Perhaps what is just as interesting as the detail of WW2 are the gaps and silences in our historical accounts.by David Herman / October 31, 2013 / Leave a comment
On 31 October 1973, ITV started showing The World at War. Forty years on, it remains a landmark in historical programme-making. There is no better historical TV series. But perhaps what is just as interesting are the gaps and silences, which tell us so much about how differently we view the 20th century today.
In a talk about the making of the series, recorded in 1989, Jeremy Isaacs laid out the objectives of The World at War. First, to tell the story of World War II and the fighting, but also the social and political experience of the war; to tell the story of Britain’s war; to be aware of different audiences of very different ages; ‘to omit nothing of supreme consequence’; and to help us understand the times in which we live. ‘Old men forget,’ said Isaacs, ‘particularly when it hurts to remember.’ As Isaacs spoke, in short, sharp, punchy sentences you could tell at once that his was the voice behind the series.
Isaacs acknowledged that there were significant problems and omissions. Many vital witnesses had already died. Above all, there were inevitable absences: Yugoslavia, the Arctic convoys, Gypsies, Poland, resistance in Europe, sea battles. Sometimes the problem was the lack of archive film. Sometimes, it was the difficulty in finding relevant witnesses. And sometimes, hard choices had to be made.
The style is so different from much of today’s historical programming. Namely, there was no presenter. The great historical documentaries of the 1960s and ‘70s consisted of archive and interview illuminated by commentary. No Paxman and Marr, no Starkey or Schama. Secondly, no dramatic reconstructions (contrast, for example, with Laurencee Rees’s BBC series on Auschwitz). Thirdly, to learn the lessons from the BBC’s 1964 series, The Great War, made less than ten years before, which had been accused of misusing archive film. Is the archive film authentic? How has it been edited and constructed? ‘More honest,’ said Isaacs, ‘are the cameraman’s rushes.’ Some of the most astonishing sequences in The World at War are mute sequences, shot for the newsreel but not yet edited, with no music or commentary, such as a village being ‘cleansed’ on the Eastern Front in the final episode, produced by Isaacs himself.