In the early 1960s, the BBC made a documentary series called The Great War. Last week, on BBC2, as part of its WW1 centenary commemorations, the corporation put out a programme called I Was There: The Great War Interviews, featuring WW1 veterans talking about their experiences, many of them coming from previously-unseen footage recorded for, but not used in, The Great War project.
Yesterday afternoon I was rung by my brother – with whom, from time to time, I research aspects of the WW1 battlefields. He had been viewing his recorded off-air copy of I Was There: The Great War Interviews and wished to recommend one in particular to me, which was also available via the BBC iPlayer system.
It featured a former Royal Flying Corps pilot, Cecil Lewis.
Mr Lewis was certainly a bit of a chap. Six feet four inches tall, he was plainly one of life’s adventurers. Immediately upon leaving Oundle School he had qualified as a pilot and then – lying about his age – had joined up at the age of 17 in 1915, won an MC, and was still only 20 when WW1 ended. At the age of 24 he became a founder-member of the British Broadcasting Company (later the British Broadcasting Corporation) and then became a film producer and writer. He died only in 1997, at the age of ninety-eight.
At the time of giving his interviews for the BBC’s The Great War in 1963 and 1964, Mr Lewis was still only in his mid-sixties and remembering incidents of not quite fifty years before. My brother was right. They do represent a remarkable slice of history, not least because of Mr Lewis’s matter-of-fact, articulate, delivery and his evident force of personality.
I watched the entire set of interviews in one sitting last night.
Afterwards, I dropped an email to my brother, thanking me for the tip-off, adding that – in my view – these clips should be played to any teenager who is drifting aimlessly, perhaps without a clue as to what he or she want to do with his/her life. The answer, of course, is ‘something’ – and Mr Lewis’s openness and candour would provide almost any intelligent person with a ‘life is not a rehearsal’ kick up the backside …
For those NR readers who might be interested, here is a link to the BBC iPlayer version of Mr Lewis’s interviews (I am not insisting that everyone watches all 39 minutes!) – CECIL LEWIS IN WW1