Through the Wire by Helen Macdonald

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BBC Radio 4, 30 April 2012
Combining reminiscence, first-person narration and sound, this drama-documentary told the story of British prisoners of war who survived their ordeal in German prison camps by observing the habits of birds. They recorded their impressions in notebooks - sent through Red Cross parcels; or, if the notebooks had either been confiscated or torn up by their German captors, the prisoners used pieces of lavatory paper instead. Several of these prisoners went on to become noted ornithologists in their own right, after the war had ended.
As I listened to this play, I couldn't help thinking of the Burt Lancaster film from the early 1960s - the Birdman of Alcatraz - in which the protagonist also takes an interest in ornithology as a way of passing the time while being incarcerated. In Helen Macdonald's drama the prisoners, including Arthur (David Bamber), John Buxton (Lorcan Cranitch), and Peter Condor (Jay Villiers) not only studied the birds' lives in detail, but came to identify with them. This was not only a scientific but an imaginative activity; like good poets, the prisoners created an alternative world of their own, a pleasurable alternative to the often hellish life of the camp. Sometimes uncomfortable reality intruded, as the birds either the died, or the prisoners were subject to yet another humiliating search by their captors; but the ornithologists' spirit could not be crushed. Through the Wire was a celebration of human beings' capacity to survive even under the most extreme circumstances, as well as a study of the pleasures of ornithology. Olivier Messiaen's music, composed in a prison camp, where he listened to birdsong and was inspired by it, only enhanced this effect.