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The BBC's Great War - the Beeb responds

The Controller of the BBC World War One season responds to David Elstein.

Adrian Van-Klaveren
3 April 2014
British_55th_Division_gas_casualties_10_April_1918.jpg

The British 55th Division under gas attack - Wikimedia

This is a typically challenging piece and it opens up a debate which we at the BBC very much welcome. From my perspective as Controller of the BBC’s World War One season, there are a couple of over-arching points I would make in response to the broad criticisms raised here.

The BBC's overall aim in this season is to help people better understand the First World War - its causes, its course and its consequences. We will of course commemorate the events of 100 years ago but we also want to leave people with a much better sense of what the First World War meant and the impact it had on the world in which we live now. The sheer range and variety of our programming will inevitably make judging the season by any single programme, series or subset of output misleading. In this case it is rather unfair to say that 37 Days is the only way in which we will attempt to explain the causes of the war. We have already shown Royal Cousins at War on BBC2 which gave a different perspective on the war's causes. This summer Christopher Clark, mentioned in the article, is presenting a series for Radio 4, exploring the ideas put forward in his book "Sleepwalkers” . Margaret Macmillan is presenting a day-by-day series on Radio 4 looking chronologically at the events leading to war and how they were seen at the time. Online we will add further material looking at how war began (both background analysis and a modern recreation of the news output of the events from a century ago) and there will be further explanation as part of the BBC’s News and Events coverage of the commemorative events this summer.

37 Days was a drama, seeking to explore a tortuously complex and contested narrative in a way which would reach a broad TV audience. It was factually based though of course used dramatic devices; but the main criticism of the piece seems to be that it misrepresented the motives and behaviour of the central characters. I fear there are countless interpretations of these human actions and any drama is likely to fall short of expectations for anyone who takes a differing view to those portrayed. My own view is that 37 Days was an ambitious and beautifully made series but there is of course a limit to what can be achieved in three hours of television drama. Interestingly Max Hastings argues the opposite of the view expressed here, claiming that it would have been better if the series had been much more tightly focussed on London and the British Government. I disagree with him too but it shows how hard this path is to navigate. At the very least I believe Mark Hayhurst’s dramatisation succeeded in opening up the subject further as well as creating a highly watchable piece of factual drama. In support of my view, the reviews overall have been very favourable – to quote one from The Sunday Times: ““This three-part dramatization…is little short of a triumph – gripping, complex, superbly performed and as clear as clear could be… On this rare occasion, history is better served by drama than documentary….”

Similarly I think Jeremy Paxman's series Britain’s Great War had a specific, clearly defined role. Although it did discuss why Britain went to war and whether Britain was right to do so, its main purpose was to look at the impact the war had on Britain - how it changed the country at the time and how it shaped the country we live in now. In that I think it overwhelmingly succeeded and it’s encouraging to read the positive comments in the piece about the programme.

Over the next four years, there will be many more programmes and much more discussion about the First World War. I have no doubt that this debate will continue to develop and it is important that it does. The more these questions are considered, the greater the impact of the centenary is likely to be and the higher the chances of leaving a legacy of a better understood and properly remembered conflict.

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