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Paxman aims to 'challenge received wisdom' with WW1 series

15 January 2014

Jeremy Paxman unveiled Britain’s Great War at a press screening this morning - the first of over 130 specially commissioned programmes that the BBC will air across TV, radio and online as part of its huge World War One Centenary season.

Paxman’s series isn’t a conventional narrative of the conflict in Europe, but rather a look at the impact of the war on British men, women and children – and how it transformed British society.

Paxman said his series, which was full of fresh archive material and was well received at the screening, sought to explain how the war changed Britain.

He eschewed the traditional historical narratives of the First World War as a conflict in which “lions were led by donkeys” – that a governing class of military leaders wilfully threw away the lives of their men.

“I think a few moments though will convince you that that is a pretty silly analysis,” said Paxman, who stressed that British leaders and generals were dealing with an unprecedented kind of conflict, a form of total war in which government and state got involved in everyday life as never before. Paxman said: “I think the generals were like everybody else, confronted by something that hadn’t been seen before.”

Paxman said his series sought challenge received wisdom about the conflict. He said he wanted get back to how it felt for people at the time, ignoring ‘the filter’ of interpretations that has been put over the events of the First World War – including by TV series such as Blackadder.

“Blackadder was a brilliant comedy – but it was a comedy,” said Paxman.

Paxman stressed that his series had been made before a political row erupted earlier this month, when Education Secretary Michael Gove rounded on what he called a left-wing version of history that portrays 1914-18 as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Gove was then attacked by Labour for using the centenary of the First World War to sow political division.

Paxman added that he found the entire row, “a slightly artificial debate.”

The 4x60-minute Britain’s Great War is a co-production between BBC Productions and The Open University. It airs on the 27th of January.

Adrian Van Klaveren, controller of the BBC World War One Centenary, said that the pan-BBC season would span four years and would see 2,500 hours of programming air across TV, radio and online.

Other planned shows in the season include BBC1 dramas The Ark, about a fictional field hospital behind the trenches, and Tony Jordans’ The Passing Bells, about the story of WW1 through the eyes of two ordinary young men. On BBC2, drama 37 Days explores the politics behind the build-up to war.

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Martin D Frampton
Martin D Frampton  | February 14, 2014
Hello Mr Paxman,

I have found some of your BBC progs on WW1 interesting, particularly the three cousins edition. What I fear is this series is going to bury its nose and purpose in the morass of minutae that is attached to the war. Digging up Buckingham palace gardens to grow cabbages really is not riveting information.

I am waiting for just one episode dealing with just one question...

who was responsible for NOT ending the killing in 1915 when it became obvious to every private French, German and British soldier at the front that the war was unwinnable.

Every book that talks of the Battles that failed – and they all failed - never question why it went on and on like it was an addiction. Why.. as Harry Patch is famous for saying did they .. whoever “they” were.. decide to kill 12,000,000 young men before they sat down in a railway carriage and, in one days talk, stopped it.. They then rigged it so that the soldiers could carry on firing and dying for another five/six hours so that could use the obscene poetry of 11 th hour ... 11th day ... 11th month. Why did they not do that in 1915 ? Anyone with a modest interest in the history of warfare would have referred to the American civil war where the first instances of trench warfare took place with rapid fire machine guns. The catastrophic consequences in terms of casualties are well known and lessons should have been drawn in 1915 that the trench warfare stalemate would produce the same piles of dead men. Perhaps you now know why the cynic refers to Military Intelligence as a contradiction in terms.

Did no one talk to Lloyd George or the Frenchman Joffe or the victor ?? of Verdun or Kaiser BIll or Ludendorf or The King of England. Did none of them ever raise the question with the military? Did no one ever ask or suggest that maybe it would be a good idea to call it a draw and all go home. This is the pornography of that war.. the voyeurs who sat did nothing to stop it and just watched the numbers change.

There are many still in this country who still get angry about the conduct and very existence of that war and its time the real questions of its history are answered honestly.


Martin D Frampton
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