A glimpse of hot dog heaven

8th September 2006 at 01:00
Was growing up in 1950s America really that great? Yes, says the writer Bill Bryson, whose 'home movie' kicks off The South Bank Show

The South Bank Show. ITV from Sunday, September 10, 11.10pm

A new season of the ITV arts strand begins with an enjoyable film by American writer Bill Bryson who, with the support of his family's home movies and archive film, remembers what it was like growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s.

According to Bryson, small-town America in the years after the Second World War was a kind of paradise: the country had emerged from the war relatively unscathed, enjoying full employment and optimism about the future.

Americans were more prosperous than ever before but, Bryson says, imbued with an innocence that allowed them to revel like kids in their new prosperity. He offers us examples of refrigerator commercials and game shows in which housewives in billowing skirts swoon wide-eyed over labour-saving gadgets.

Was it really that good? Fifties Americans lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation and not all of them enjoyed the same degree of affluence. Perhaps it was just a great time to grow up, a time of delicious chocolate bars, ice-creams, cheese-on-a-stick, hot dogs... Too often, the children of the Fifties did grow up, and grew out, to become the obese citizens we see in today's shopping malls. There has to be a snake in every paradise.

On September 12, The South Bank Show has a special on Freddie Mercury, before its September 17 tribute to JG Ballard. This, too, devotes some time to the subject's childhood. Ballard's was a very different experience from Bill Bryson's: already fictionalised in Empire of the Sun, based on his wartime experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese. Later programmes in the season include profiles of Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte: Irvine Welsh; Thomas Hardy; Sue Townsend; Nick Park; and Sir Peter Blake. A good mixed bag.

Aberfan: The Untold Story. BBC1, Thursday, September 14, 9pm

October 21 is the 40th anniversary of the disaster at Aberfan, when a tip of slurry from the local coalmine collapsed and poured over the village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. With testimony from survivors, archive film and dramatisation, this film describes what happened and tries to discover why. Was the National Coal Board negligent? Did the villagers know that the tip might be unsafe, but keep quiet because they were afraid that the pit might be closed? Eventually, part of the disaster fund was diverted to pay for removing the slurry. In 1997 that money was returned to the village, but without interest. A sad story altogether.

Everest ER. BBC4, Thursday, September 14, 9-10pm

For 10 weeks in the spring season, a small clinic at the base camp below the summit of Mount Everest tries to save the lives of climbers who get into difficulties. Those who run this facility talk about their work and, perhaps surprisingly, their sympathy for the fanatics who risk death in one of the most hostile environments on Earth.

The heroes in this film are not the climbers.

Forging the Union. BBC World Service, from Monday, September 4, 9.05-9.30am

A four-part series by Allan Little tells the story of the European Union and its origins in the coal and steel community. From the very outset, it suggests why Britain has been such a reluctant partner in the union. The original six members (France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries) had all experienced loss of independence as a result of war and occupation, and were only too eager to co-operate to make another conflict impossible. Britain, however, stood apart, determined to keep its sovereignty intact.

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