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Sunday, 18 November 2007

TV Review – My Boy Jack, ITV1, Sunday 11th November, 9pm

My cousin is fascinated by World War I, buys all the books and watches all the films. Down the years, thanks to her storytelling and encouragement, I've also become fascinated by this horrible war. Why? I often ask myself that question, as I'm not that keen in wars, full stop. I guess it's to do with the enormous amount of casualties, the horrifying conditions the war was fought out in, the way huge swathes of the Europe's male population were killed, and how pretty much every town and community was affected by this thing.

One man who can empathise with all these points is Rudyard Kipling. The man who wrote The Jungle Book and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907 couldn't do any wrong. He was married, had a big house in the country, was loved everywhere and mates with the King. Like many fathers up and down the land, his life was about to change when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914.

I'd already watched an excellent Jeremy Paxman documentary earlier in the evening on BBC1, about the inspirational World War I poet Wilfred Owen, so I was looking forward to watching My Boy Jack. All I knew about it was that David Haig was reprising his role as Rudyard Kipling from the West End play, and the cast was strong – Daniel Radcliffe, Kim Cattrell and the always-excellent Carey Mulligan (who's becoming a bit of costume drama Queen these days).

The opening sequence saw Rudyard Kipling race to some big, posh house to meet his mate the King, no less, where they had a whiskey, said pip-pip to each other and discussed the state of things, what-ho. The King asked Rudyard to go easy on his public speaking – Rud had been whipping up a fervour recently by shouting that the British Army simply wasn't ready for war, and that recruits were needed, and needed fast... so come on, what are you waiting for? It's your time to serve King and country!

The King wanted him to calm down, but Rud, patriotic veins bulging in his temples, refused and said he bally well wouldn't (or something along those posh, early 20th century language lines). We then cut to Rud's son John, or Jack, failing a medical at the Navy because of his myopia and fears from Army people that wearing spectacles may endanger himself and his fellow men.

When the family all got home to their beautiful, rural pile we were introduced to the rest of the Kipling family – Rud's wife Cassie (Cattrell) and mischievous daughter Elsie (Mulligan). Their idyllic lifestyle was laid out in front of us in all its glory – rose gardens, motorcycles in the shed, smoking rooms... the whole nine yards. Just below this surface of tranquility Rud was seething at his son's rejection and vowed to help him out by talking to a few of his influential friends down at the war office. You got the impression that he – another spectacle wearer – wanted his son to live out what he always wanted to.

Thanks to his dad's political wheeling and dealing, Jack finally got into the Army, and the fresh-faced young man (or “old man” as his dad insisted on calling him) was off to boot camp quicker than you can say, "Mr Kipling bakes exceedingly good cakes". This is when the drama started to pick up – after a slowish start I did wonder if I could feel enough for Rud to feel sorry for him. It was obvious what was going to happen – rabidly patriotic and pro-war dad (who likened Empire to 'Britain's family of nations' and the need for war as, 'the parents looking after the nation of children') tries his best to get his son into the army, son goes to war, son dies, dad feels awful.

This is pretty much what happened of course, but not before we saw Jack become a man at boot camp, return home with a 'tache and an officer's badge. There was a very moving moment when mother and son said their goodbyes before his journey to France (and impending doom). This is what these war stories are all about for me – the family relationships, how the dynamic between the mother/father and son changes, and the way, however old and mature these young men think they are, they are reduced to babies when they're forced to say goodbye. Kim Cattrell played this moment very well.

Jack Kilping was 17 years old when he went off to the front line in France. His mother and father were left at home, a once lively and colourful country paradise, now empty and foreboding. We got a glimpse of the horrors of trench warfare, but before you knew it, Jack was to go over the top... the day after his 18th birthday.

The day (and time) of the big push saw the drama produce one of its most powerful scenes. While Jack rallied his troops in the trenches – who were shaking and vomiting with fear – Rud and Cassie got out of bed and went into the garden to sit quietly in their pyjamas. Two different calms before the storm.

You just knew what was going to happen, and the next hugely powerful scene saw Rud receive a telegram at the home. The walk from his front door to the reading room, unopened telegram in his pocket, was the sort of scene where time stood still – every parent's nightmare.

Jack was pronounced missing in action, but Rud and Cassie doggedly clung to hope. While Rud slowly came to terms with his part in his son's death, Cassie was stoic and searched for answers. But the writing was on the wall – a moving testimony from a wounded soldier, who went over the top with Jack, confirmed that he did indeed die behind enemy lines.

Having read a bit more about Rudyard Kipling, commentators say that his post-war work was severely affected by what happened to his son (not least his poem, My Boy Jack). You’re not kidding! I think it would severely affect any parent who has lost a son at war, no matter what they did for a living.

So what did I think of all this? It was a fascinating story, but not up there in the top drawer of dramas, I have to admit.

The performances were all terrific, it looked lavish and the war scenes were Saving Private Ryan-esque (or as much as a TV drama can), but there was just something missing. Perhaps I didn't warm to Rud's character, perhaps both the pacing and plotting were a bit choppy and, perhaps, the story wasn’t quite as gripping as other WWI stories I’ve read.

I also have to say that there's just something different and wrong about ITV dramas. Something undefinable and slightly odd – maybe it's the commercial breaks, but I've never seen an ITV drama that's well-paced or well edited. Maybe a Cracker or a Prime Suspect, but that's about it.

But what can you do when you review a WWI drama? Criticise the plot? Have a go at a mother and father coming to terms with the loss of their son? Pour scorn on one young man's coming-of-age that, tragically, wasn't completed? Of course not. It's another hugely worthy, human story that serves to remind us how different things were then – the British stiff upper lip was in full-effect, boys and men from across the land were willing to lay down their lives unconditionally for King and country, and the glamour of war (if there is such a thing) was in stark contrast to the sickening reality.

In that respect, My Boy Jack was a moving reminder why we should all never, ever forget.


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