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 4×60-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.

Tim Dams

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