An Ocean Apart reviews


May 16, 1988 | John Corry

An Ocean Apart traces 20th-century United States-British relations. That may sound academic and dusty; the seven-part series, however, is not. It is generally imaginative and often evocative; old newsreel film recalls a world that no longer exists. The series starts on Channel 13 at 9 o’clock tonight.

The BBC production, presented on public television in association with KCET in Los Angeles and WNET in New York, does not romanticize Anglo-American history. There are constant reminders that ties between the two great English-speaking nations have been frayed. On occasion, they were nearly severed.

Thus in its third episode – ”Here Come the British, Bang! Bang! – the series quotes Winston Churchill. ”It is quite right in the interests of peace to go on talking about war with the United States being unthinkable,” he said in 1927, ”but everyone knows this is not true.”

The particular issue then was naval strength. Which nation would rule the waves? ”An Ocean Apart” -produced by Adam Curtis, with George Carey as executive producer – specializes in forgotten incidents. The same episode that quotes Churchill also recalls an attempt to persuade President Roosevelt to increase American aid to Britain when it fought alone in World War II.

British agents forged a German map that supposedly showed Hitler’s war aims. Central and South America were shown as colonies of the Third Reich. President Roosevelt, apparently believing the map was genuine, waved it while making a speech. American support for Britain, however, was not ensured until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Once again the series quotes Churchill. On the night of Pearl Harbor, he said later, ”I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.” Churchill knew it was inevitable that Americans would be forced to fight in Europe. Three days after Pearl Harbor, Germany declared war on the United States.

Besides newsreel footage, the series uses photographs, snatches of old radio broadcasts (George Bernard Shaw sounds smug about the Depression) and contemporary interviews with people once close to great events. Tonight’s program – ”Hats Off to Mr. Wilson” – presents A. J. Sylvester, who was secretary to Prime Minister Lloyd George, and Eleanor Dulles who, among other things, was President Woodrow Wilson’s niece.

Wilson, seen in the old film, is characterized as idealistic but remote. Miss Dulles says that he ”never understood the give and take of political life.” His plan to make the world safe for democracy foundered at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Miss Dulles says the impractical Wilson ”died friendless.”

Much of the series is held together by David Dimbleby, the host, or as the BBC prefers to call him, the presenter. Mr. Dimbleby is in the tradition of Alistair Cooke – urbane without being stuffy – and he really does seem interested in the Atlantic alliance.

Nonethless, the series sometimes does show its British origins. The episode tonight, for instance, neglects the role of American soldiers and sailors in World War I; it suggests that all they did was parade. In fact, 130,000 Americans died in battle. An Ocean Apart is not untruthful about this; it is more that it just doesn’t notice. ”An Ocean Apart,” though, is still a formidable work.

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