TV preview: Britain’s Great War

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As Britain prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, some politicians and historians have expressed concern that too many of us seem to have based our understanding of the conflict on repeats of Blackadder Goes Forth.

However, the BBC are about to provide us with some different perspectives on ‘The Great War,’ as they begin an ambitious season of programmes marking the centenary.

Adrian Van Klaveren, the man with the daunting job of overseeing the coverage, explains: “The BBC’s World War One Centenary season is unlike any other season the BBC has undertaken, not least because of its scale. With programming and events spanning the four years from 2014-2018, echoing the time-frame of World War One, it is the biggest and most ambitious pan-BBC project ever commissioned with more than 2,500 hours of programming already planned across television, radio and online and across our international, national and local services.”

In the slightly unlikely case that anyone is wondering if that might be a little bit excessive, the BBC’s Director-General Tony Hall has offered a reminder of why the season is so important. “There’s a single idea behind everything ...and it is this: no other event in our history has had such a dramatic impact on who we are.”

That’s certainly the starting point for the four-part series Britain’s Great War, which is presented by Jeremy Paxman and produced in partnership with the Open University.

The programme reminds us that this was Britain’s first ‘total war’ - for the first time, men were conscripted to fight, civilians were being bombed, and virtually every family in the country lived in fear of a knock at the door telling them that a loved one had been killed.

It also required the nation to turn itself into a war machine, capable of sustaining the conflict, and in the process, it transformed the lives of many women, who suddenly found themselves taking on jobs traditionally occupied by men.

That wasn’t the only social change, as people began to question some of the assumptions that British society was based on.

But Paxman points out that it’s important not to see the conflict entirely through modern eyes.

“The trouble with so much of our understanding of World War One is that it is seen through the prism of the prejudices of the hundred years which have followed it. It’s an amazing and important story which deserves to be viewed afresh.”

With that in mind, the first episode looks at the initial optimism of 1914, as young men volunteered to fight.

But while support for the war was to remain strong, even through the darkest days, fear soon took grip at home, as the public began to live in fear of invasion, seeing spies everywhere.

And just to make sure we do see the period from the perspective of those who lived through it, Paxman gets a first-hand account the shelling of Hartlepool from a 105-year-old eyewitness.


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