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?

The WRITER not the film star! The ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor…..

(As I publish this I have just heard Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter Judith Kingham will be on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour tomorrow to talk about the centenary of her mother’s birth and the re-issue of the short stories. It really does seem as if she is getting some proper recognition at last)

On Sunday 1st July BBC Radio 4 aired the Bookclub programme recorded to mark the centenary of the birth of the novelist Elizabeth Taylor. I was lucky enough to be one of the thirty or so people in the audience to join David Baddiel and James Naughtie in the discussion of her best known book, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. I asked two questions, and both were included in the final version of the programme which, although little to do with my contributions, was in my view one of the best Bookclub programmes for some time. Most Bookclub programmes involve living authors, but to the BBC’s credit this did not deter them from showcasing the work of one of the best writers of the 20th century and one who is too often overlooked.

David Baddiel came to Elizabeth Taylor’s work whilst researching his latest novel The Death of Eli Gold, and has described her as ‘the missing link between Jane Austen and John Updike’. He is an enthusiastic reader of her novels and has written the introduction for The Sleeping Beauty, a book that is very far from a fairy tale. His views were strident and I was grateful he responded positively to my questions. One woman sitting close to me was shocked when he completely disagreed with a point she had made. For an author who wrote of the minutiae of middle-class lives she can elicit passionate responses in her readers.

Continue reading “The WRITER not the film star! The ‘other’ Elizabeth Taylor…..”

On my return from Liechtenstein: A plea to the British media

My first post back after my fabulous trip to Liechtenstein was going to be a light-hearted look at a fabulous fortnight helping a family with the English language. But in light of the horrific events in Norway, the continuing Murdoch saga and the news programming and papers I have seen since my return on Saturday I have to say I feel ashamed of a significant section of the supposedly ‘great’ British media. It is not just the phone hacking -though that is hideous enough (and covered in detail in Liechtenstein). It is the impression one has that our our press and news agencies consider themselves to be exemplary in some way, when actually they can be sensationalist and salacious.

Liechtenstein is a gentle country. There is no army, very little crime and people are relatively prosperous and happy. The newspapers report on significant foreign events, feature stories of national eccentricity – the woman who spent more burying her cats than her husband – and avoid topless women and bingo games.

Continue reading “On my return from Liechtenstein: A plea to the British media”

The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?

This is an unplanned post, one of those I am prone to put out in response to an event that causes me to think deeply about an issue of importance to me.

As I write, the BBC are once again reporting on the result of the Grand National. ‘A glorious day’ apparently. Hot and sunny certainly, but glorious? Two horses died and most, including the winner, were so dehydrated and exhausted at the end of the race that they couldn’t even make an appearance in the winners enclosure. A recap of the race, explaining why two fences had to be avoided second time round, referred to the dead animals as ‘obstacles’. Twitter is filling up with comments showing various degrees of disgust at the BBC, which is accused of supporting the animal cruelty on display. Suddenly I feel a little sick. Continue reading “The Grand National: or When is it time to end a family tradition?”