Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

History’s Secret Heroes review: Bonham-Carter delves into treasure troves of WW2

A History student reviewing a podcast about World War Two? Spare me the predictable and contrived self-indulgence.

However, this History student is far from a WW2 buff, and this podcast is far from predictable.

Across ten episodes, award-winning actress Helena Bonham-Carter guides listeners through a series of ‘off the beaten track’ wartime stories.

Each is nicely encased: not too heavy-going, but also suffice to understand and follow the story. The opening episode tells the tale of Virginia Hall, a remarkable American woman who is about as ‘off the beaten track’ as one could come.

Not content with the drama that arises from losing part of her left leg in a hunting accident, she embraces a spell as a spy during the Second World War.

What follows is a remarkable few years on the edge. After many rejections for diplomatic posts in the years preceding and at the start of War, she finds a role as a Special Operations Executive in Vichy France.

She even attracted the derision of Adolf Hitler himself

There, she becomes an essential spy to the Allied operations, doing everything from recruiting sex workers to elicit information from German officers to helping to oversee a remarkable prison break.

For her role in the latter, which is described as one of the ‘most successful’ of its type during the War, she even attracted the derision of Adolf Hitler himself.

Bonham-Carter does work perfectly well as a narrator of this intriguing podcast, but simply a narrator she is

Two minor quibbles though. Bonham-Carter does work perfectly well as a narrator of this intriguing podcast, but simply a narrator she is. There is no real engagement or discussion with the panoply of guests who pop up.

For example, the programme features excerpts from an interview with Hall’s great-nephew, and it would have been nice to hear a little bit more about him and how his family remembers Hall. Perhaps that is ambitious for a strict 30 minutes on Radio 4, however.

I also can’t guarantee that if you are more of a WW2 person than I am that you won’t have heard of Virginia Hall before. A quick Google search suggests a fair few exhaustive articles and videos have already been produced about her. It would be sniffy and pedantic to dismiss the programme on that alone though.

And even if Hall is familiar terrain, there are a number of interesting subjects across the ten-part series, from Major Charity Adams (the first African-American woman to serve in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) to undercover Jewish Gestapo agent Bela Hazan.

All in all, an eminently listenable and interesting podcast.


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