Daytime TV: Love me do

TV histories may struggle for free expression, but the Beatles enjoyed it in abundance, Gary Day finds

September 17, 2009

Would a poor cotter, the very lowest person in the Scottish clan system, have worn a gold wedding ring? One did in Peter Watkins' Culloden. Does it matter? Hell, yes. If you are going to recreate the past, leave out items of the present. It's confusing. And at my age, not a little disorientating. At which point Peter looms up before me and says that "history is a flowing, fluid continuum moving backwards and forwards all the time". Really? Then how come I won't wake up tomorrow and be 17 again? That was the age at which I first saw this angry and remarkable film. It was shown to us by our history teacher: a man with a fierce beard and even fiercer principles. "I am prepared to go to prison," he once declared in the canteen, "if they reintroduce the 11-plus."

We had no idea education could be so exciting. Or that slaughter could be so ordinary. It's hard to forget the image of English soldiers, trudging round after the battle, bayoneting the wounded, some of them only boys, in such a perfunctory fashion.

The Making of Culloden (BBC Four, Saturday 5 September, 10pm) explained that the film aimed to make history accessible. In 1963, armed with one camera and a tripod, the crew headed for Inverness, where they recruited locals to enact what their ancestors had experienced for real. The documentary style made the past seem contemporary. So that band of gold, although probably an editorial oversight, had, er, a ring of truth to it.

The participants recalled that rainy April, and what has happened to them since. One woman remembered an extra coming into the hall, wet and shivering. "He said he'd been killed three times that morning, so I gave him a wee dram." A man pointed at a group photograph. "See him? He went off to play for Manchester City." Peter himself said that Culloden was a metaphor for "the system" under which we live. "Why", he asked, "can't we just let free spirits live and express themselves? Is there something wrong with us as a species?" Well, Richard Dawkins, is there?

Peter's next film, The War Game (1965), about a nuclear attack, was banned by the BBC. It was deemed to be unsuitable viewing. This from an organisation that thinks nothing of inflicting Jonathan Ross on us. Disgusted, Peter upped sticks to live abroad. He bewailed the decline of television. Its potential as a medium for genuine communication, a means for communities to explore their own histories and share their experience has been sold for a mess of programmes about property, cooking and how much you can get for your family heirlooms. Ken Loach felt the same. Television "manipulates consciousness", he cried from a rooftop. Was he about to leap off in despair? All the participants agreed that we need another Peter Watkins. One wonders how much better The Tudors would be with him at the helm.

And where would the Beatles have been without George Martin? "They weren't great," he remarked when he auditioned them for EMI, "but they had something." Cheek, for one thing. When Martin asked them if they wanted to say anything, John Lennon replied he didn't like his tie. "Pop stars weren't supposed to have opinions," recalled Maureen Cleave. But the times they were a-changing. The Beatles on Record (BBC Four, Friday 11 September, 10.30pm) told the history of the band's musical development from their first single, Love Me Do, to their last, The Long and Winding Road, in their own and Martin's words.

By the time they made Rubber Soul, the Beatles were telling Martin what they wanted: orchestras, overdubs, secondary voices. Tomorrow Never Knows, on Revolver, was apparently the first record with music played backwards as part of the effect. Aside from these items, most of the programme was anecdotal. Yesterday was originally called Scrambled Eggs (sing the opening bar and you will see why); George Harrison said he learnt to play chess while they made Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and Ringo Starr got blisters because of the number of takes it took to get Helter Skelter just right. Abbey Road was the group's last album. If memory serves me right, the final words you hear are "and in the end, the love you take/is equal to the love you make". Trite but true. Hopefully.

The delightfully quirky Apples and Oranges (Channel Four, Tuesday 15 September, 11.40pm) was the first in a series of seven half-hour dramas showcasing the work of new writers and film-makers. Claudia has to choose between Sam the writer and Ashley the music producer. Sam thinks the pen is mightier than the penis; Ashley thinks there's no need to switch off his mobile during sex. Claudia falls pregnant and waves goodbye to them both. No wedding ring for her.

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