The trouble with heroes

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Walden on Heroes BBC2, Tuesdays 7.30-8.00pm until February 3

Making history is not that difficult. Making history interesting - now that's hard. Few people would recommend a middle-aged man talking straight to camera for half an hour as a way of enlivening the subject. But back in the Sixties and Seventies A J P Taylor did just that, and the result was stunning. No script, no props, no commercial breaks, no hesitation - and no nonsense.

The BBC is pushing Walden on Heroes as "reminiscent" of those broadcasts, but apart from the similarity of format, any further resemblance is difficult to detect.

Taylor's passion was for themes, for causes, for understanding. Walden's hobby horse is heroes. "What sort of millennial era have we produced if it knows no heroes?" he asks. Good, provocative stuff, if a little undermined by the choice of subject for the fifth programme in this series - the very modern Nelson Mandela. And if we know no heroes, why does the modern media feed so greedily on the reputations of the famous? The tabloids we all know about, but television has caught the bug big-time. Last year's Secret Lives series on Channel 4 succeeded only in exposing the banality of misdemeanour - Lester Piggott is rude! Billy Butlin was obsessed with money! - and a Timewatch programme on Lenin's mausoleum yielded the priceless information that the leader of the Bolsheviks was an obsessive sharpener of pencils.

Is this series toeing the same sensational line? Yes and no. Walden's starting point is that celebrity has displaced achievement, which is fair enough. Whether there is something about the modern age that "withers the heroic impulse" is more debatable, but it gives Walden an excuse to exhume some authentic, copper-bottomed heroes. But Walden claims he is also out to debunk cherished myths. Mischief is promised; it is not delivered.

Alexander the Great gets a thumbs-down for being a bloodthirsty drunk with no real war aims. Walden insists he is not making a judgment about ancient Greece and concedes that Alexander's war crimes were as nothing compared with the savagery of our own century.

But he then lauds Churchill as a "first-rate" war leader. The Second World War, that is, a war in which about 60 million people died. Now, either there is a moral judgment being made here or it's a long way of saying the end justifies the means.

The programme on Churchill started promisingly. Despite the coy euphemisms, a portrait was painted of a bigoted fanatic whose war strategy was dictated by a single concern: to protect Britain's "global interests". Walden is emphatic that the war was won in spite of Churchill, and that the crucial theatre was the eastern front. He even suggests that Britain's refusal to open a second front in the West not only prolonged the war but cost millions of Russian lives.

So is it time to start pulling down the statues? Not quite. Walden argues that perpetuating the Churchill myth diminishes rather than inflates the man's reputation, and that by exposing his true character he is revealed as an even greater hero than we had previously imagined. There, tricked you all! After that it's all downhill into tame orthodoxy: Britain stood alone against Germany for a year and half; if Britain had fallen, Hitler would have swept through Europe and the Soviet Union.

Very irritating, and not a patch on old A J P.

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