MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.04: Graham Greene – ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’ (1940)

Now, in May 2020, we heard a lot about the Second World War. Understandably, as this was the seventy-fifth anniversary of D Day and a crucial step in the defeat of the Nazi German regime. You do get a lot of simplified myth making though, which ignores the complex, fraught and not at all homogeneous experiences of people during that conflict. Which brings us to my latest selection… 

Wordly, urbane, cynical, lapsed Catholic, full Catholic, left wing. Yep, it’s time for the Greenester! Graham Greenbrother Hugh Carleton Greene was a great reforming Director General of the BBC, allowing it to broadcast TW3, Steptoe and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home. Mary Whitehouse hated him. Yep, we all know that! Lesser known is his role in propaganda broadcasting in the Second World War and Cold Warrior journalism during the Korean War. 

He was a hard-nosed liberal realist. Graham’s fiction isn’t too far removed from Hugh’s general outlook, but is crucially independent from his brother’s largely loyal Atlanticism. In his old age, Graham was opposing the US intervention in Nicaragua, a good example of Pinter’s law whereby you get more anti-establishment when you get older. In his younger days, Graham Greene did get a bee in his bonnet about the saccharine commercialism of Shirley Temple films and was embroiled in a libel suit for his negative view of the film Wee Willie Winkie in 1938. He claimed that the film’s sexualisation of its child star undermined its religious, pro-family values stance. He lost and 20th Century Fox and Temple were awarded £3500 in damages. Worth about 220 grand today! Eleven years later, he wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, which profoundly and chillingly exposes Harry Lime ‘s charming amorality and indifference to people’s lives amid wider society.

Now, I am going to read ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’… This was published in the American magazine Collier’s on 29 June 1940; it is Greene, by this time an MI6 intelligence officer, fashioning a morally complicated myth. This is stark, powerful storytelling published at the end of a dark month in British and world history. It says much about social class divisions, then and now, and makes it clear that “heroism” is not at all clear cut…

This episode was broadcast here on YouTube on Tuesday 30 June 2020.

Further analysis to follow at a later date!

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