by Allan Fish
(UK 1995-1998 1,378m) not on DVD
Aka. People’s Century: 1900-1999
We had huge hopes…
p Peter Magnamenta, Zvi Dor-Ner, Jonathan Lewis, Bill Treharne Jones d Jonathan Lewis, Archie Baron, Angus MacQueen w Jonathan Lewis ph/ed various m Zbigniew Preisner tit Iain MacDonald, Alan Jeapes
narrated by Sean Barrett, Veronika Hyks
When the BBC announced this flagship documentary’s impending broadcast, the best part of a decade in the making, one would be forgiven for thinking we were quite literally witnessing TV history. It would take in all the major events and points of interest in the twentieth century, from the euphoria of 1900 to the calamity of 1914 to the rise of the Red Flag in 1917 to the failed peace of 1919-1933, taking in the rise in popularity of the cinema and of sports on both sides of the Atlantic, the rise of the ‘Master Race’ in 1933, the great depression, the Cold War, the post-war American baby boom, and so on right up to the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the inevitable look ahead while looking back.
In that first episode, we meet Alexander Briansky, born in 1882, probably nearer 110 than 100 when filming, talking of how people saw out the final moments of the 19th century. “We had huge hopes”, he said. And why would they not, without our benefit of hindsight. Sean Barrett’s narration spoke for our fears; “in the 20th century some of the hopes were dashed and many were realised. For millions there were spiralling danger, cruel abuse, but political power shifted. New freedoms were won and millions lived longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than they expected.” As Barrett went on, People’s Century was about “the story of those turbulent changes told by the people themselves.”
It was a daunting mission statement, and to be fair the result could only be seen as a qualified success. The episodes on World War I and World War II were already insufficient compared to the comprehensive nature of the likes of The Great War and The World at War. The episode on Hollywood was shaky at best, talking about the Hays Code and yet seeming to think Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Hyde was made afterwards (?). As for the episode on the Master Race, that would become obsolete within a matter of years after the success of Laurence Rees’ The Nazis: A Warning from History and Auschwitz.
It’s fifteen years now since the last episode was broadcast, and even by the time of the arrival of the new century the last episode looked ahead to, it was seeming behind the times. There seems to be something telling about the fact that it was never released even to VHS in the UK let alone DVD. Could there have been that much complexity to the rights issues of the footage and clips used? It should be out if only because it works splendidly as a starting point. It may not quite be as timeless or as personal as those one man masterpieces of Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and Alistair Cooke, or even have the idiosyncrasies of the later history programmes of Simon Schama. It may just fall short of the power of the later Gulag, by one of People’s Century’s own Angus MacQueen. All of which doesn’t make it any less valuable as a record of testimony. Interviews with men and women who were probably dead even before the series was broadcast through to those still looking back with seemingly impossibly misty eyes on days and regimes thankfully a thing of the past; a Czech German woman dreaming of how lovely it was when Hitler invaded Sudetanland, the almost clichéd comedy of middle-aged women talking with pride in modern Russia about their productive ball-bearing factory, or others bemoaning the fall of Communism. Against them the foresight of the East German guard who let the masses through to the West on that historic night in November 1989 or the story of Holocaust survivor Zvi Michaeli, which almost becomes too much for us to bear, let alone poor Mr Michaeli. And if the opening episodes are the best of the 26, with the footage of Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901 beginning the fall of the ‘old order’ eventually lain waste by 1918, the whole confirms what we have always known; that individual people are wonderful, but humanity hateful in the extreme.