The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?

From the jacket of Shell Shocked Britain

First of all, thank you to all those who chatted to me, on and off-line following my Introducing ‘Shell Shocked Britain post. It was really heartening to find out so many are interested in the legacy of the Great War for the mental health of the nation and I have worked hard to do the subject justice; but the next six months are not so much about writing as marketing and I want to approach that properly as well.

However, I am aware of the first rumblings and grumblings about the coverage of the centenary so far. ‘There is SO much on the television’ said one friend ‘that it is hard to see how it can continue’. Another drew attention to the fact, one hundred years ago,  the war had not even started; yet the BBC (and it is almost wholly an issue for the BBC Coverage) is offering television and radio programmes on a daily basis. Radio 4 is awash with adverts not just for its own programming, but for Radio 2 and the television channels too. ‘Every presenter seems to want to jump on the Great War bandwagon…’ they said ‘I am feeling rather ambivalent about the seeming glorification of the war’. This is not really the response one would want for the centenary of one of the great turning points in British history. What we have today, we owe to those who fought in, and lived through, a conflict that sent out those first shoots that grew into ‘modern’ Britain.

I have been gripped by many of the programmes broadcast so far, but I have a lot of sympathy with these concerns, most particularly because it is another six months until Shell Shocked Britain hits the shelves. Although it is hardly possible to comprehend, people may be jaded and less interested in hearing about the First World War by October. And aren’t I doing exactly the same thing as the BBC by publicising the book so far in advance of the launch date? I want to make sure everyone who may be interested in the book knows it is there. But will anyone still be listening?

paxoThe subject matter of Shell Shocked Britain is so different from most of the programmes aired thus far. Jeremy Paxman in Britain’s Great War touched on some of the issues I aim to highlight, but without making some of the links I think are necessary – how the trauma experienced by combatants and civilians, adults and children alike affected the mental health of the nation. How behaviours, responses and attitudes in the post war period resulted in an approach to mental illness that resonates even into the twenty-first century. It is an important subject that I hope will find an audience. I want that audience ready to listen. I want it to be there.

Is anyone out there privy to the workings of the television and radio scheduler’s mind? Has the BBC a formal programme of events across the next four years? Are we to have programmes covering each of the battles? At what point does something become, in a programme maker’s eyes, ‘worthy’ of a documentary? Is the output original, or a re-hash of things we have seen before? Is this deluge of documentaries respecting the history of the period or exploiting it? So many questions.  Can this frenzy of programme making last four years?

Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting some pieces on topics I cover in Shell Shocked. These will include The First Blitz, the outbreak of Spanish influenza, Eugenics, and the fascination with spiritualism that saw a resurgence during and after the conflict. I will also tell you some of the sad stories that have materialised during my long trawls through the newspaper archives – stories that mirror that of my great-uncle Alfred Hardiman, who killed his ex girlfriend and then himself in 1922. They highlight how the strain of dealing with trauma experienced during the war could lead even the gentlest soul to commit shocking acts, often years after the Armistice.

Is it possible to make too much of such an important subject?

So what do you think? Is there too much too soon? Is this early festival of remembrance from the BBC the best way to remember and to honour those that lived through those years?

3 Replies to “The BBC, the Great War & being part of the ‘bandwagon’…?”

  1. It will all be over by Christmas!

    Seriously, you are right, there is awful overkill at present and the most interesting material, like the programme due to be aired this evening showing interviews from the early 60’s are being drowned out by relatively pointless celebrity fronted efforts. It seems that the media are trying hard to get all that they have out early before the public switch off their sets for the next five years.

    I won’t blame them if they do. The media focus on a few dates, not all of them the right ones, (Battle of Amiens 1918 anyone?), will provide photo opportunities for politicians and do nothing to promote understanding of the war or its aftermath.

  2. I realised that WW1 fatigue might set in fairly quickly when I saw images of “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”, the “art installation” at the Tower of London. I have an opinion about its standard as an artwork that hasn’t gone down well when I’ve expressed it but apart from that (and my opinion of the way it was funded – “bandwagon” comes into it) I wonder if something quite so bloody is appropriate for an anniversary of a time before the slaughter began. Yesterday I went to see “Spectra” by Ryoji Ikeda, the huge shaft of light set up near the Houses of Parliament. People weren’t behaving as though it marked anything tragic or solemn. There was a cheerful atmosphere as people played with the light beams which seemed entirely appropriate because on the 4th August 1914 most didn’t realise what they were in for. There must have been fear but also a sense of excitement. Those people were innocents compared to us because they had never been exposed to the flood of images of war that make our eyes glaze over now. Something like “Blood Swept Lands” should, in my opinion, have been kept to the end but perhaps they felt they needed to make their money now, while everyone still cared. I assume those involved with publishing, TV and everything else planned ahead years ago and took into account the fact that those expected to remember WW1 might get as tired of it as those obliged to endure it at the time. I don’t have a problem with writers profiting from books about it (I don’t expect you to live on dry crusts and pond water) but I am concerned at the prospect of “stuff” being sold over the next four years that will be marketed as being in aid of military charities when the sum being donated is tiny. It also bothers me that a lot of people with little or no knowledge about intellectual property and how images are shared online are being encouraged to pass on precious family images that will be exploited without their knowledge. It’s all useful content. Most of all I worry that more money is being spent on remembering the dead while today’s veterans suffer poverty and a lack of mental health support. I can’t understand how £50 million could have been made available for one but not the other.

    1. I am not sure I agree about the Tower of London installation as an art work, but the timing is odd, as at the beginning of the war poppies were not associated with the fallen. I am pleased I had the opportunity to write my book as I think the subject is important, even if it would have been harder to find a publisher had it not been the centenary.

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