, part fear, part admiration – coupled with his puzzlement that it did not strike a bargain with him, which he might have honoured for a time.

As poignant were two modest programmes – one (Wellington Bomber, BBC4 Tuesday) on a propaganda-directed project to build a bomber in one day (achieved with 20 minutes to spare), the other a portrait of Vera Lynn (BBC2 Sunday), the forces’ songbird, still energetic at 93.

The latter was a product of the proletarian East End, singing and dancing (reluctantly) from the age of seven, famous by her late teens, and in her early twenties, recording numbers such as “We’ll Meet Again” and “There’ll Be Bluebirds ... ”, songs whose haunting quality derives from the ambiguity of whether or not the beloved object of the song – implicitly, a serviceman – will live or die.

Wellington Bomber was a tribute to working men and women on whose industry, suddenly, the country depended: like the appeal of Lynn, it gave a glimpse into a time when a kind of socialism was both popular and enforced, as an East Ender ruled the airwaves, workers were needed and lauded, servicemen and -women were seen as heroes and the BBC played Music While You Work.

Most affecting, though, was Albert’s Memorial (ITV Sunday), which had two elderly men (played by Davids Jason and Warner) return to Germany to bury a friend at a place important to them. It was revealed that on this spot these three had, as young conscripts, befriended a German girl – only to see her taken at gunpoint by Soviet soldiers, raped and killed. Their guilt was assuaged by another young German woman who – as their dead friend had meant – absolved them: “these things happen”. It could have been fey: in part because of the principals’ acting craft, it wasn’t.

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