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

Monday, May 16, 2016

Television's Most Reliable Source of WWI Drama

For over 40 years one television program has regularly produced dramatizations focusing on the First World War.  In case Downton Abbey was your first experience with Masterpiece Theatre,  here are four series from the early days of the program back when Alistair Cooke hosted the Sunday night show with his memorable and incisive commentary.

The Unknown Soldier (Original Story) 

During World War I, a shell-shocked British soldier suffering from amnesia is found wandering amid the bodies and barbed wire of no man's land. Sent back to England to recuperate, he cannot remember who he is. The upperclass (Vera Brittain type) nurse responsible for his care begins to unravel the disturbing secret of his identity, even while falling deeply in love with him.

The Duchess of Duke Street, Season II (Original Story) 

Louisa Trotter (seated), Her Staff, and Favorite Guest

Louisa Trotter, wonderfully played by Gemma Jones, is the ex-scullery maid who became the confidante of kings. Her lover Charlie Haslemere is off to the front, The other residents of the now-famous Bentinck Hotel are all involved in World War I and its aftermath in assorted ways.  Character actor John Welsh steals many scenes as the cranky Crimean War veteran waiter of the Bentinck.

Lord Peter & The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy Sayers

Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard Discussing the Case with Lord Peter

In the Bellona Club on Armistice Day 1922, General Fentiman snoozes peacefully away in his armchair, buried beneath his newspaper. Only someone discovers he isn't snoozing — he's actually dead and has been so for some nine hours. What looks at first like a routine death turns into a murder mystery and a whole series of "unpleasantnesses," all requiring the considerable talents of war veteran Lord Peter Wimsey, played definitively by Ian Carmichael, to untangle.

To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield

Powlett-Jones Job Interview with Headmaster Herries

David Powlett-Jones (John Duttine), invalided out of the army by shell shock, arrives at Bamfylde School, unaware that his meeting with the Headmaster, Algy Herries (Frank Middlemass ), is about to alter the course of his life. Although David has never before been a teacher, he joins the boys' school faculty where his students are all from upper-class affluent families — unlike his own roots in a poor Welsh mining family. Set against the backdrop of social upheaval in the 1920s & '30s, the series covers Powlett-Jones's teaching career for more than two decades. He becomes an excellent educator, inspiring the boys with his own qualities of insight and idealism, qualities that help prepare him to send off his students to fight yet another war in 1939.

Source:  PBS Website


  1. I would also add Upstairs Downstairs covers the World War and after. But all these series were excellently done and enjoyed watching all of them.

  2. The "ANZAC Girls" provides a profound view of WW I on two fronts. I recommend that this series be added to your list. It's an Australian production.

  3. It looks like "The Unknown Soldier" was never released on DVD in the US and isn't available on YouTube. Any other ideas how to view it?