The two-disc set WWII: Crime on the British Home Front is a surprisingly thin document of a fascinating topic. To be honest, I’d never given much thought to the idea that during the dark days of the war, as Britain was hammered by the German blitz, the British underworld was enjoying an unexpected windfall of looting and lawlessness. Breaking into homes proved easy when half their walls were gone. As for disposing of a body amid the rubble and ruin of London’s shattered streets—what could be easier?
How disappointing, then, that this set is so terribly scarce on material. Comprising just seven episodes of roughly 23 minutes each, the entire series clocks in at under three hours, and many of the interview subjects are repeated throughout multiple episodes, suggesting a relative paucity of resources upon which to draw. Subtitling the series “Underworld at War” was a bad idea as well, as this inevitably conjures in the viewer’s mind the epic, 27-episode World at War doc. This one can’t compare, and sadly, it promises more than it delivers.
That’s not to say that everything about it is terrible. Many of the episodes are engaging enough, detailing moments of big-city and small-town life under arduous circumstances, and even the dullest of installments contains the occasional nugget. From lighthearted tales of village kids nicking ammo from army bases to deeply disturbing narratives of stalking and murder, there was enough mayhem going on to make for a slew of engaging stories. Built around a core of newsreels, propaganda films, photo stills from the era and extensive interviews with the subjects involved, the series is narrated by Peter Williams, a likeable enough chap who brings an appropriate air of gravitas to the procedings. So there is material of interest here—just not enough of it.
At times, too, the definition of “crimes on the home front” stretches credulity. One of the most entertaining episodes, “How Young Jim Set Out to Kill Hitler…”, concerns James A. Stoodley, a young lad growing up near a US army base in the south of England. Being a rather, shall we say, excitable lad, James gets it into his head to steal one of the Americans’ planes and fly it to Germany. Once there, the 14-year-old hopes to slip unnoticed into Hitler’s presence and kill him. The details of the plan are foggy even for a teenager, but you’ve got to admire his spirit. The elderly James, talking of his exploits in this documentary, is a thoroughly loveable fellow, as well.
Still, this is hardly an example of the “underworld at war”, notwithstanding the fact that James did succeed in stealing a plane. With no training whatever in how to fly, James managed to circle the town a few times before landing. He may not have killed Hitler, but he did get himself into the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person ever to fly an airplane without formal tranining.
Such episodes are fun, largely because of the utter innocence on display, which jars with most images of the conflict. Other stories are not so heartwarming, however. Perhaps the most chilling episode concerns Frankie Fraser, layabout and petty criminal who describes the German air raids as being “like manna from Heaven”. A juvenile delinquent before the war even starts, Frankie takes full advantage of the chaos and confusion of the nightly bombings to perpetrate all manner of schemes. His brutal bluntness and—it must be said—his undeniable charisma make it all the more chilling when he reveals that, according to the police, he is the murderer of 40 people. His response was that this really upset him. Why? Because “If they’d have said 41, or 43, I wouldn’t have minded. I… I hate even numbers.” It’s around this point that Fraser’s sociopathic nature peeks through the façade of the elderly gent spinning yarns.
Ultimately, this set offers an intriguing but superficial peek into a world rarely exposed to outsiders. The main shortcoming of this series is not its core idea, nor even its execution, but that there just isn’t enough material on display. Whether this is because many of the principals have passed away, or whether it’s because, at the end of the day, there actually wasn’t all that much criminal activity going on at the time—or whether it is still being covered up even now—is impossible to say. Britain’s involvement in World War II lasted nearly six years. Surely there is enough information on this topic to fill more than 165 minutes?