The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain

Jerome de Groot finds television's depiction of the First World War is put into clear focus

January 14, 2010

Emma Hanna's tightly argued book is an exemplary case study for the influence of television on the popular historical imagination. She traces many important aspects of the representation of the conflict, demonstrating the cultural production of an extremely strong and unyielding caricature of the war. In doing so, her work contributes greatly to scholarship relating to memorialising the First World War, but it has further implications for the ways in which we may study popular history. Hanna works her way shrewdly through the key televisual representations of the war, from The Great War (1964) to Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) and beyond. Throughout, she reminds us that the ways in which a culture remembers something are extremely diverse and peculiar, and often bear little resemblance to what actually happened - and that we would do well to study this representation as much as the events themselves.

While sympathetic to the demands on television as a medium, she is a professional historian, and thus keen that accuracy should be in the creative mix, along with fairness of representation. This works well, particularly in her discussion of the ongoing controversy regarding the execution of soldiers "shot at dawn" after courts martial. Hanna's insistence that this debate should be underpinned by acknowledgement of the historiography and the scholarship on the subject, rather than emotive and manipulative programming, demonstrates that thoughtful and sustained engagement by historians with television and popular media need not consist simply of exasperated critique. Her analysis of the problems of source, interpretation and televisual expression shows here - and also in her section on the reputation of General Douglas Haig - that sensitive reading of popular television can expose problematic faultlines. In this case, and throughout, Hanna shows that what is at stake in representations of the war is of great importance, and it should not be trifled with.

An interesting chapter considers the impact of witnesses on the representation of the war. Personal testimony has become increasingly important in documentary films recounting the war, and it is a complex issue. On one hand, the immediacy of the accounts can generate a level of engagement that other evidence would struggle to achieve. They bring the individual experience of the common man into a narrative too often dominated by structural accounts of strategy and mass casualties. However, testimonies are subject to the problems common to all evidence, yet have become central and to an extent idealised in representations of the war.

Hanna concludes with a firm rebuttal of criticisms of the BBC reality series The Trench (2002), pointing out that the accusations made of the show when it was broadcast unfortunately amply demonstrate her thesis that in cultural terms the First World War has become a set of unassailable cliches and accepted truths, and that any innovative approach will be mercilessly attacked. The First World War is still central to the British cultural imagination, yet the facets that are remembered present a skewed and at times dangerously unfair version of events, from Haig's idiocy to a resolutely anglocentric view of strategy. Hanna's book is a timely reminder that if we are to honour the fallen properly, we should strive to understand exactly how they have been remembered.

The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain

By Emma Hanna

Edinburgh University Press 200pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780748633890

Published 20 October 2009

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