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Filming the First World War

Jonathan Lewis and Hew Strachan point out the daunting challenges and exciting opportunities involved in producing a new major TV series.

The First World War, as a subject for television, has acquired a lot of baggage over the past forty years. Our film researcher, Alison McAllan, was told by some colleagues on starting out that her task would be easy, because there wasn’t a lot of footage to chose from and, of what there is, virtually none is genuine. These myths have their counterparts in the military history: Germany single-handedly started it; the British came in because of ‘plucky little Belgium’; the Germans followed the Schlieffen plan; the men were lions led by donkeys; and it was all a tragic waste. It is as if the war is so difficult to master that people have clung to these old hand-holds. But there are other ways up the mountain.

In the event, our story-telling problems were greatly eased by the fact that we were working with a slate of fresh ideas. By looking at the war globally, we needed less material proportionately from the Western Front, where most of the concerns about authenticity have been focused. We were able to exploit the wealth of images, moving and still, from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Eastern Front, Africa and the Pacific. Across the war as a whole, we were surprised by just how much film survives.

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