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East/West: Epic TV Series Relives Cold War

  • Ben Partridge



London, 22 September 11998 (RFE/RL) -- One of the producers of a new television documentary on the Cold War says they were lucky to make the series when they did, because former Soviet officials have proven more reluctant to talk openly with the passing of time.

The producer, Taylor Downing, made two installments of what must be one of the most ambitious TV histories ever attempted, a 24-episode story of the Cold War, told through film archives, interviews and personal reminiscences. The first episode was shown in Britain last week (Sept. 19).

Writing in the British magazine, History Today, Downing says "In retrospect, it might be that this series was made in a small window of openness before things closed down again." During a two-and-a-half-year period, the program-makers interviewed many former Soviet officials about the key events of post-war history -- the appearance of the Iron Curtain in 1945, the Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Downing, who also co-wrote the book of the series, says a Russian researcher used the Moscow phone directory to track down former Soviet officials including ex-KGB officers and retired rocket scientists and persuaded many of them to tell their stories.

They included a former director of the KGB (unnamed) who described why it was he felt the state had to control almost every aspect of the lives of its citizens to ensure loyalty to the party.

However Downing says: "By the end of the series it was already getting more difficult to find ex-officials to talk so openly. We have been lucky to have made the series when we did."

The series, called Cold War, was the brainchild of American TV tycoon Ted Turner, founder of CNN. He decided now that the Cold War was over, to take a considered look at what it had all been about. He asked an acclaimed British documentary maker, Jeremy Isaacs, to undertake overall responsibility for the series.

The brief was simple: to tell the story not just as a confrontation between two superpowers but as a conflict that reached out to affect science, space, sport, culture and most of the world. Turner insisted the story be told from the perspective of both sides.

A 40-strong team of producers, writers, researchers and film-crew traveled to 31 countries and interviewed everyone from Jimmy Carter to Fidel Castro during the two-and-a-half year project.

The first 50-minute episode, shown on Britain's BBC-2 network (the BBC was co-producer), opens with a view of spring flowers in an American park, followed by a cut to a huge underground bunker beneath a Washington hotel. The narrator is the acclaimed British actor, Kenneth Branagh:

"Midway through the 20th Century, two superpowers prepared for a conflict which might have ended life on the planet....."

After this arresting opening, the episode gives a brief snapshot of events leading up to the Cold War, from the Russian Revolution, through the rise of Nazism, to the Second World War. It traces the emergence of the superpower rivalry at the Big Three conferences at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam.

It features an interview with Sir Frank Roberts, a British diplomat who was present at the 1945 Yalta summit of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill, when the fate of Eastern Europe was decided. Roberts died in January this year at the age of 90, soon after giving this interview:

"For us, of course, the major topic was the future of Eastern Europe and above all, Poland. And on that, Stalin, obviously, was bound to get what he wanted because the Red Army was in occupation of the whole area, including Poland. They had already gone through Poland into Germany by the time we were in Yalta."

Ted Turner has been widely praised for his vision in commissioning the series, not least because the cameras have recorded for posterity the memories of key surviving participants, the many elderly Russians, Americans and Europeans who helped shape the events of the Cold War, or who lived under their shadow.

Describing the series as a "masterpiece", Christopher Dunkley, the respected television critic of the London Financial Times, said: "For those of us now in our 50s, the Cold War is the story of our lives, or, at least, the major political events of our time."

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