Editor's Blog: BBC Launches World War One season By Steve Clarke

Editor's Blog: BBC Launches World War One season By Steve Clarke

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Thursday, 16th January 2014

Television’s relationship with the First World War goes back a long way and encompasses a wide range of genres.

Documentaries, dramas, arts programmes and comedy have all grappled with “the war to end all wars.”

Now in the centenary year of the outbreak of war in August 1914 the BBC has launched the first of 130 planned programmes in what promises to be a season that will show the corporation at its very best.

Speaking at the launch of the four-part Britain’s Great War written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, Adrian Van Klaveren, the BBC's controller, Great War Centenary, said it was “the biggest and most ambitious season of programmes the BBC had ever mounted.”

“This is a very important moment for us,” he added. “There will be many highly charged debates over the next four years.” 

“Our job as the BBC … is to give people the facts, and different opinions, and let them make up their own minds.” 

Judged by the first episode of Britain’s Great War Paxman and his production team have succeeded in bringing a fresh perspective to what is a very familiar story.

The first instalment takes audiences from the outbreak of war in August 1914 through to the end of the year.

Despite very little archive film and no survivors from those who fought, Britain’s Great War gives a compelling impression of what it was like to be in Britain, Belgium and France during the war’s opening months.

Speaking at the launch Paxman said it was his intention to look behind the “post-facto filter” placed by poets, playwrights and pundits over subsequent decades on these extraordinary and appalling events.

“Like a lot of people I had grown up with a series of prejudices that we had imbibed at a fairly early age about the nature of the war,” said Paxman.

“There are a lot of half-truths in those prejudices.”

Whether it was The Lions Led by Donkeys argument fostered by the 1960s and expressed in musicals and feature films like Oh What A Lovely War! and echoed by the brilliant Blackadder Goes Forth, much of what we know about the First World War is coloured by popular culture.

Britain’s Great War offers a different view and on the evidence of the opening episodes avoids the familiar clichés.

Instead it provides a sober and sombre assessment of what it might have been like for ordinary people whose lives were forever changed by the events of 1914.

“As we were approaching the anniversary of the First World War it struck me that many of the things that I thought about the war weren’t actually thoughts about the war, but thoughts about how the war had been presented,” explained Paxman.

“I hope what we’ve done in the series is to get back to how people felt at the time.”

One of the many remarkable things about this remarkable film is the lack of talking heads.

In the first episode there are only three – Julian Fellowes, who speaks about Lord Kitchener, a relation through marriage, the niece of two victims of the war speaking movingly in an Essex churchyard about their experience and, most memorably of all, an interview with 105 year-old Violet Muers, who recently died.

She gives a compelling eye-witness account of the German attack on Hartlepool – described as the first major attack on British soil since 1066 – when children were killed by a bombardment from the German navy.

“We were concerned with the experience of men, women and children, both at the front and at home, and the effect the war had on the way that society functioned,” said Paxman.

Interviews with historians, military or otherwise, are absent. We see and hear little from contemporary politicians.

This is people’s history in the very best sense, and all the more powerful for being made with such sensitive economy.

“This is not a searching analysis of how the generals waged the war,” insists Paxman

He stressed: "You always ask yourself ‘What would I have done?’

“I think I probably would have gone and I suspect I wouldn’t be here today…

“It is completely inappropriate to celebrate the war…It should be commemorated soberly and meaningfully, and with a degree of empathy.

“But I don’t know that it is capable of the quite simple-minded political constructions that have been put upon it by both sides (of the political argument).”

Britain’s Great War will be broadcast on BBC1 from Monday 27 January.

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