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Outstanding television transferred to outstanding DVD
on 13 April 2005
First released in 1964 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, this epic piece of television has now reached a vintage which might suggest it has outlasted its shelf-life and should be consigned to a peaceful archive. This is precisely what happened to it for a while, but in recent years the BBC has chosen to give the series a fresh airing ... and, in many respects, it appears fresher and more dynamic than it did in 1964.
In 1964 there were still plenty of people around who had vivid memories of the Great War. I used to watch my uncle Chay shaving - his back, shoulders and right arm were covered in hundreds of little black marks, tiny shrapnel fragments and debris left over from the Western Front. I remember numbers of men with artificial legs - remember a couple of my friends whose grandfather's spare legs would be ostentatiously parked behind the couch. I remember the 1914 brass Princess Mary Christmas boxes on display in scores of households, remember captured German pickelhaubs and belt buckles, or the gold watch my grandfather liberated from a Turkish officer in the Dardenelles.
In 1964, the First World War was still alive in Scotland ... and the hundreds of war memorials testified to that, listing the names of local men who'd died fighting not just in Scottish or British units, but who'd enlisted in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, or the USA, and had died fighting under their colours.
In 1964, I watched the series with my uncle Chay. In 1964, it was living history and I could follow it in the presence of a veteran. In 2005, I can still watch it and feel its sense of immediacy. This had nothing to do with nostalgia. In 1964, the BBC broadcast a living oral history of the War. Each episode features filmed interviews with survivors, with men and women who had experienced the War, had been eyewitness to history. Not the generals and statesmen, but ordinary people, the minutiae, the statistics of warfare, each giving a lucid account and electrifying description of their personal experiences. What was it like to be there at the first day of the Somme? What was it like to see a Zeppelin over your city?
The BBC history of the Great War took a dynamic approach to the subject. This was the first great technological war - aircraft, tanks, submarines, telephones, barbed wire, machine guns, magazine-fed bolt-action rifles, long range artillery, and, of course, the camera. And this was an age in which the military hadn't yet figured out what to do with the camera, hadn't figured out quite how to 'embed' journalists and camera crews, hadn't figured out how to control, censor, or manipulate. Both still and movie cameras were fairly primitive affairs, but they were mass produced, readily accessible, and had plenty of keen enthusiasts who could use them with effect.
The First World War became the first intensely photographed war (with apologies to Fenton in the Crimea and Brady in America, etc.), the more so because its front lines were relatively slow moving. What the BBC captured was a vast wealth of moving images and black and white stills. The most striking feature of the series is the quality of its editing - pasting together moving and still images, cutting to eye witness interviews, documentary history, linking the whole with the beautiful diction of Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave.
And, in 1964, televisions were still fairly primitive affairs - small screens, grainy images, often more purple than black and white. Today, the quality of the production comes across far better. The film seems crisp and lively, the sound quality (albeit dubbed) seems more honest and accurate. In 2005, this remains a vibrant, captivating series. In 1964 it was required viewing for millions of people - as I said, many families still had a living interest in the War. In 2005, it remains a milestone in television and the production of popular history.
True, the series does tend to give prominence to the Western Front - but global events are not ignored. The historians used - people like Corelli Barnett and John Tremaine - were young enough to grasp the potential of this new medium of television, to understand that history could be analysed and discussed on film and not just in academic texts. As a piece of history, as a delivery of evidence to forthcoming generations, "The Great War" was an epic production, groundbreaking television, and a testimony to the vision of the BBC.
It was a radical decision to produce the series. It took risks. It set the benchmark for excellence. And it's all the evidence I need to prove that an independent BBC is an essential element of a 21st century democracy. Sheer genius which is hardly yet showing its age, and a clear demonstration that superb historical analysis can be delivered without a celebrity historian hogging the lens! Five stars doesn't come close.