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D-Day: The Unheard Tapes review – TV so good it’s worth the BBC licence fee on its own
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D-Day: The Unheard Tapes review – TV so good it’s worth the BBC licence fee on its own

Eighty years ago this month a young bloke from south London called Wally Parr was floating through the night in a flimsy wooden glider a few thousand feet over the Channel. He wasn’t alone. Jammed alongside him in one of six such craft were his mates from the British army’s 6th Airborne Division. On the night before the D-day landings, they were heading behind enemy lines to capture a bridge from the Germans. Some wouldn’t see the dawn.

If the 181 men on these gliders were afraid, adrenaline and delusion may have helped still their nerves. “The thing that keeps most men going in battle,” reflects one, “is despite seeing people die left right and centre, they always get this idea that it’s not going to be them.” These were words of the late Pte Parr, who died in 2005, recorded during an interview after the second world war. Here, those words are brought to life by being lip-synced in a sweetly characterful performance by Samuel Lawrence, a young actor dressed in 1940s civvies.

This heartbreaking three-part series commemorates what British, American and Canadian soldiers did one day in June 1944, but also widens its focus to include the testimonies of French civilians and resistance fighters – as well as considering the experiences of young German gunners and wireless operators in their bunkers as they awaited the attentions of about 150,000 incoming allied troops. In each case, actors in period dress are used to bring decades-old audio interviews to life.

It’s an overwhelming success. Ever since Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s 2018 film They Shall Not Grow Old, which colourised black and white footage of squaddies in the first world war trenches – and thereby made century-old sacrifice up close and personal as never before – the bar has been set high for TV making old soldiers’ sacrifice emotionally resonant to 21st-century viewers. The series director of D-Day: The Unheard Tapes, Mark Radice, along with the lip-syncers, film crews, historians and re-enactment groups, do just that, however. The simple, elegantly realised device of having late men’s recorded words performed by living actors rivals what epic dramatic Channel-set wartime films such as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk did, namely ensuring that age shall not wither their memory.

As the glider, released from the Halifax bomber that had towed it skyward from Dorset, levelled out, we hear that someone opened the door to reveal the darkling French fields below. “It was so quiet,” recalls Maj John Howard. Sitting nearby him and Parr in the glider was Lt Den Brotheridge, whose wife was due to give birth two weeks after D-day.

The silence was interrupted as the glider crash landed. Maj Howard recalled checking that his men were uninjured and then realised they were only 50 yards from the Benouville Bridge they had been tasked with seizing to halt any advance by German tanks. Seconds later, his men were in a gunfight with Nazi troops, during which Lt Brotheridge was shot – making him one of D-day’s first casualties, and meaning his daughter grew up never knowing her dad. Wally Parr knelt over him as he died. “All the years of training he’d put in,” we hear Parr tell us. “He only lasted 20 seconds, 30 seconds.”

D-day: The Unheard Tapes brims with such beautifully realised vignettes – making clear the sorrow and pity of war. As 6 June dawned over Normandy, we hear how thousands of US troops were 13 miles off Omaha Beach bobbing in choppy waters in high-sided landing crafts, familiar to anyone who has ever seen Saving Private Ryan.

Often seasick, strafed with incoming fire, some of the these men talk about being keyed up to fight, others nervously voicing their fears about dying – an understandable fear, given mass deaths had been factored into the plans for Operation Overlord. As one of the men, Pte Harry Parley from the US army’s 29th Infantry Division, puts it: “We were told they expected about 30% casualties in the invasion.”

What did it feel like when you arrived at Omaha Beach? Parley, sympathetically interpreted by Ethan McHale, tells us: “The ramp went down, your asshole puckered up, you took a deep breath and you started to pray.”

The chaos and carnage that was these Americans first experience of France is summed up eloquently in this exchange. “What did they tell you to expect?” an interviewer asks an African American solider? “Expect hell. They didn’t lie to us about that.”

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Not for a second have I ever been resentful about paying the BBC licence fee, but I’ve hardly ever been as happy to do so as when watching D-Day: The Unheard Tapes. It’s one of the best pieces of public service broadcasting I’ve seen in years.

Source: theguardian.com