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The Making of World at War

As one of my colleagues on the Rust worked at Thames shortly after the series was made I write these words with some trepidation and indeed asked him to cast his eye on them before they are published. Last night I watched the final dvd disc on the making of World at War in which the staple force behind the project Jeremy Isaacs and the senior production staff are all interviewed. The series could not be described as ground breaking television as BBC 2 commissioned for its launch in 1964 a series on The Great War. Nonetheless it was ambitious in scope for reporting on World War 2 from the allied and German perspectives. It did not set out to be a military history of World War 2 either, some of the most memorable sequences feature some elderly citizens reminiscing in an  East End pub on the Blitz. Although there were interviews with senior German military and naval staff  and Von Speer, a printer’s son also gave his views on the rise of Hitler.

I was surprised to learn from Jeremy Isaacs that the initial budget was £400,000. He was helped by a tax break whereby broadcasting revenues from advertising could be used for such documentaries. The final production cost was £900,000. Early on though, after Muir Sutherland had lunch at the Savoy with Clyde Packer, the father of Kerry and owner of Channel 9, it was apparent that the rights could be sold globally.  It was also apparent that the programme required a more famous voice than the initial narrator Rene Cutforth who trial presented the first four. Accordingly Sir Laurence Olivier was engaged. He had served on Fleet Air Arm flying Skuas (coincidentally the father of my colleague was also in the Fleet Air Arm). One of the great actor’s eccentricities was his pronunciation of ‘a’. He managed to make Ukraine sound like ‘you crying”, with emphasis on the ‘a’, but he brought gravitas to the production particularly as words were few and the photographic images all.

Interesting friendship were formed, one was between Hitler’s secretary Trui von Junge and a senior production executive whose children were aghast when Von Junge said whilst staying at their home that Hitler was a ‘nice person’. Researchers on the programme had problems dealing with the atrocities into which they delved, notably in the concentration camps.

It’s a sad reflection on today’s television of reality or talent shows, or a benefit match for very B-list celebrity, or out-of-work politician that such a series with exacting production values would never now be made.  Thames  also brought us Minder, The Sweeney and Rumpole and consistently out-performed the BBC in the ratings. One looks back at those times with nostalgia and admiration.

About Bernadette Angell

After cutting her journalistic teeth in Boston USA, Bernadette met and married an Englishman, whom she followed back to London. Two decades and three children later, they divorced. She now occupies herself as a freelance writer (credits include television soaps and radio plays) and occasional amateur gardener. More Posts