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Britain's Great War - TV Mini-Series Review

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
Published January 27th 2014
Photograph: BBC/Dave Williams


There was only a month between Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the first World War, but the facts in the BBC's documentary on the start of the conflict is filled with drama and tragedy that is expertly told by Jeremy Paxman (Mondays, 9PM, BBC One).

Paxman's narration really ramps up the tension as he tells the story of how Europe exploded on August the 4th 1914. He effectively shows how devastatingly The Enlightenment's legacy of rationalism had become perverted, especially as 100000 people demonstrated for peace but Paxman tells about the anxiety of the public outside Buckingham Palace as war was inevitable. Even the trade union movement backed the war, assuming it would be the "war to end wars," which you would think odd. In "Threads", there is a scene at a public rally where a trade unionist calls upon the TUC to call a general strike in protest at a coming war. Cliches aside, this documentary is a revelation of what happened on the home front.

For instance, the fact that even boy scouts were mobilised as field medics and the equivalent of The Royal Observer Corps is a revelation of how Britain's children were affected by the conflict, which puts what's happening in Syria into perspective. Can you imagine your children acting as police or firefighters on the home front if we went to war with China? The fact that they couldn't work for eighteen hours at a time is enough, but in an attack zone? Can you imagine the propaganda needed to mobilise kids aged 10 or 11?

With Propaganda, Paxman relates a bizarre tale of Horatio Bottomley and his recruitment drive in music halls and his demonisation of the Germans as "Germ-Huns", but the recruitment drive in football grounds was a failure until the whole of Heart of Midlothian team enlists. If the beautiful game is an extension of the Great Game, then the researchers give a good example of how propaganda works. A comedic advert in The Times read: "Wanted: Petticoats for able bodied young men who have not yet joined the Army."

Comic as this is, it is another example of how propaganda undermines a man's confidence in their virility.

What the programme doesn't do is give the background to the conflict, such as the Scramble for Africa, industrialisation, the colonial scrambled in central and Eastern Europe (I'm looking in your direction Austro-Hungary. Yes, you two!) culminating in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. While it tells the story of how the war affected the home front very effectively, it doesn't give the stories told any political and historical perspective. The question you are left asking is: "How did the lives of those caught up in the conflict relate to the global story of the machinations of the cabinet and Kaiser? Were rich and poor alike just cannon fodder?" Rhetorical questions aside, the programme alludes to the fact the 1914-18 war started as a war like any other but doesn't explore this in full. That said, the change from a limited to a total war is more important for the simple reason it changed society (which will be explored in the rest of the series).

Paxman is an excellent story teller and does the subject justice as a presenter, with clarity, objectivity and great sensitivity that he demonstrated in the interview with the last surviving member of the attack on a coastal town by German ships. All in all, this new series promises to be as gripping as any war film and an education on what ordinary people experienced at the home front. Shame no war films do that, especially Hollywood fare.
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When: Episode 1: Broadcast on 27 January 2014
Where: BBC One
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Your Comment
Thanks. Anything to be of service.
by Chris Henniker (score: 0|4) 1578 days ago
Loved the programme last night. Thanks for your review
by erik3 (score: 0|2) 1578 days ago
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