Going under

I’ve only seen it maybe three times but, yes, I am addicted to Big Brother. It wasn’t unexpected as I always made an effort to watch The Real World whenever it crept into the UK terrestrial schedules (not often enough). And I loved that disastrous 1993/4 BBC2 take on the concept set in Manchester, where the housemates’ ballooning egos were threatened by a rowdy public. Although the original Dutch version was showing while I was in Amsterdam in December/January I didn’t tune in, and the UK version started after I returned to Houston. I should have more of a look at those live streams as I can’t quite imagine it without the fun of laughing at the dumb narcissistic Americans. I suspect the Brits would be even more horrifying in a whole new way.

But this is all really beside the point. After today’s episode I was flipping around and stumbled across My Finest Hour. This is exactly the programme I’d never sit down to watch but, if I found it on BBC2 while at a loose end, would make me thankful for British TV, so over here it was doubly welcome. It was great stuff. There was the regulation deep male voiceover gravely recounting the procession of events as black and white spitfires and messerschmitts flickered across the decades. But the best bits were the interviews with people who’d been frighteningly young when their country was at war. One woman, who sounded like she’d stepped from the set of EastEnders told us about the London docks being flattened and about a billiard hall full of her school friends vanishing in one blast. “People were dying all over the place, ooh,” she said matter of factly. A man with a laugh in his voice recounted how he was shot down, landing in a field in his shirt and tie. Another (or was it the same one?) was proud when the ground crew stuck a fifth messerschmitt sillouhette on his plane, as Biggles had become “an Ace” after his fifth success.

As touching as all these tales were, the best was Bess (Beth?) who, as a child, had been on a ship heading across the Atlantic to the safety of the US when the convoy was attacked. She spoke utterly calmly and clearly, describing how the ship was hit and tipped up, Titanic style, with children and adults rushing for the swinging lifeboats. Her lifeboat capsized but she eventually surfaced next to the upturned boat with another girl. They hung there in the empty ocean, with Bess wondering how she was going to tell her parents how she’d lost the brother she’d promised to look after. Their faces puffed up, their tongues swelled, they could hardly see. They were there for twenty hours and were, she said, on the edge of death, when a ship appeared in the distance, charging towards them. Unusually, one of the ships had been sent back to look for survivors and the two girls were rescued. As she recuperated in a cabin, the captain came to see her. “I’ve got a present for you,” he said. It was her brother, who’d also been rescued.

Maybe this doesn’t quite match up to hearing someone tell how their life was saved fifty years ago but take it from me, it was wonderful, and made Leonardo and Kate’s icy fate seem like more of a farce than it already did. It reminded me of my grandad who borrowed a boat to go across to Dunkirk to help in the rescue of British troops in 1940. On the way back a shell caused the boat to go under, and, so the story goes, he nearly went with it. One foot was jammed in a door and he managed to wrestle free in the nick of time. He swam towards the English coast for as long as he could. He thought he’d never make it, there was nothing but sea all around him. Eventually he was utterly exhausted and couldn’t swim any more. He gave it up, dropping in the water… only for his feet to hit the bottom. He had, at last, made it. I don’t think I ever heard him tell this story himself, but now I wish I had.