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The Great War on the Small Screen

The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain

Emma Hanna
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    The Great War on the Small Screen
    Book Description:

    In Britain since the 1960s television has been the most influential medium of popular culture. Television is also the site where the Western Front of popular culture clashes with the Western Front of history. This book examines the ways in which those involved in the production of historical documentaries for this most influential media have struggled to communicate the stories of the First World War to British audiences. Documents in the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham, Berkshire, the Imperial War Museum, and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives all inform the analysis. Interviews and correspondence with television producers, scriptwriters and production crew, as well as two First World War veterans who appeared in several recent documentaries provide new insights for the reader.Emma Hanna takes the reader behind the scenes of the making of the most influential documentaries from the landmark epic series The Great War (BBC, 1964) up to more recent controversial productions such as The Trench (BBC, 2002) and Not Forgotten: The Men Who Wouldn't Fight (BBC, 2008). By examining the production, broadcast and reception of a number of British television documentaries this book examines the difficult relationship between the war's history and its popular memory.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-3390-6
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Emma Hanna
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  5. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-x)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    In recent years the way in which the First World War has been remembered has emerged as a significant historiographical issue. While researchers have focused on the study of commemorative sites and rituals, in contemporary Britain, the memory of both World Wars has occupied a central position in the most influential medium of popular culture – television. From the development of new broadcast technologies in the 1960s through to the recent memory boom of the 1990s, the media, publishing and tourism industries have broadened the public space of remembrance in contemporary British culture.¹ Discussions of tactics and strategy illustrated by...

  7. 1 An Unhealed Wound: Britain and the First World War
    (pp. 7-31)

    In Great Britain the First World War has been commemorated more than any other conflict. Throughout the 1920s small shrines erected on many street corners were replaced by thousands of memorials in stone and bronze. The majority of cities, towns and villages experienced loss and this had a profound effect on the ways in which the war has been remembered.¹ The public organisation of private grief via the erection of thousands of war memorials meant that death became closely associated with Britain’s public memory of the First World War. Britain needed to remember.

    As war memorials enshrined the experience of...

  8. 2 A Monumental Monument: The Great War (BBC, 1964)
    (pp. 32-62)

    The Great War bequeathed to British television an enduring historical and technological legacy. The series set the benchmark for historical television documentaries being remembered as ‘quite brilliant, utterly compelling [ . . . ] the end of radio with pictures, and the herald of a new age in television.’¹ The Great War was the central component of the BBC’s commemorative programme of the war’s fiftieth anniversary alongside The Life of Wilfred Owen, Britten’s War Requiem and Songs of the Trenches

    The first episode was broadcast on BBC2 on the evening of 30 May 1964. The series enjoyed high audience ratings...

  9. 3 Survivors: Veterans and the Nature of Personal Testimony
    (pp. 63-88)

    The communication of memories has always formed an essential part of our historical record, but in Britain during the 1960s there was a marked increase in interest for the stories and experiences of the ordinary man. The fiftieth anniversaries of the First World War stimulated large-scale acts of public remembrance interfaced with growing interest in wider historical-social studies. In an increasingly post-literate age, veterans on television have returned oral history to its original folkloric and sociological roots where non-elite groups are permitted to share the main focus of recorded historical experiences.¹

    The personal testimonies of veteran eyewitnesses have played a...

  10. 4 Heroes and Villains
    (pp. 89-115)

    During the late 1990s, the eightieth anniversary commemorations of wartime events were marked by a handful of single-episode and short-series documentaries. The most significant programmes focused on specific events and personalities, such as the alleged incompetence of the British High Command, the alleged crucifixion of a Canadian soldier and the men executed by courts martial. The onscreen discussion of these issues represented a shift in the ways in which the First World War was presented on British television. These programmes based their narratives on the loss and futility of the First World War by concentrating on the trenches of the...

  11. 5 Drama, Comedy and Drama Documentary
    (pp. 116-142)

    In contemporary British culture the Second World War has provided plenty of material for drama and comedy on television. The conflict of 1939–45 inspired its own wartime radio comedy It’s That Man Again (BBC, 1939), in addition to popular prime-time situation comedies for television such as Dad’s Army (BBC, 1968–77), It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (BBC, 1974–81) ’Allo ’Allo (BBC, 1982–92) and Goodnight Sweetheart (BBC, 1993–9). The Second World War has long been perceived as the ‘good’ war, providing ample material for comedy and drama programmes, while the First World War is still perceived in...

  12. 6 Over the Top: Reality Experiential Television
    (pp. 143-162)

    Programmes broadcast during and after the eightieth anniversaries formed the most public interface where new televisual representations of the conflict collided with the war’s history and memory. During the eightieth anniversary commemorations of wartime events such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the signing of the armistice in 1918, a number of single-episode and short-series programmes marked a change of direction which involved looking at more specific historical elements of the First World War. Haig: The Unknown Soldier (BBC, 1996), The Crucified Soldier (Channel 4, 2002) and Shot at Dawn (Carlton, 1998) have already been discussed in...

  13. 7 The Fear of Forgetting
    (pp. 163-172)

    As the age of modern television began in the 1950s and picked up speed in the 1960s, many military historians began to re-evaluate the alleged futility and wastefulness of the First World War. However, the powerful visual impetus of the developing medium utilised established modes of remembrance rooted in Britain’s cultural heritance, which meant that televisual representations of the war continued to portray the conflict as the most tragic episode in British national life. These signifying practices were developed to enable the nation to mourn the death and disappearance of so many of its sons, and in the years after...

  14. Filmography (in chronological order)
    (pp. 173-174)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 175-179)
  16. Index
    (pp. 180-190)