21 January 2014

The Great War (BBC)

Just before Christmas, I began working my way through the old BBC documentary television series on the Great War. I finially finished this about a week ago. Whereas today such a series would likely be made with an American production partner, in 1964 the BBC went to the equivalent national broadcasters in Canada (the CBC) and Australia (ABC). Thus the series does its best to include as high as possible a quotient of 'Commonwealth content', and its treatment of the United States is unusually 'off-centre' compared to what audiences of today might expect to see.

The series' producers faced a tremendous challenge, in that they had to fill about seventeen hours of programming with very little filmed material, all of which was silent. They seemed to have used three tricks:

1) Re-use. Time and again we see the same shots of guns bombarding, or troops running out of trenches. Sometimes, the same film will appear three times in forty minutes.

2) The rostrum camera. This ingenious device allows a still photograph to be 'put in motion'.

3) Movies. While I don't know this to be a fact, I'm fairly confident that some of the 'action scenes' were not merely staged for newsreels, but were in fact scenes from silent films. I should double-check this by reading a couple of the scholarly articles written about the series, such as this one.

One particular sequence stood out in my mind, of a column of cavalry who were either going up to the front or coming back, which if memory serves was either in episode thirteen or fourteen. While some action sequences were staged, it seemed likely this one was not, as there are a couple of shell bursts around the column, which continues on, leaving two or three fallen riders and horses. That clip is not reused.

Two episodes struck me as very important in terms of teaching tools. Episode 8, about the British home front, shows the crucial significance of Lloyd George to the war, but also suggested the reason why government intervention in the British economy really became respectable as a political programme. In a crisis, the government can take measures that are, though imperfect, highly effective in setting goals and, in fact, achieving them. Something like this, refined over the years, eventually brought us to the 'Labourist' solution that was finally killed off by Mrs Thatcher (although we didn't know that at the time, and arguably was finally killed off by Neil Kinnock after the 1987 general election).

The second episode I would want to show would be Episode 23, which eventually gets round to covering the effects of the blockade on Germany. Somewhere in a box I have a sample chapter I wrote about the British bombing campaign on Germany during 1940-41, intended to be part of a longer book about Britain in the Second World War. I don't think enough is made of the link between the collapse of the German empire from within in 1918 and the precedent this established for British strategic thinking in 1939-40. I suspect anyone who thought about it in early 1940 believed that an effective bombing campaign would accelerate the process that occurred in Germany during 1914-1918. 'Blitzkrieg' solved the real problem that defeated Germany in 1918, which was that the country ran out of time. Its economy could no longer sustain the war effort.

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