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Britain’s Great War

Bryn Thomas tunes in to the First World War

I trust our regular National Rust readers – 57,000 per day, according to the latest figures – will forgive me beginning this review of the first episode of BBC’s first World War One centenary offerings, Jeremy Paxman’s Britain’s Great War series [BBC1, 9.00pm Monday 27th January], with a quick update on the progress of Channel Four’s reality show The Jump, which I wrote about yesterday.

Returning to The Jump almost by accident last night whilst waiting for Britain’s Great War to begin, I realise that I may have, in the immortal words of former US president George W. Bush, ‘misunderestimated’ it.

Could it be that this is not one of the worst shows ever to air on television, as I implied, but in fact a fiendishly sly parody of the reality television show genre – in the style of Chris Morris’s wonderful The Day Today – being foisted upon the British public by the Hampstead intellectual set who run Channel Four?

I mention this because last night The Jump excelled itself. This time it was the turn of ‘the girls’, who took part in a Cresta Run-style tobogganing competition before the bottom two had to endure the ‘jump off’ to see who left the show.

jump2The set-up is as absurd as ever.

Effectively, this is a 60-minute recorded clips show, introduced ‘live’ at 8.00pm (UK time) from Austria by Davina McCall.

The two unfortunates who came bottom in the toboggan run were the ex-pop star Sinitta and an Essex girl whom I now know is called Amy Childs.

At the climax, these two ascended to the top of the ‘small’ ski jump hill – height at ‘take off’ no more than a metre – with dramatic music playing to build the tension. Sadly in the event (or was it a stroke of genius?) the shoot-out was a damp squib. Any Childs was scheduled to go first but, after sitting on the starting ledge for what seemed like an age, ‘bottled’ it and refused to jump.

Could Sinitta, by simply doing the jump – any jump at all – save herself from eviction?

Millions of viewers, this one included, held their breath.

Suddenly, after mouthing a prayer to the Almighty, she set off down the slope at about 7 mph. As she reached the end of the runway, without making any effort to jump at all, she flopped like a sack of potatoes, yet still upright, onto the downward slope and then continued her progress up the hill to join Davina McCall.

For her ordeal, Sinitta was given a jump distance of ‘10 metres’ and an ecstatic ovation from her fellow contestants of both sexes.

Cue a smooth switch to BBC1 and Jeremy Paxman.

PaxmanOn a first look, Britain’s Great War has much to commend it.

It is a given that Paxman brings a heavyweight presenter’s presence to anything he does, so the key issue was always going to be the content. I was impressed. By mixing current filming techniques with a well-researched mix of rostrum camera shots and contemporary 1914 film footage, the programme makers ensured the average viewer would be happily carried along by the narrative, in the process gaining a ‘sense’ that the world as it was in 1914 was somehow being brought alive.

I use the term ‘average viewer’ advisedly, for – as I have mentioned before – last night there would have been legions of WW1 experts, both amateur and professional, on high alert for factual inaccuracies or inexactitudes. Personally, I thought the story as told by Paxman trod a pretty steady line and merited 8 on a scale of 10.

The only ‘omission’ I felt he could have covered was that of the territorials. Soon after war with Germany was declared on 4th August 1914, it became apparent that Britain’s regular (non-conscript) army of approximately 100,000 was hopelessly inadequate in terms of manpower. Kitchener therefore called for volunteers. By December 1914 over a million men had signed up to join Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’ and begun training.

That much Paxman reviewed last night. He even mentioned the fact that, in a forerunner of WW2’s Home Guard, a force of ‘over service age’ men was constituted to patrol at home in the UK in case of a German invasion.

Yet he failed to mention the territorials at all. The Territorial Force had been set up by Haldane in 1908, comprised of part-time soldiers and kids coming out of school and university who had responded to the call for urgent military training in case of war. Their stated purpose was purely ‘home defence’.

Kitchener was not a fan, which it why he went his ‘New Army’ route. But in parallel with Kitchener’s call for volunteers in late August 1914, the territorials were asked to consider serving overseas – which many of them volunteered to do. By the end of the war, the territorial battalions had done great service – had won many VCs and other decorations – and in practice were often indistinguishable in commitment and effect from the regular and New Army units.

But I quibble.

Overall, I thought this first episode of Britain’s Great War was a damned good effort.

It steered a careful course through WW1’s innumerable controversies – including the ‘lions led by donkeys’ myth – and was innocent of pandering to political correctness, not least in resisting the call not to be ‘beastly to the Germans’ lest this upset our modern EU partner. At the same time, Paxman’s populist style allowed him to explain things in a simple but insightful manner.

The way he dealt with individual ‘human interest’ stories was exemplary. He told of the volunteers’ genuine sense of patriotic duty without irony borne of hindsight, and barely mentioned the ‘futilities of war and sacrifice’ angle.

Perhaps that will come later in this four-part series. Episode two will follow next week.


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About Bryn Thomas

After a longer career in travel agency than he would care to admit, Bryn became a freelance review of hotels and guest houses at the suggestion of a former client and publisher. He still travels and writes for pleasure. More Posts