Tag Archives: television

The Forgotten Dead, by Ken Small

My best friend got me totally hooked on Foyle’s War, so I watched the whole series a few weeks ago. It’s such a brilliantly done police drama set in Hastings during WW2; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Anyway, in the last episode, one of the plot points revolves around Exercise Tiger, a training exercise for D-Day that went horribly wrong. I’d never heard of Exercise Tiger before, but the idea that there was a training exercise that ended up as an actual attack where several hundred soldiers and sailors died, which was then “conveniently forgotten” (as Ken Small puts it in his book), intrigued me.  I’m not huge on military history in more than a general sense (General Sense! *salute*). I don’t know troop movements and details of weaponry and things like that, even in wars that I am otherwise fascinated with (WW1 and the Hundred Years War are two notable examples of wars I am fascinated with). The stories behind the battles are much more interesting to me, and it seemed like Exercise Tiger had a good story.

Within days of watching the last episode of Foyle’s War and first hearing about Exercise Tiger, this book came into the charity shop where I volunteer. I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t just learned about Exercise Tiger; it would have just been stored with all the other hundreds of donated books until it was time to go on the shelves. (I love this shop. Donate your books to charity/second-hand stores, kids.) But I had, so I did, and I took it home to read it.

The book was published in 1988, just after the memorial to Exercise Tiger was dedicated. It moves fairly chronologically through the battle, the discovery by Ken Small of a tank submerged off the Devon coast, and his struggle to raise the tank and put up a formal memorial to those who died in Exercise Tiger. There is a lot of detail – military details about the exercise itself, a brief biography of Ken Small himself to provide context for his search, and details about the bureaucracy and paperwork necessary for the memorial. It’s a great story, both about the exercise and the struggle (for it was a struggle) to recover the tank and put up the memorial.

It’s not the greatest book in the world. The prose isn’t exactly sparkling, to say the least. It’s not bad, it’s just not great. It tends very much toward the “this happened. And then this happened” style. But, then, it doesn’t pretend to be any different. I’m not going to say it has flaws; I’m just going to say that if I’d been ghostwriting it, there are things I would have done differently. The military detail at the beginning is, I’m sure, informative. But it meant very little to me, since I don’t have the background knowledge of tanks and procedures. I was much more interested by the personal stories from survivors, and wish there had been more of them. I would have liked to know what a typical run would have been like, from the point of view of a participant instead of the dry details, in order to understand what was different about this one.

The parts about the memorial also got bogged down in some of the details, although not to a frustrating extent. Again, I would have liked more of the personal stories, more of the emotional connection. If it were me, I probably would have structured it a little bit more like a novel with flashbacks – but that’s just my own personal preference from a 2010 perspective, and not 1988.

But, like I said, the story is pretty much unbeatable. Men training for D-Day, through a series of unfortunate coincidences and mistakes, were actually attacked by E-boats. The survivors were ordered to forget about it, not to discuss it. The dead were barely identified. And almost forty years later, one English man finds what he thinks is a tank, does everything he can to break the wall of silence built around Exercise Tiger, and recovers the tank and sets up a memorial to the dead using only his own resources.

I have no idea if Ken Small is still alive, still running the guest house, still keeping up the memorial. If I’m ever down near the Devon coastline, though, I’m definitely going to look for it.

(Also, this copy of the book was signed by Ken Small in April 1997. Cool, yes?)

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

Dickens, Dorrit, and Davies

I have been in a vaguely Dickensian mood for the last little while, for a few reasons:

  • There is a new biography of Dickens out now – I have a few of the reviews of it bookmarked but haven’t read them yet.
  • I just watched the recent version of Little Dorrit (which is what I really want to talk about).

I freely admit that the main reason I wanted to watch Little Dorrit was because of Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. (He has a beautiful voice. Mmm….) But I also wanted to watch it because I like Andrew Davies as a screenwriter (more on that below), I really liked Bleak House both as a book and a film/series, and I don’t hate Dickens in general. And Matthew Macfadyen was really good – all of the acting was really good, as expected – even if Arthur’s realization of his true feelings for Amy was a bit out of the blue.

It didn’t sparkle, though. There was nothing in it that made me want to go out and actually read Little Dorrit – which, for me, is very, very unusual. When I see an adaptation of a book, I usually want to go out and read the book for myself, either because the movie was so good that I want to re-experience it through the book, or to find out if the book was as good as the movie, or to see what they changed between the book and the movie, or (if the movie was bad) to see if the book is better than the movie. This adaptation was good, but really didn’t make me want to actually read Little Dorrit. And it seemed like every other Dickens tome ever.

I use the word ‘tome’ specifically, because there are certain works of Dickens that are long, complex stories that deal with specific social issues of the early-to-mid 19th century. A Christmas Carol is very different, as is The Pickwick PapersChristmas Carol is much shorter*, and The Pickwick Papers are really short stories or vignettes in one long collection. The others are all very, very similar. This is not news to me, but it was reinforced by watching this version of Little Dorrit and feeling like it was Bleak House but set in and around the Marshalsea instead of Chancery. I never really cared about any of the characters’ backstories – which is bad in a plot that relies so much on character history. The stock characters were flatter than I remember some of Dickens’s other stock characters being and, for the most part, were obviously only there to advance a storyline. [Signor Cavaletto was an exception to this, but I don’t know if that was the actor or the writing or both.]

I also don’t understand the concept of debtor’s prisons. If you can’t pay your bills, why was it a good idea to lock you away and keep you from working to earn money to pay your bills? The idea of Georgia or other transport makes more sense to me – put them in a situation where they have no choice but to work off their debts instead of racking up more.

Anyway, to touch on Andrew Davies’s reaction to the BBC – ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. And the comment about only doing ‘big, popular warhorses’ is kind of ironic from the guy who adapted Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Emma, Vanity Fair, and several Dickens novels. Even if the Dickens novels aren’t the best-known ones, Dickens is by definition a ‘warhorse’. But mostly, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. I would love it if the BBC or someone would do an adaptation of a Middle English poem – like one of the early Arthurian stories that are so full of blood and gore, or another version of the Canterbury Tales, or some of the more fantastical ones with magic, like Sir Launfal or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or even one of the ones that aren’t so commonly taught. Or go back to the early days of novels, if you must do a longer serial adaptation. Do something from the 18th century, like Evelina or Moll Flanders or something like that. Also, to go back to my earlier point, ‘period drama’ is not exclusive to the 19th century. The Great Gatsby is period drama. Lucky Jim can be period drama. The TV show Life on Mars – set in the 1970s – and Ashes to Ashes – its sequel in the 1980s – are period dramas. Anything not set in ‘the present day’ is a period drama. By some standards even science fiction could be considered period drama – it’s just that the period is the future. Basically, Andrew Davies, stop whining and shut up.

*A Christmas Carol is excellent. It’s my favourite Dickens book. It’s a short list – Dickens is way too wordy for me and I swear there are sentences in David Copperfield that don’t have verbs. Bleak House is mostly beautiful although falls into the trap of too many characters so that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on during the middle part. I still want to read A Tale of Two Cities one of these days, but doubt I’ll read the others without massive motivation (like having to teach it someday). But, yeah, A Christmas Carol is my favourite Dickens book. That being said, do we really need a new movie and/or TV version of A Christmas Carol every year? The story is played out. Give it a rest for a while. Please.


Filed under Classics, Drama

Goodbye, Guiding Light

Soap operas are literature, too, right?

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Filed under Romance