“Twenty years ago, I thought The Somme would be forgotten,” says Tony Robinson, who presents a new documentary marking the centenary of the First World War event this week.
Robinson believed that one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history would slip from the public consciousness as the Battle of Blenheim and the Peninsular War had done before it.
In his new film for Discovery, The Somme: The First 24 Hours, the former Time Team presenter follows in the footsteps of five men who served in the Sheffield City Battalion, one of the First World War’s infamous Pals battalions.
“These were all people from the same street, people who supported the same football team, people who went to the same place of work,” explains Robinson.
Frank Meakin was among the ranks of the Sheffield City men. Older than many of his fellow soldiers, Meakin secretly kept a diary of events in the lead up to, and during, the conflict at the Somme, which his granddaughter-in-law Penny has spent the last 20 years decoding.
While much is understood about the first day of the battle, less is known about the lives of those who served there, either because records were lost, or simply never kept. “So Frank Meakin’s diary is invaluable,” adds Robinson.
“The programme is the story about him and four other blokes on that day, who at seven o’clock in the morning were ordered out of their trenches and had to walk towards the German line.”
Robinson followed the journey of the Sheffield recruits from their initial training at Bramall Lane, home to Sheffield United Football Club, to the remaining trenches in what is now the Sheffield Memorial Park, southeast of the French village of Hébuterne.
Robinson credits the school curriculum and the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for maintaining interest in the battle.
“One of the things that touches me most, I think, when I’m out there is the little scrawled notes that today’s kids write to their great-grandfathers, the ‘thank you great-granddaddy for fighting for my freedom, the family will never forget you’ sort of thing.”
While the days of hiring a helicopter to fly over historical sites are long gone due to escalating costs, drones are changing the way documentaries appear, allowing them to look “a bit grander.”
“These were all people from the same street, people who supported the same football team, people who went to the same place of work”
“People enjoy seeing something spectacular,” says Robinson, “in order to allow people to be able to concentrate on the facts, they need breathing space. There is nothing that provides better breathing space than a few bars of music and a few shots to contextualise what you’re saying.”
The real challenge of portraying history on television is the need for balance, something that the authors of history books are less constrained by, with American production companies being particular sticklers for the facts, he says.
The tendency for commissioners to focus on Hitler and “three or four wars” has been disappointing for Robinson. Speaking before the results of the EU Referendum, the Blackadder star noted the importance of being aware of historical events to influence the future.
“I've been frustrated in the debate about whether or not we should stay in Europe by the fact that hardly anybody has been making the point that we've had, since 1946, probably the longest recorded time in history where there hasn't been a battle going on in Western Europe. And I think, to me, that is of enormous significance, and I wish people talked about that more.”
Robinson, who was knighted for public and political service in 2013, has spent the past year writing his autobiography, No Cunning Plan, due to be released in September. Never one to be pigeonholed – his manager creates a colour-coded diary for his various projects - Robinson has also been working on a new walking series for Channel 4, visiting the ancient pathways of Britain. He’ll also be returning to sitcom, starring in the third series of Greg Davies’s Man Down.
“I’ve always moved from one thing to another, it’s what I love doing. The grass is always slightly greener on the other side as far as I’m concerned.”
The Somme: The First 24 Hours With Tony Robinson will premiere exclusively in the UK on Discovery Channel, 8pm, Sunday 3rd July