The following is commentary on Episode No. 16 ("A Lesson in War") from members of AFAMILYATWAR-LIST. If you wish to add your thoughts to what is being said on this page, become a part of our discussion group by clicking the "Join" button.
It is primarily through Philip Ashton (and, to a lesser extent, older brother David) that we are made privy to the inner workings of military life during wartime. Personally, I find these to be fascinating side trips, though of course I do miss seeing the rest of the Ashton and Briggs clans. Perhaps someone with no military experience would find such episodes as “To Die for Spain,” “For Strategic Reasons,” and “A Lesson in War” to be tedious, if not pointless, excursions away from the principal story line, but I see them as fascinating depictions of servicemen’s training, drill, discipline, interaction with peers, and combat. They chronicle the British war effort through the eyes of the protagonists in uniform, not to mention granting us further insight into the development of their characters. The accuracy is brilliant, thanks I’m sure to the writers’ own first-hand experiences and to assistance from the British Army and the RAF.
Some random comments about “A Lesson in War”…
For a British actor, I think Bryan Marshall makes a very convincing son of Poland! Not only does his role require him to speak with an eastern European accent, but also to dance with a Pole’s heart, drink with a Pole’s passion, and at one point even utter a conversation in idiomatic German. Nicely done.
David Swift, too, does a marvelous job of portraying the punctilious Sergeant Basset. He reminds me of some NCOs of my acquaintance during the early 1970s. Equally splendid is Clifford Rose as another of Philip’s “superannuated blimps,” the spit-and-polish colonel. When Philip suggests that the Army should have thinking men, the colonel is aghast: “What? In the ranks?” Fine writing there. It is clear to see that Captain Carbury sympathises with the enlisted men's grievances.
I find director Bob Hird’s choice of yellow-filtered lighting in the Cairo bar to be quite effective in conveying some sense of the exotic. As the Red Caps arrive to break up the fight, it is interesting to hear the soldiers’ chorus of “Go home, go home” being sung to the tune of Westminster chimes. Was that customary in such situations, when confronted by the military police?
While it is difficult to excuse insubordination, particularly in wartime, one cannot help but admire Philip Ashton for disobeying the officious sergeant when Basset disturbs Stashek’s kit for no valid reason.
There is a powerful confrontation between Philip and Stashek when they enter into a political discussion that rises almost imperceptibly in intensity. Philip treats it merely as an academic excercise, so he is astonished at the passion which Stashek attaches to such terms as fascist and communist. Owing to the fate of Staskek’s parents, the Soviets and Germans are equally inhumane in his eyes, a concept that the intellectual Philip cannot begin to grasp.
Another very tense scene occurs when the night patrol finds itself walking through a minefield at night, and any wrong step could be their demise.
Later, after Stashek and Philip have captured the German soldier, the viewer’s first inclination is to identify with Philip’s compassion for the wounded enemy. Ultimately, however, it is Stashek’s instincts that are vindicated, lending poignance to his final words: “Now you know what it’s about, huh?”
Despite the presumably modest budget for “A Lesson in War,” I am impressed by the nicely mounted production, something I find to be true in all of the military episodes of “A Family at War.” I am curious to know where the desert scenes were filmed.
As Richard says, the writing is first class. Alect Baron was the most reliable of the handful of freelance writers who worked on "A Family at War." Added to this he was, so far as my memory serves me, the only one with combat experience. The budget, as Richard suggests, was very poor, which is why Denis Forman could later describe it as "the most cost effective television series ever made." The desert scenes were shot at Formby, near Liverpool. The director, Bob Hird, was superb dealing with action episodes.
As Richard points out, you could hardly do a series about war without showing some of the actual conflict, though our primary intention was to concentrate on the effects on the family.
Just a note about "superannuated blimps." Some of you may not be aware that Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character that appeared in the Evening Standard during the 1930s. He was pompous and contradictory and symbolic of a very silly ultra-conservative view point. There was a film made by the Archers (Powell and Pressburger, two of my favourite directors), which was a bit of a more sympathetic look at the Colonel. But he was part of the popular culture at the time, and
everyone seemed to know a Colonel Blimp or two.