Playing it safe

5 October 2017

2:00 PM

5 October 2017

2:00 PM

BBC1’s latest Sunday-night drama The Last Post, about a British military base in Aden in 1965, feels like a programme on a mission: that mission being to avoid getting shouted at by either the Guardian or the Daily Mail. To this (possibly doomed) end, it goes about its business very gingerly, with an almost pathological devotion to balance, and a safety-first reliance on the trusty methods of the well-made play, where each scene makes a single discrete point and the characters are as carefully differentiated as the members of a boy band.

The first episode opened with the base’s new captain landing at Aden airport with his wife. ‘It must be a hundred degrees,’ she said scene-settingly as they descended from the plane. ‘This isn’t Aldershot, is it,’ he helpfully added. Then, as they waited for their driver, we caught up with what was happening on the base itself, where the popular outgoing captain was engaged in the kind of farewell that Henry Blofeld might have considered a bit protracted. He joshed with his Scottish sergeant (the Salt-of-the-Earth One). He commiserated with Lt Ed Laithwaite (the Conflicted One) for not being appointed his replacement. He had sex one last time with Ed’s wife Alison (the Drunken Slutty One — played with some relish by Jessica Raine, who appears to have her hand sutured to a vodka glass for the role). When the new captain (the Uptight One) arrived, it was clear that he was the equivalent of one of those fast-tracked graduate officers in cop shows, whose main job is to be regarded with deep suspicion by his underlings.

But to the annoyance of all concerned, possibly including the programme-makers, there was also the pesky business of colonial politics to deal with. Outside the walls, the natives were not just restless — and to prove it, jabbering excitedly — but heavily armed and increasingly well organised. So how could the Brits most effectively get some information out of a prisoner they were holding? The question was debated with due efficiency by Lt Ed, who believes — modern parallel alert — that ‘torture is the best recruiting sergeant for terrorists’, and Major Markham (the Rule-bound One) who thinks these matters are best left to the intelligence services. And with that, the two moved on to colonialism more generally, laying out the cases for and against in the same neat way.

The Last Post, then, is not for those who like their TV drama fearless and innovative. (Give or take the occasional swear word, the programme could have been broadcast at any point in the past 50 years.) On the other hand, there’s something quite touching about its resolute old-fashionedness. By the end of the first episode, in fact, it didn’t seem to be merely depicting the values of a British base at the fag end of colonialism but embodying them: trying hard to stay unflappable in the trickiest of circumstances; determined to be well-meaning even if it wasn’t entirely sure what it was doing there; and all while either not noticing or not caring that it might perhaps belong to another time.

A rather different aspect of British colonial history lay behind Race and Pace: the West Indians in East Lancashire, a terrific 30-minute documentary tucked away on BBC4 on Monday. This took us back to the long-lost days when the populations of Lancashire mill towns would dress up in their finery to go and watch local league cricket, where each team was allowed to employ one professional. In the 1950s and ’60s, many of the pros were from the Caribbean, and as a result Lancashire club cricketers found themselves playing alongside some of the greatest players in the world.

The programme spoke to several Lancastrians who’ve stayed friends with their Caribbean team-mates, including one man who still phones Charlie Griffith (a legendarily fearsome fast bowler of the 1960s) every Christmas morning. It also met many of the former pros, including Sir Wes Hall (ditto), who made the unexpected declaration that ‘Accrington was the defining moment of my life.’

The last hurrah came in 1987 when the era’s leading batsman signed for Rishton, where the skipper was a brewery manager called David Wells. On Monday, Wells looked back on the experience as if remembering a strange but pleasant dream. ‘I’ve captained Viv Richards,’ he said in a wondering tone.

But, as we learned, the man who started it all was Learie Constantine, who joined Nelson cricket club in 1928. When he did, most of the locals had never seen a black man before, and some crossed the road to avoid him. A few years later, he’d become a bona fide folk hero and the highest paid sportsman in Britain. By 1969, he was a member of the House of Lords — where he took the title Baron Constantine of Nelson.

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