The Trench

Friday, March 15, 2002 by

The practice of dropping meticulously ordinary people into exaggeratedly extraordinary situations just doesn’t make good television anymore.

Whatever novelty there might once have been in seeing footage of ourselves behaving in a decidedly expected and normal fashion, but on telly, has long expired. Now there’s simply no fun to be had from watching the everyman and woman blundering through a sequence of stylised and contrived conceits, responding in exactly the same plodding predictable manner every single time. Successful, memorable “reality” TV of today surely rests upon there actually being enough of a diverse mix of contestants and participants (think Shipwrecked, or the first series of Big Brother) – otherwise we get no return on our investment. A programme abandons a scrupulously normal family in a semi-detached house set 100 years ago: they moan because, as there is no central heating, it is cold. So what? No great mystery being exposed there. Another series dumps a bunch of pitilessly nondescript and similar twentysomethings in a jungle: they moan because, as there is no air conditioning, it is hot. Click.

No matter how striking the conceit – ooh, how about a simulated World War I trench? – staffing it with people of a carefully rarefied “Joe Public” stock only succeeds in sucking the context dry of all potential for exciting, appointment-viewing. It’s so inevitable it’s depressing. There’s nothing glib or patronising in noting how these subjects are almost always unassuming folk from unassuming backgrounds. People like us, in other words (and that’s often the pitch). And because they’re unassuming, they will behave in an unassuming manner. Like us, really; again, that’s how these programmes are sold. Trouble is, an acknowledgement by “ordinary” viewers of how other “ordinary” people behave in any example of an extraordinary situation is a one-way one-off transaction. And one that lasts no longer than maybe five seconds, after which there’s little else to be said and nowhere else to go. Strung out into 60 minutes of TV, and allowing for mustard gas, driving rain and mortars, it’s a process that ends up, at heart, intensely boring.

Months before The Trench was even filmed, plentiful coverage and comment turned up in the press deeming the project tasteless and offensive. In return the BBC made great play of how actual veterans of World War I were being consulted and involved in the programme, and how they’d given the venture their blessing, whatever that meant. Still, the controversy rumbled on, resurfacing yet again on the occasion of the series’ opening transmission. It’s since had a largely negative response from reviewers and commentators, some citing those now-familiar charges of gross indecency and sacrilege, some lamenting that running a historical-based TV series in primetime is somehow “dumbing down”, others rather smugly reasserting its apparent pointlessness (hello Mark Lawson – on Newsnight Review, Radio 4′s Front Row, The Guardian …)

After seeing the programme at last, it’s difficult to feel sympathetic towards any of the above. Since its greatest handicap is to do with its participants, not its context, The Trench is flawed more because of what you feel it could have been – a insightful recreation of the absolute miseries of trench warfare – rather than what it actually is: a confusingly edited, badly narrated collection of scenes showing anonymous people pissing about in a muddy hole. There’s nothing tasteless or offensive or, in particular, pointless about revisiting one of the darkest periods in recent history in this manner whatsoever. Indeed, recreating chapters from 20th century wartime seems to have become an obsession with BBC2 on Friday nights (Band of BrothersConspiracyI Met Adolf Eichmann and various editions of Timewatch all airing in the last 6 months).

But dramatic recreations, or the conventional documentary, can by design usually overcome – or mollify – any drawbacks of that ordinary-meets-the-extraordinary cliché. Band of Brothersshamelessly hawked the “everyday folk in unreal situations” hook from start to finish, but got away with it by elevating it into mesmerising drama through exceptional acting, scripts and direction. The Trench, however, is chiefly unsatisfying on precisely those three counts: acting, scripts and direction. There aren’t supposed to be any of them. But there are. Sort of.

The experiences of these present-day volunteers are carefully modelled upon the diaries of the real 10th Battalion of the East Yorkshire regiment. Whatever happened to the proper soldiers, it is implied, is going to happen to this pretend lot. The absurdity of this premise – if this was intended a reconstruction why not get proper actors to simulate it? – was glossed over with aplomb by the narrator Andrew Lincoln.

Saying that, given how this was all supposed to be following the template of a real “body of brothers” (as one of the veterans, popping up on screen from time to time, happened to declare), it was amazing how confusing and badly organised the entire programme was. And this wasn’t to simulate how confusing and badly organised the war itself was (we knew that already). None of the volunteers were properly introduced. They seemed already fully acquainted with the conventions of army life in the early 1900s – we weren’t allowed to see how long it took these men to learn how to salute properly or put on their uniform. Lincoln’s narration kept switching between the past and the present tense for no reason. Testimonies from the real veterans were superimposed onto scenes in an astonishingly amateurish fashion (again inviting comparisons with the slicker Band of Brothers).

Most perplexing of all though, and actually the only reason to stay tuned for the whole hour, was trying to fathom out the perverse mechanics of the programme. Were the “soldiers” trying to act, being told to act, or responding to actual events spontaneously? Obviously when the cameras were filming outside the trench they all knew they weren’t going to be fired upon or come under another “attack”. So it follows that throughout the filming of the series they must have known to an extent when things were going to happen. Doesn’t this compromise the logic of so proudly using the term “reality” television? There were sergeants and platoon leaders shown giving orders. Were they proper actors? If so, where were they taking their cues from? Who was feeding them their lines?

But even accepting that everything had to be staged for the sake of filming merely compounded the programme’s greatest felony: of being so tedious. Rarely has learning about World War I been made so unnecessarily difficult, and so bland. The slavish adherence to the idea of paralleling real events just invited sly, tired cynicism. So two of the volunteers hooked up together remarkably quickly, apparently because of their “similar sense of humour” and fondness for “getting into trouble,” but for the duration of the whole 60 minutes seemed to prefer just sitting about slumped in the trench looking miserable. And of course there was a neat, comparable pair of “troublemakers” who got together at exactly the same moment back in the “real” trench in 1916.

At other times shots of the troops running about in a forest glade and drinking cheap ale made army life look neither particularly glamorous nor essentially life-threatening. Was this meant to make a point about how mediocre life for a World War I soldier was, or the result of editorial indecision on the part of the production team? The fact it was hard to tell was all the more disturbing. The programme built towards a climax of sorts involving a possible offensive out of the trenches – and to help add to the tension, a rainstorm arrived. Then during a scene featuring the troops shaving, a naked arse was bizarrely shown as one of the troops relieved themselves. Later the soldiers testified to feeling lonely, or tired, or upset, but by this point it was so easy not to be bothered.

Some scenes also called other, far better, TV wartime recreations to mind – a section on punishments, for instance, received far more immediate and visceral treatment in The Monocled Mutineer. In fact the general look of the whole project seemed shoddy. The special effects – explosions, gunfire, a couple of vintage warplanes juddering and wheeling in the sky – were all rather disappointing, and at times the whole ensemble could easily have been on a studio set somewhere rather than in a real field in France. A field in Surrey would’ve done just as well, and undoubtedly been cheaper and more convenient.

To be brutal, World War I, as a vehicle for storytelling, educating and moralising, is, frankly, duller than World War II – certainly in terms of its visual and dramatic qualities. It was, really, just a load of people standing around in, yes, a trench. Therefore if it’s reality TV you’re after, with all the vicarious thrills and interest normally promised, it all comes back to that crucial factor: characterisation. Perhaps the programme makers should have gone for a more unusual, unlikely mix of recruits – black and white, male and female, a variety of backgrounds – rather than become so obsessed in reproducing to the smallest detail something that has already happened. After all, that’s what actors are for, not us ordinary people.


Comments are closed.