Posted by: sommecourt | 04/11/2008

Review – MFAW Ep 1

Last Night’s Television – My Family At War

Never a moment’s peace

Reviewed by Brian Viner
Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Let’s start by giving the BBC some good press. My Family at War is a corker of a series in which various well-known people, not including Jonathan Ross or Russell Brand, find out what happened to their relatives during the First World War.

First up were the former East-Enders actor Natalie Cassidy and the historian Dan Snow, and the latter had to come to terms with some uncomfortable revelations about his great-grandfather (and thus the grand-father of Peter “swingometer” Snow and the newsreader Jon Snow) Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow, whose wartime activities were not nearly as impressive as his fabulous name.

The deliverer of these unwelcome tidings was an authority on the First World War called Alan McDonald, who seemed to derive slightly unseemly pleasure from, to all intents and purposes, peeing at the foot of the Snow family tree. It turned out to be personal. McDonald had a great-uncle who died under the general’s evidently slipshod command at the Somme, and when Snow winced and said he somehow felt guilty, he was assured “it’s not your fault” with all the sincerity of an invitation for tea at Kaiser Wilhelm’s house to Field-Marshal Haig, Mrs Haig and their pet tortoise, Alan, as another casualty of the Somme, Captain Edmund Blackadder, might have said.

General Snow spent the first day of the battle holed up in a chateau seven miles behind the front line. He lost 4,000 men that day alone, while the British Army as a whole suffered almost 60,000 casualties, yet in his subsequent letters home the general wrote “we really are progressing well” and “the Boche is beat and he knows it”. This, as Snow eloquently put it, “was a stunning piece of self-delusion: he was describing the single worst week in British history and being relentlessly upbeat about it”. Snow reserved his real contempt, however, for his great-grandfather’s efforts to transfer the blame during a later inquiry into what had gone so cataclysmically wrong, citing “the lack of offensive spirit” among his troops. Rarely did the old phrase “lions led by donkeys” seem so apt, and who’d have thought that big, handsome Dan Snow, an Oxford rowing blue (and through his mother a great great-grandson of David Lloyd George), would turn out to be descended from a donkey?

It is poignant, painful discoveries such as this that feed the burgeoning genre of TV genealogy inspired by Who Do You Think You Are?, and it was a very good idea by somebody to give it a First World War flavour in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, so helmets off to the besieged BBC. What was also noticeable about this first programme was how class division endures through the generations. There’s pukka Dan Snow (St Paul’s and Balliol) related to a general, and Natalie Cassidy finding out that her great-grandfather dug graves on the battlefields after the war. I suppose we should hail the democratising influence of television, which merely has them both classed as celebrities.

Source: Independant.

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