Gosh it isn’t half irksome when someone who went to the same school as you but is considerably younger than you ends up doing dramatically better than you. But hats off to Dominic Sandbrook: his new series Cold War Britain (BBC2, Tuesday) is an absolute delight.
Sandbrook has that rare gift of making things you thought you knew pretty well already seem startling and fresh. Take Churchill’s Fulton, Missouri speech. ‘Ah,’ I said expertly to the Fawn, a good five minutes before the programme reproduced the famous recording, ‘From Stettin in the Baltic…’ But what Sandbrook does is both put it in context and give it a human dimension that brings the whole business alive.
So we start on a train journey with Churchill knocking back the whiskies and gambling with a mystery companion who turns out to be Harry S. Truman. Churchill is elderly and played out, past his political prime — with a socialist running the country — and the Nazi threat that he made his name beating is now ancient history. But the wily and prescient politician has one final trump card up his sleeve and he’s about to play it at a deceptively innocuous honorary degree ceremony at a minor university — Westminster College — in a town with a population of 7,000…
What Churchill is about to do is to say the previously unsayable. Up until this point, everyone has been politely pretending that the Soviets are pretty decent fellows on the whole, what with their having sacrificed 10 million or so citizens in the great struggle against Herr Hitler. Churchill isn’t having this nonsense — and, despite assurances to Attlee that he’s not going to say anything too controversial, out he comes with his declaration of a new war, this time against the Red peril.
This is the beginning of the ‘Cold War’ — a term invented (shamefully I didn’t know this) by George Orwell, with Churchill the other great hero of the moment. While the Old Harrovian set out the geopolitical terms of the conflict, the Old Etonian established its spiritual and moral dimensions by clarifying in the public imagination the nature of the new totalitarian threat — shortly before his death — in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
And by crikey did this need doing, what with fellow travellers like Hewlett Johnson — the Red Dean — spewing pro-Soviet propaganda from his pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral. You can see why people might have warmed to Johnson: the craggy Old Testament/High Victorian mien; his evident concern for the plight of the poor. But what a piece of work that grisly old pinko really was!
We saw footage of Johnson jubilantly accepting his Stalin International Peace Prize (!), only the second man to have received one (after Picasso). Looking at the various denominational clerics applauding heartily, you realised with a shudder that there’s nothing remotely new about men of the cloth abusing their religious prestige by backing the most reprehensible of wrong causes.
Today, of course, it’s environmentalism — and the usual leftist redistributionism and cultural relativist apologism. Back then, despite all the evidence coming out of the gulags, it was the idea that Soviet communism represented the true spirit of Christ and that the butcher Stalin was some kind of moral exemplar.
The problem with cold wars is that, unlike hot wars, the enemy is not in plain view. Or at least it’s much easier to indulge in the kind of self-delusion practised by the Red Dean, the crowds who cheered on the 1945 football tour by Moscow Dynamo, and by the Cambridge spies.
Philby, Burgess and Maclean: again, of course, we think we know all about them. But once again, Sandbrook performed his clever trick of bringing intimacy and narrative intrigue to the apparently overfamiliar, by beginning with a 38th birthday dinner prepared by a man’s pregnant wife at their home in Kent and interrupted by a knock at the door. In comes someone who introduces himself as a business colleague Roger Stiles. After dinner, the man — Maclean — casually tells his wife Melinda that they have to go on a business trip but won’t be gone more than a day. A lie, of course, because he and Guy Burgess are off to Moscow, never to return.
Two other things I like: the superbly chosen soundtrack with songs so good — ‘A Taste of Honey’, etc. — you wish you could have been young in so beguiling and sweetly melodious an era. And Sandbrook’s pieces to camera in an intriguing selection of knitted scarves. He comes across as an enthusiast with an urgent, thrilling, gossipy story to tell that he’s just dying to share with you and you alone.
Curse you, Sandbrook. Had you been around at school when I was there (which you weren’t) and had we still had fagging (which unfortunately we didn’t), I would have thrashed you to within an inch of your life for your damned impertinence and maddening brilliance.
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