In Which We Serve

Just saw In Which We Serve on BBC4, a 1942 film that my grandparents would have seen at the cinema when they were already a few years younger than I am now. I remember seeing this film on telly some Sunday afternoon in my youth, taking it for what it was, some black and white bit of nostalgia with some nice footage of Spitfires like at an airshow, and no relevance to anyone. But my grandparents would have probably seen it at the Brixton ABC when it came out, when it was the film to go and see, if not the only thing on at the time. The lives of ordinary people in the film, young men who in civilian life worked as shop assistants or clerks or down the mines, finding themselves spending months on ships, 20 feet below the Atlantic waterline waiting for a torpedo to come through the wall, while their families were at home waiting for a bomb to come through the roof … this was all real. These were the people my grandparents knew, suffering the perils that my grandparents suffered. To them those Spitfires weren’t avionic sports cars, but were cutting edge weaponry, and were all that stood between Britain and Hitler. They’d have known what it meant when 36 crewmen are killed in a battle ultimately taken to be ‘a bad night’ for the ship, amid 10s of millions of people fighting and dying worldwide.

How would they have felt to leave the Woodbine haze of the cinema and step into the sooty sunlight of London, to walk the two miles home and be relieved to find the street hadn’t been flattened while they were out. Years of this they went through. Air raids that started out with Heinkel 111 bombers, and ended just a few years later with V2s, crewless missiles so fast you couldn’t hear them coming before they wiped out the Marks & Spencers on the high st, incidentally killing a line of schoolchildren at the bus-stop outside, in the name of advancing the Master Race.

Ordinary people, for whom the film reflected in black and white the realities they’d remember forever in violent colour. But I never heard them complain or go on about it.

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