Keira Knightley has acted in several films set during the Second World War – Atonement and The Imitation Game, to name but two – and finds the era “endlessly fascinating”. Yet, as she explained in My Grandparents’ War (Channel 4), she did not know exactly what her own family went through. This is true for many of us, due in part to the fact that people of that generation did not spend the rest of their lives dwelling on it, but got on with living.
It is striking, in this time of emotional over-sharing, to see how different our approach used to be. Knightley’s grandfather, Joseph "Mac" Macdonald, lost his younger brother, Wilf, whose ship was sunk by the Japanese in the Battle of the Java Sea. Mac wrote a letter of condolence to Wilf’s sweetheart, telling her that Wilf would not have wanted them to give into grief. Knightley read it here, and it was all the more heartbreaking for its tone: “The kid was not the mourning type… chin up to us, Doreen, my dear. Cheerio. All the best, Mac.”
Reading of Wilf’s death reduced Knightley to tears, in what was the most poignant moment of the programme. Had he died a hero, she wondered? “He probably didn’t even know what he was doing there. And he didn’t go down in naval history, so what the f--k was it for?” Of course it was for the greater good, she acknowledged, but “that wouldn’t have made his mum feel any better.”
Mac, a Royal Navy sonar operator who died before Knightley was born, was the subject of half of this episode. In an attempt to give a sense of what Mac’s job entailed, the programme showed old newsreels and played the sounds that he would have heard as German U-boats approached.
Knightley also learned about her grandmother’s efforts during the war. Jan Macdonald was a secretary working with the US Army, helping to organise the movement of Allied troops ahead of D-Day. A job reference from her boss ended with mention of her “neat and pleasing appearance”, which raised Knightley’s hackles. “If that was me I’d be really offended. Really? I’ve done all that and on my reference you’re talking about how neat and pleasing I am?” Different times.