It’s the 100 anniversary of WW1. A conflict that did more to shape the world we live in today than any other single conflict or event in the last century. Possibly even the last half a millennium. WW1 deserves to be remembered and discussed. Lessons should be learned from it.
Before going onto the discuss the documentary I should probably just express my own understanding of WW1. I enjoy reading about history. I have read enough about the subject to get a somewhat detailed but in no way expert idea of it. WW1 was on balanced caused by German’s who wanted to the war and they should bare a lot of responsibility for it. There were however, perfectly valid reasons for Germany’s actions in triggering the war. British politician’s going back to the 1890s deserve blame for the decisions they made that stoked the fires of the conflict.
So in general Germany did want the war to get ‘a place in the sun’ but there is enough blame and incompetence with the Russian, French and British leadership to show them as the upper class insular twits that they were. Now onto the documentary.
Jeremy Paxman’s documentary is a complete failure to analyse and understand WW1. It is an attempt at an historical whitewash. It is inaccurate and grating. Let’s begin with the presentation of the program starting with the music.
The music sweeps from being triumphalist when Britain is going well to being downbeat when it is feels a more sombre moment is called from. It is blatant emotional manipulation. It is stomach churning. It is like this supposedly serious documentary has been scored by John Williams.
Now lets turn to Paxman himself. He is an excellent quiz show presenter on University Challenge and interviewer for Newsnight. His strength is his sneering put downs and sarcastic quips. Shorn of this for his documentary narration skills his delivery is poor. Although I am sure he is sincere he seems unable to convey this to the camera. Added to this is the fact that he is not a professional historian or even lover of WW1 history and boy does this fact show.
Britain is painted as hapless victim. The show accepts that Britain had the “greatest empire the world has ever seen” but still paints us as the plucky underdogs who had never fought a war anywhere. There is some truth to this narrative in terms of the size of the BEF compared to Germany’s force at the outbreak of war, but this fact is grossly and distortingly overplayed.
It is important to remember that the BEF were the only wholly professional force at the outbreak and that the defensive was king in this war. These factors allowed the BEF to punch above its numbers. If you want to find out more about this I would recommend Dan Carlin’s ongoing series on WW1 which makes this Paxman documentary look like it was made by a child.
The show focuses on the drive to recruit volunteers to the the army. It paints this in gloriously patriotic terms. The men who signed up were patriots. At no point however, does Paxman look at how this patriotism was being manipulated. Streets were cornered off for recruitment and bands played. The establishment was recruiting cannon fodder by putting on a show. Paxman fails to investigate how this was done and what were the motives of the authorities that did so. He doesn’t do this because it is ‘A’ to clever for this show and ‘B’ might present the British establishment in a less than glowing light.
The low point of the show is the description of Lord Kitchener as an “intensely moral man”. Kitchener spent his military career killing off ‘natives’ in colonial wars and believed in ‘the white mans burden’ and such racist nonsense. He cannot by any modern standard be described as “intensely moral”. He is also the idiot who came up with the idea of ‘pal’s battalion’ to increase recruitment, because why not kill off as many member of one community together all at once. The show of course fails to examine the concept of “Pal’s battalions” in any seriousness.
I will give some credit to the show though. The photography of WW1 it uses is top notch. It did give a sense of the times. It was clear that the full weight of the BBC was behind its production. It also showed me just how much like Lord Kitchener Stephen Fry’s Blackadder looked. Their mustaches really did match. So bravo Stephen Fry.
Also the coverage of the shelling of the coast of Britain by the German Navy was something I had never heard of. It’s just a shame that Paxman and the BBC didn’t put the materials to better use.
If you want an interesting and thoughtful pop culture examination of WW1 try both the podcasts ‘When Diplomacy Fails’ and Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”. Both of these are more accurate, balanced and interesting than the jingoistic nonsense that the BBC has put out in this documentary.
Sadly, I fear this documentary has set the tone for the £50 million plus that has been green lit to remember WW1.
2 out of 5 stars (It only gets 2 stars for the excellent original pictures used)