ROLAND WHITE reviews last night’s TV: Was The Great Escape a wizard wheeze by pampered prisoners?
The Great Escape: A Daring Plan
PD James: The Murder Room
History is full of surprises. For example, I never expected to hear The Great Escape (C5) called ‘the greatest example of Anglo-German co-operation since the marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert’.
If you remember the film of the same name, starring Steve McQueen, the Germans didn’t seem best pleased when 76 prisoners-of-war tunnelled their way from Stalag Luft III in 1944.
But the prisoners were apparently helped on their way by sympathetic captors.
Some of the guards were strongly anti-Nazi and secretly working for an Allied victory, while others could be bribed with chocolate and cigarettes.
Television has many tricks at its disposal, but sometimes all you need to make a gripping documentary is a gripping story. This was one of those instances.
The Great Escape: A Daring Plan (C5) is a gripping documentary with a gripping story
You probably know the bare facts: brave and ingenious airmen, three tunnels under the camp, and prisoners shaking sand out of their trousers to hide the results of their digging. But this first of three episodes was packed with fascinating detail.
For example, conditions in the camp were relatively comfortable. There were letters from home, food parcels, a library, film shows and a theatre. Photographs of the camp showed ice hockey, and skinny-dipping in a makeshift pool.
One expert compared it to life in a minor public school. Another said: ‘Life could be pretty good if you wanted to spend your entire life in a holiday camp.’
That might explain why two thirds of the men weren’t interesting in escaping.
It was even suggested that the escape committee was a bit of a lark: ‘Escaping was essentially a sport. You weren’t going to die. You were going to run around Germany, giving the Hun a run for his money. You could make great plans and do something daring and exciting.’
What happened in the end was brutal, but early on there appeared to be some truth in the ‘lark’ theory.
When two Americans escaped and were recaptured, the camp commandant presented them with a bottle of whisky in recognition of their daring and enterprise.
Martin Shaw played PD James’s poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh with a remarkable economy of movement: every glance or raised eyebrow compelled attention
For the first 45 minutes of PD James: The Murder Room (Drama) we could simply twiddle our thumbs and wait for the actor Michael Maloney to die horribly.
He was playing Dr Neville Dupayne, a psychiatrist who managed to make himself so unpopular that he may as well have had a target stitched into his suit.
His brother and sister wanted him to sign a new lease so the family museum — with its famous Murder Room — could continue. If he didn’t sign, the staff would be jobless. Some would be homeless.
Surprise of the week
Miriam Margolyes and Alan Cumming visited a mansion hotel run by a witch and popular with other witches in Miriam And Alan: Lost In Scotland (C4). Hotel? Whatever happened to cooking eye of newt in a cauldron on a blasted heath?
Also, he had dumped his married lover and was feuding with his daughter. Dr Dupayne was eventually burned to death in his car, a killing that echoed one of the museum murders.
By the end of the first episode, a body is found in a trunk, just like another of the museum murders.
This whodunnit is a 2005 BBC production but was well worth revisiting. Its starry cast included Samantha Bond, Sian Phillips and Jack Shepherd.
Martin Shaw played PD James’s poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh with a remarkable economy of movement: every glance or raised eyebrow compelled attention.
Just one point, though: did Dalgliesh simply appear at Scotland Yard one day as a ready-made commander?
Because there’s no way — unlike Channel 5’s Dalgliesh, Bertie Carvel — I can imagine him as a constable, pounding the beat down the Old Kent Road.