Why did we take Captain Sir Tom Moore to our hearts? Of course his charity effort was inspiring, but it was more than that. He represents the best of British. In The Life and Times of Captain Sir Tom (ITV), historian Dominic Sandbrook did as good a job as any of defining it: “He seems to personify virtues that we think we’ve lost. With his wartime background and his longevity and as a family man, he became the perfect avatar of what we would like to think that Britain could be.” Sandbrook also described him as a secular version of the Queen; I imagine the ever-modest Captain Tom would have snorted at that.
Narrated by Hugh Bonneville, this was a wonderful hour in Captain Tom’s company. His has been one of the cheering stories of lockdown, a testament to the spirit of optimism and just b—–ing on. He had hoped to raise £1,000 for NHS Charities Together by walking 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday. In the end he raised £33 million. The documentary didn’t dwell on his later achievements, though, but chose to look back at Captain Tom’s life.
It was a personal history, but also a chronicle of the 20th century. From a boyhood happily roaming the moors around Keighley with his motorcycle and his dog, to conscription at 20 and fighting in the Burma campaign, and on to a successful career and loving family. His was a story of hard work paying off; he became a wealthy businessman, but only after years as a labourer and a door-to-door salesman. He never complained. “It was unpleasant,” was how he summed up the Second World War. He nursed his beloved wife, Pamela, through dementia, visiting her every day for the last five years of her life. “I had a contract, hadn’t I? In sickness and in health.” And as for free love in the so-called Swinging Sixties: “No, I was far too busy.”
His zest for life remains undimmed – here is a man who was holidaying alone in India and Nepal in his 90s. The charity walk made him a national hero, but even before that he was a man to be admired. Perhaps one of the lessons of the programme is that elderly people have fascinating stories to tell, and we should spend more time listening to them.