I watched Testament of Youth again – the BBC drama from about 1978, not the recent movie. It’s based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name, a memoir that helped define our ideas about WWI. For example, according to the preface to a reissuing of the book, the notion that nearly a whole generation of young men died in that war originated in Testanent of Youth – and is false. That’s a huge impact for one book to make on the minds of succeeding generations. I’m not here to correct that notion – only to point out how it seems to have reflected the devastation people felt, and continued to feel long after the war was over.
This is a marvellous TV show. Over five eps, it traces the evolution of one woman from rebellious yet sheltered middle-class girl who longs to go to Oxford, to a woman who is politicised by her experiences as a field nurse in the war zones of France. It shows the agonising impact of war on her and the men she cared about who fought and died in the trenches – her brother, her fiancé, their two best friends. It examines themes of “courage” and “cowardice” in a mature and thoughtful way. It makes points about the double standard that binds the sexes to their separate spheres – I don’t know whether these observations were drawn from the memoir or whether they were influenced by the feminism of the 1970s, but it’s interesting to see how openly and unselfish-consciously they are made, whereas today, such observations are rarely deployed, though double standards of this kind continue to influence gender behaviour. And it’s INTELLECTUAL. It’s more than that but it’s not afraid to show Vera as an extremely intelligent woman who discusses ideas.
And on top of that the luminous Cheryl Campbell, one of my favourite actresses, plays Vera.
I read in the preface to the reissuing of the book that Vera stipulated in her Will that her ashes be scattered over the field where her brother was killed. She was a woman of steadfast loyalty to those she loved. Loyal even beyond the grave. I find that deeply moving.
English dramas from the 1970s are extraordinary in the depth and complexity and intelligence of their stories. They are sure of holding the viewer’s attention. I like a good English drama of today – especially crime drama. All the same, there is something about dramas of that decade that pulls me back to them. They so reward repeated viewings.
Image via Indiewire