Having read a lot of negative press in the Great war Community about the BBC3 series Our World War, even before it was broadcast and no-one had seen it, I was very interested to finally watch it. With rumours of indie pop, odd camera angles and ‘Call of Duty’ style graphics I had feared the worst but actually… I really rather enjoyed it. In fact second only to the superb ‘The Somme: From Defeat To Victory‘ this is a very fine piece of docudrama from the BBC and a fitting addition to their WW1 Centenary season.
The film is sixty minutes of television and does raise a lot of points; I don’t intend to discuss them all here but I will make a few.
The Filming: this I thought was one of the things that made it for me. Far from odd camera angles the use of cameras giving different perspectives was very effective and much like ‘helmet cams’ as seen in Afghan war documentaries in recent years; I suspect that was the inspiration for this and in my opinion it worked. The graded colour was also a clever touch and gave the film a ‘dirty’ look, which again I think added to the structure of the film. The ‘Call of Duty’ style aerial graphics were clever too and well used; and will be recognisable and understandable to a generation looking at a WW1 docudrama perhaps for the first time. All of this made it a powerful film indeed.
The Music: yep, it was indie pop (rather nice to hear some PJ Harvey, who actually put out an album inspired by WW1 btw). Was it suitable? That will be up to personal taste but I think it certainly fitted in to the ‘modern’ approach the film makers took. The film was raw and so was the music.
The Sets: this aspect of it did not always work for me. The bridge at Nimy was a fair copy of the one there today but nothing like the low stone parapet railway bridge that was actually defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers in August 1914. I know a little of this as I was contacted by the programme makers who were desperate to find some vaguely suitable bridge in the UK to film it. Unfortunately I couldn’t help and the one they did end up using, in a wooded setting with no buildings, was nothing like Nimy 1914 but I don’t think detracted too much from the drama, even if it did from the history. The Head Quarters the runner went back and forth to was the most disappointing of the sets as it looked far too ‘English’; I presume it was probably filmed at Chatham Dockyard? But even with this drama I think budgets were limited and for a general audience it would have worked, and few would have noticed.
Uniforms: for many who watch programmes like these misdemeanours in the costume department do get people hot under the collar. There were a few here, but only a few, and things that most would not notice. Did the officers of 4th Royal Fusiliers really wear Other Ranks shoulder titles on their tunics; probably not? Dease was wearing an Imperial Service badge above his right tunic pocket, only worn by Territorials and not regulars like him. Wrist/bracelet style identity disk were not common place in 1914 (Godley is seen wearing one) and I would go as far as saying probably not worn at all by the BEF. Told you these were small points! But otherwise the actors looked at home in their uniforms, they were dirty and well worn, and the soldiers were dirty too with far from perfect appearances and teeth. They really did look like soldiers of the BEF.
The Characters: for a drama this is one of the few that has made Great War soldiers appear as real men. There were not many stereotypes here and the language, with plenty of swear words, was well constructed. Officers and men were more familiar than the army of 1914 would have been, but I suspect this is a modern take on it. I liked the Australian character and at first wondered why he had been used but in fact he was based on a real person Lieutenant (later Captain) Frederick Wilberforce Alexander Steele, an Australian who served with the regiment as the AWM website shows. Whether he would have had a slouch hat and drover’s coat; that is another matter! The runner character I thought was excellent and gave an insight into a side of the Great War few consider; battlefield communications. I also liked the device of showing Godley as an under-performing soldier who came good, as that reflected what often happened in the midst of battle, but I fear there is little evidence of that in the story of the real Godley. Having said all that these were all believable characters and people you quickly got interested in; which is the sign of good, professional drama.
The History: at times good, often very good and occasionally bad, but for me not so bad as to diminish the impact of the whole film. A full rifle company supported by the battalion machine-gun section defended the real Nimy Bridge, but the film made it look like a skirmish at times. Dease was in command of the machine-guns not the company and that part of his relationship to the story was a little confused I felt. As was Godley’s; he was a soldier in a rifle section who had been trained on the Maxim gun and as I thought was the story only stepped in to help when others had been killed and wounded. The Sappers blowing the bridge at Jemappes was weak historically as it looked nothing like urban Jemappes and the constant use of ‘Sir’ for a Sapper addressing a Corporal was odd indeed; and their conversation, body language and actual language when speaking to a Royal Engineers officer earlier in the film way off the mark for 1914. The final comment about Mons being a ‘humiliation’ for the British was unfortunate, and not really explained. It was a shame as no doubt this will spoil it for many.
Yet despite all this the first episode of Our World War was for me a moving insight the British Army’s first engagement of the Great War. What it set out to do was re-tell this part of the war in a modern way, from a modern perspective. And that’s where many will have issue with it. It set the men in the film not as hapless pawns but real characters, real heroes and real soldiers. Ending it with Steele’s original recommendation for the Victoria Cross and the recording of Godley was a brilliant touch.
This was a good start to this series; and we can only hope it continues in the same vein.