September marks the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Throughout the month there are commemorations connected with the momentous events that marked the beginning of a war that eventually saw fifty million souls lose their lives. On September 20, just under the window where I sit writing this piece, a Spitfire flew over central London marking the sixty-ninth year since the brutal Battle of Britain.
As September got under way I expected the BBC to devote a good proportion of its broadcasting day, most particularly on September 3, the day war was declared, to commemorative programs and repeats of original soundtracks from the historic perambulations of Neville Chamberlain.
No such thing: to my astonishment, BBC Radio Four spent exactly seven minutes on the milestone and decided to offer on the historic morning of September 3 a program and interactive debate about Islamophobia. It wheeled out the usual spokespeople for the Anglo-Muslim community, kvetching about the proliferation of stereotypes and unfair depictions of Islam in every area of British culture. To be fair, one must be as tolerant of such programs as one is of those about anti-Semitism, but the juxtaposition of the top news story about the release of Libyan Lockerbie terrorist Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi by the Scottish authorities with whining representatives of Islam, complaining about the unfair focus of the media on Islamic baddies, was bizarre.
To the dismay of many Londoners, the late edition of the Russian-owned Evening Standard newspaper sported — no pun intended — a blazing headline about Chelsea Football Club on September 3, 2009, when it ought to have printed a facsimile of the 1939 edition; is this how the young of Britain should be reminded of their history?
During the week beginning September 3, television was devoid of commemorative programs, save one documentary, Outbreak, produced by the History Channel and ITV, in which famous Britons, including one Sir Richard Attenborough, reminisce about their childhood wartime experiences. Why this program was on at 10:30 p.m. is beyond me; it should have been broadcast when youngsters could watch and fully understand the damage wrought by the Luftwaffe on Britain during what Winston Churchill called his island people’s “finest hour.” Another oddity was a special about Muslim Tommies; there is nothing wrong with this but where were the programs about the staggering events of 1939-40, when as everyone breathed Europe fell like dominoes to the most terrible dictator of all time and Britain’s valiant pilots repelled the mighty Luftwaffe?
My instinct was right: there was a stinging editorial by British humorist Ben Miller, who complains in BBC Radio Times magazine that there was minimal coverage this year of the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of war when in fact he and other young people yearn for knowledge of that period. He observes, “When celebration seems inappropriate, commemoration is all the more important,” and notes that British television has commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the last episode of American audience favorite Fawlty Towers. He also points out that this year marks fifty years of the legendary soap opera Coronation Street and twenty years of East Enders and of David Suchet as Poirot. But his pleasure over these milestones stops there.