Britain in a Day

Did you watch Britain in a Day on BBC 2 last night?

Wasn’t it astonishing?

Crafted from over 750 hours of footage and more than 11,500 clips submitted via YouTube – all shot by amateurs on a single day – the Beeb’s blurb says it’s a 90-minute documentary which offers ‘remarkable insight into the lives, loves, fears and hopes of people living in Britain today’.

“On Saturday 12 November 2011 an eclectic range of British people turned the camera on themselves, capturing the entertaining and mundane, the exciting and unusual, the poignant and the everyday. The result tells the fascinating story of the British public in their own words.”

Jonathan Freedland, writing  in The Guardian today, touches on the fact that 2012 is a big year for Britain. “It is a time-capsule year, like 1851 and 1951, one of those moments of national projection and introspection, when we deliver a collective statement on who we think we are. But what, exactly, are we saying?”

I’m not sure I can answer that, but it’s a long time since I’ve watched anything on TV that could be described as spell-binding, and this most certainly was.

I love Freedland’s point that some viewers will have written it off as little more than  a sentimental, extended John Lewis ad, designed to get us all weeping into our soft furnishings. But to see it that way is to miss so much. It was wildly discomfiting in parts, and blatantly bonkers in others, and I agree with the critics who’ve said that the emphasis on this being a distinctly British film is just plain bizarre.

But none of that matters to me. What does is the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, and at the end I couldn’t shake a sacred sense that I’d seen something exceptional. Something life-affirming and yet not sugar-coated.

Watch the dying man who weeps at his daughter’s wedding, held in the hospital chapel so that he could attend, and tell me that doesn’t move you to see your life and relationships in a new light.

Or watch the young father desperately trying to eke out an early-morning moment alone for meditation, only to be interrupted mere seconds later by his two little girls, creeping into frame, their minds clearly not set on silence. I winced in recognition, and marvelled at his capacity to give up his meditation to be in the moment.

Or listen to the bubbly young woman feeding her pet rabbit, admitting that it’s a substitute of sorts for the child she’d much prefer. She sheds a tear and describes her need to mother something, and the next scene is of an exuberant child – full of joy and unfettered – running on a beach. I can’t watch that as a parent without a palpable, throaty ‘thank you’ rising up involuntarily for the kids I take for granted. They squabble, they never flush the toilet and they can’t brush their teeth without smearing toothpaste in the strangest places around the bathroom, but this film recalibrated my perspective and reminded me that parenthood is precious – and a privilege.

Watch the man bursting with anticipation as he waits for his weekly Skype date with his son who lives thousands of miles away. When the connection breaks unexpectedly and his face falls, you feel for an awful moment what it’s like to be a long-distance father.

Is it all maudlin or vacuously sentimental?

Only if you’ve got a heart of stone.

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