Not Another Episode! by Julia Jones

Our lockdown viewing has been the overwhelming TV series The World at War first shown on Thames TV in 1973-4. Just stop and have a listen to its opening theme by Carl Davis (looking on the cover of this  which is then explored across 26 hours of utterly gripping viewing. It's actually too big to write about. It took five years to make, cost £900,000 (£11,000,000 in 2019, Wikipedia tells me) was the inspiration of Jeremy Isaacs and is narrated by Laurence Olivier.  I dug out Mark Arnold-Forster's companion volume but somehow that didn't cut it. 

The extraordinary thing about the series - as well as the footage, the music, the narration, the statistics, the sheer scale -- is the cast of interviewees. Last week we were listening to Traudl Junge and Martin Linge (Hitler's secretary and valet, both of them there in the bunker at the end) Albert Speer has been attempting to explain the inexplicable throughout, with Anthony Eden and Averell Harriman. As a submarine groupie I sat up, startled, to hear Otto Kretschmer and Carl Donitz talking about the war in the Atlantic (episode 10)  but it was a couple of episodes before that,  watching the ineffably gentle General Richard O'Connor (the Desert War episode 8) that it was really obvious how well spent the money had been. Last night Toshikazu Kase a Japanese diplomat (uncle of Yoko Ono!) guided us through the hoped-for negotiations with the Soviet Union that might have allowed Japan to surrender in time to avoid the Bomb.  Except there was a feeling that once the American war office realised what it possessed, it was going to get dropped anyway. I don't know, it was a hugely sad episode. 

Throughout the series I've found myself sitting tense and breathless as events unfolded. It's not a new story but the presentation is compelling. We know the facts -- those massive losses in Russia, the deaths on Okinawa (half the native population) -- and we could watch the contemporary film footage (brilliant) at any time, but capturing those interviewees at that point, 25 years on, when it was okay for them to talk; when they'd had time to reflect -- and they hadn't forgotten what they wanted to say, was worth all of the Thames TV budget. It'll get better every year, like rich red wine. Not so many Russians though.

Recently I've been trying to keep the pace of watching the series with the pace of writing my own small WW2 book. It's also very largely learned from the words of those who took part - though rather more of my informants were writing in the 1950s than the 70s.  Perhaps that ten-years-later point was the right moment for individuals to remember their personal stories - and then, maybe, let them go again. The focus of my book is very narrow, just some yachtsmen who volunteered and what happened to them. I've tried to talk to sons and daughters like myself (we're getting old too) and ask them what their father / uncles said. But the usual answer is that they didn't. One daughter remembered that her father had recurring nightmares -- sailors bobbing about in oil, sometimes badly burned and calling out to be rescued and the horrible realisation that, in a lot of cases, there was nothing to be done to save them. 

It wasn't a nightmare, it was a frequent experience for those who served through the Battle of the Atlantic. There are probably nightmares specific to each area of war. Mark Arnold-Forster supplied a straight World at War history as the series companion - but he could have written parts of it quite differently. There were moments when he'd been there - chasing the Scharnhorst and  Gneisenau up the Channel in February 1942, for instance. But you wouldn't know it from his book. 

It's what I'm discovering about so many of his contemporaries - that their stories are so extraordinary, if we have the modesty to listen and they the confidence to speak. Sometimes it's too much to hear. I'm trying to finish my book and I can't. There isn't a tidy ending. Last night we reached a moment in the film that people were coming home: they were hugging each other. I was crying; the music swelled - but then it kept on The initial sequences were familiar 'It's gone back to episode one,' we told each other. We realised we were wrong - this was episode 26, following remorselessly and it was going to tell us that the war wasn't over when VJ day came or the series finished. The problems between people and countries went on. I remember watching the BBC Great War series years ago with my father. Is someone making a Cold War 26-parter?

This year of Covid has sometimes felt like a battle. Scientists and nurses will have felt it in their own way: politicians too. For family campaigners it's been the battle of the care homes. Today (March 8th)  should have been a day of handholding and reunions, the cameras were ready for the good news. But positions are too entrenched; mutual suspicions too deep. Instead it's been a another day of anguish and disappointment. I've read the emails, I'd  like to forget them

Let's go back to WW2. The reason I know a little about Mark Arnold- Forster is that Peter Scott recorded the history of the piece of the war that he knew The Battle of the Narrow Seas -- dull patrols and vicious pieces of fighting between small fast flammable motor boats in the Channel and the Southern North Sea. He used his colleagues onw words and had almost finished it, I discovered, even before the war was done. I think he thought D-Day meant victory, which many had hoped it would,  but there was a long hard year to go.  I thought today was going to make a difference to John's Campaign but ... no, please, not another year of this. 

Not another episode.


Jan Needle said…
Surely the best series ever made. I can't remember how many times I've watched it.
Peter Leyland said…
That's a powerful memory Julia. I missed if first time around as I didn't have a TV but watched it sometime in the 80s I think when it was repeated. It was absolutely mesmerising and in those non-recording days I had to make sure I was in to watch it which I did every time for the 26 episodes. The opening sequence as you say is so vivid - again what a memory and what an excellent documentary about war.
Ruth Leigh said…
Undoubtedly one of the best series ever made. I used to watch it as a child in the Seventies on my grandmother's black and white TV set. It's an amazingly powerful and emotional historical document.
Kathleen Jones said…
I watched it as a child and was absolutely riveted. My mother had gone through the war, but not my father, who was younger, and some of her stories were horrific (she made a wartime marriage and her husband didn't come back). But Mum was always reticent when talking about it, so I was curious. The World AT War was compulsive viewing and also seemed historically accurate. Mum couldn't bear to watch.
Reb MacRath said…
Reb Van Winkle awakens again to something great that slipped under his radar. Your post and the music sample have moved me to check out the series. Thanks.

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