Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Great War on the Small Screen
Reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

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

By Emma Hanna
Published by Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2009

The Great War on the Small Screen demonstrates how and why television has broadened public remembrance of World War One in contemporary Britain. Emma Hanna, Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich, London, argues that it is time for historians to recognize that it is their business to understand and analyze television documentaries as influential pieces of public history since few serious works of history embrace television as a primary source. Hanna defines her purpose as examining the narrative and chronological development of the production of programs on the war with the aid of "in-depth analysis of the visual design by which the conflict has been presented on British television." (p.4) She compares television programs to "building blocks" in Britain's national memory of the events of 1914–18.

Hanna takes us behind the scenes of the making of such important programs as The Great War (1964), The Trench (BBC 2002) and Not Forgotten: The Men Who Wouldn't Fight (BBC 2008). She draws on documents in the BBC Written Archives Centre at Caversham, Berkshire, the Imperial War Museum, and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives.

In her final chapter, "The Fear of Forgetting," Hanna summarizes the most important findings of her study. Television, she argues, has demonstrated that it is not in military and political histories but in firsthand accounts, poetry, art, and music from the war that we find the most eloquent expressions of war experience. Television brings to the fore the importance of the individual's experience, his/her sacrifice, endurance, and courage. British documentary producers and viewers, some of whom are related to those who fought in the conflict, will continue to produce and watch television programs about World War One as a form of remembrance ritual in which grief and consolation are important components. Hanna's study ends with the following claim: "The continued presence of the conflict on British television will ensure that the memory of 1914–18 is a wound that may never heal." (p. 171) The reader is left with the thought that perhaps it is best that it should not heal.

The Great War on the Small Screen is beautifully illustrated with black and white photographs. Each chapter is meticulously annotated and there is a comprehensive index. Hanna's study is an excellent complement to George Robb's fine study, British Culture and the First World War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Jane Mattisson Ekstam

In their concluding season in Blackadder Goes Forth, Rowan Atkinson and the gang — shown on the cover of Small Screen — deliver a parody of the war that's both hilarious and powerfully moving. Don't miss it.

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  1. ""The continued presence of the conflict on British television will ensure that the memory of 1914–18 is a wound that may never heal." "

    If Emma Hanna wants to go negative about Britain's Great War Experience and describe it as a wound she can but I prefer to look at all of the positives that came out of the Great War for the United States and Michigan in particular. That is the reason why I am producing Michigan's WW1 Centennial News Report for TV and YouTube. The small screen, really let's us get up close and personal with people and events of the Great War.

    1. There is probably a large chance that you will never see this comment but I would just like to correct your frankly ridiculous comment on the above book.

      It is generally well accepted in Britain that the First World War is a 'wound', a horrific conflcit that requires constant justification and memory in our Country.

      I'm not going to go into it here but perhaps you could take a look at David Reynold's 'The Long Shadow' and get some actual factual insight.

      Feel free to live in a world of absolute delusion about how beneficial the First World War was to the great USA but do keep in mind dear that you didn't enter the war until 1917 and in no way suffered the huge casualties, gap in society and terrible consequences of a conflict that in no way deserves to be overlooked and examined only in a positive light that seeks to deny the very real 'negative' aspect that still affects Britain and Europe today.

      Emma Hanna is a fantastic historian, meticulous in her research who has simply chosen to focus on a specific aspect of modern memory which is undoubtedly a fantastic contribution to history as a whole.

  2. We are planning to feature Dennis's Michigan's WW1 Centennial News Report in future issues of Roads. They are a great contribution to the commemoration of the Centennial.


  3. Fascinating survey of how contemporary Britain remains aware of the Great War and its significance. Sadly, the war is little thought of or taught in the US nowadays. David Beer