The Great War

Saturday, March 8, 2003 by

There’s something strangely reassuring but also a bit unnerving about settling down to watch a weekly television series not due to finish for another half a year. What will have happened to yourself, those around you, the rest of the world, come six months time? Will this regular appointment turn out to be something of a dependable rock in uncertain times, or an increasingly irritating marker signposting the disappearance of the seasons?

The kind of commitment necessary to invest in cultivating such a long-term relationship with the TV set is already being amply repaid by The Great War, only three episodes into its 26-week run. Though dating from two generations ago and reeking of a BBC still coming to terms with the end of rationing and National Service, it comes across today neither pompous nor snide in the way it challenges contemporary viewers to engage both with its epic subject matter and also its conspicuously archaic presentation.

The tone of the series is established right from the start thanks to a simple yet striking title sequence that audaciously mixes real-life photos with illustrations. Accompanied by some eerie and portentous music, a camera travels deep underground to end up framing the graphic of a corpse next to a real-life image of a British soldier. Crude and hardly subtle, maybe, but it does pitch the viewer into the unambiguous heart of World War I, and establish a precise mood and intensity which remains unchecked throughout the ensuing programme.

It also contrasts pointedly with the somewhat bombastic titles that decorated its better-known successor, The World at War. No wailing fanfares and burning pictures of children’s heads here; instead, through motifs that are grim, unforgiving and intimate, The Great War states its purpose with sincerity and clarity. It’s a sequence that lingers long in the memory, helped by the curious appeal of watching titles that comprise line drawings alongside film stills. So unusual from a current day television standpoint, it’s an immediate reminder of the era in which the programme was made, and of the sphere of technical innovation – and limitation – within which The Great War had to operate, not least the absence of any colour images whatsoever.

Yet here’s actually where the series scores an unexpected plus. The fact that it is entirely in monochrome actually makes for far more of a consistency in style than in The World at War. There’s a neat reconciliation here between archive film and what were at the time contemporary interviews, and one that was often missing or misjudged in its more lavish heir. This isn’t just because everything we see – both past and present – is in black and white; it’s also down to the distinctive and highly sensitive assembling and editing of material.

The Great War has as its foundation a stitching together of footage that dates from across an entire half century; yet shots taken from two points 50 years apart sit quite happily next to each other without unduly calling attention to any disparity in quality or importance. Each complements the other, and the talking heads resolve the emotions and events depicted in the reels of film into sentiments of a wholly inclusive, rather than exclusive, nature. Even more affecting is the way those testimonies still retain a potency a further 40 years after they themselves were taped.

The second key factor is the accompanying narration by Sir Michael Redgrave. Calm, sombre and measured, both script and delivery talk neither down to nor at the viewer; there’s even an occasional dose of rather healthy cynicism (“For once in British history, an army was taking the field with incredible efficiency.”) Redgrave rarely goes in for those kind of melodramatic outbursts often preferred by Laurence Olivier, save for when he has to negotiate sporadic and rather ludicrous turns of phrase (“Human flesh was turned into bloody pulp”, “Their hoof beats on the cobblestones were the signal of catastrophe!”) The end result is that information and emotion is imparted in equal measure, and when one does take precedence over the other it’s to impressive effect – such as Redgrave’s terse, brief assessment of one of the German army’s first acts of the conflict, the destruction of an entire Belgian town: “Terror became a deliberate instrument of war.”

As revealed during the illuminating “making of” documentary which preceded the series, the production team implemented a number of ruses in order to make a more substantial finished product; this was after all intended to be the first ever television history, not simply a number of lectures dryly transferred to camera. Undoubtedly their most imaginative tactic was to ensure any footage of Germans showed them moving or marching across the TV screen from right to left, and the French and British moving left to right – in both cases to replicate in the mind of viewers the overall movement of the nations across Europe.

With almost no reserves of audio footage to draw upon, the team were also liberal in their application of sound effects and music onto the original silent film. It meant that virtually each entire episode of The Great War ended up a composite of pictures shot in the early 1900s and noises dubbed off BBC effects library tapes in 1964; but again, as far as this viewer was concerned, such a forced marriage doesn’t really detract from the enterprise. From the evidence so far, for the most part it was done with care and imagination. Only occasionally does a Prussian garrison march out of step with the noise of jackboots or a carthorse let forth a silent neigh. Interestingly the same practice was adopted in The World at War, but sparingly rather than across the board; yet in that instance, as with the use of both colour and black and white footage, the effect was not a little dislocating and comical.

Here the uniformity of both technical and literary presentation serves up a far headier brew. This is undeniably compounded by the fact that watching The Great War today feels like you’ve stumbled across a relic from an almost alien era, so remote and unfamiliar are its conventions and sensibilities. Yet that ultimately just makes it an all the more fascinating proposition. As a contemporary viewer, experiencing The Great War offers both an education in military and political affairs but also an insight into the practices of making resolutely old school Tonight-era television. You’re witnessing one of the bleakest chapters in modern times, but filtered through the rituals and eccentricities and perceptions of a piece of real TV history.

There’s an element of the perverse here – why should a programme dating back 40 years have more to tell us about World War I than a documentary made today? Yet it’s precisely that legacy which ends up affording the series such gravity and significance. The way they tried to tell the story of World War I on TV in 1964 is just as intriguing and perplexing as the story itself. As such The Great War is event television, no question. It’s a stirring and moving journey through the circumstances which helped render the BBC what it is today, but also, and with a topicality that seems to heighten by the hour, what the world is today.


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