TV: Strange Days: Cold War Britain

Written on 29 November 2013 in Culture

On BBC iPlayer until 3 December

We are used to viewing the Cold War through a global lens, so the BBC mini-series charting the “war that framed our lives” through British society provides a refreshing perspective. Historian Dominic Sandbrook uses a mix of archived news reels, broadcasts and films, accompanied by a lively soundtrack, to tell a series of stories that show how the war was fought “in our families, in our shopping centres, in our culture and in our heads”.

Often, these tales are jumbled – from watching clips of Dynamo Moscow’s ‘passovotchka’ football tour of Britain in 1945, to hearing about George Orwell’s deathbed message – so it makes for disjointed viewing. And Sandbrook’s avuncular style of delivery, combined with his use of phrases such as “our age-old enemy, the Russian Bear”, often makes the series of ‘strange’ tales sound more like a bedtime story than a documentary on the conflict that brought the world to the brink of destruction.

The series raises comparisons with the politics of British society today. Sandbrook’s depiction of “grim austerity”, where ordinary life was “bleak and pinched”, as “a perfect breeding ground for communism”, reminds us of contemporary austerity-hit Britain and the Occupy Movement’s demand for change. Considering his Thatcherite sympathies, this may have been a subliminal warning against any current sympathies for socialist populism.

A lively range of music from the era provides light relief from Sandbrook’s monologue. But one or two other voices would have added a great deal of value and balance to his right-wing perspective; in particular, to the way in which he depicts the views of public figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Hewlett Johnson, the ‘Red Dean of Canterbury’.

By Matt Dathan

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