The World At War by Taylor Downing (BFI TV Classics) – Book Review

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In his introduction, Downing writes that –

“The World At War is unique in factual television.  Forty years after its first transmission it is as popular, possibly even more popular, than it was when first shown.  Factual channels that were not in existence when the series was made eagerly compete to show it today.  This is as true in the US and in many other major television markets, as it is in the UK.  No other factual series can claim this.”

The stature and enduring appeal of The World At War makes it an ideal programme to merit an entry in the BFI’s Film & TV Classics series.  Each book offers a concise, well-written overview of its subject as although Downing’s book is only 180 pages, it manages quite effectively to describe the factors that enabled Thames Television to undertake what was an expensive, time-consuming and potentially very risky programme.

When The World At War entered production in 1971, there hadn’t been a major British television documentary series produced about WW2.  The BBC had been mulling over  various ideas for some time but hadn’t made any firm commitments.  And Paul Fox, the then controller of BBC1, was of the opinion that since the BBC had only recently launched colour television, a lengthy documentary series featuring mainly black and white footage wouldn’t be a good idea.

Over at Thames, there was more interest in the idea and the return to power of the Conservatives in 1970 was a key factor in kick-starting the production of The World At War.  Under the previous Labour government, all the ITV companies were required to pay a hefty Levy to the government for the privilege of operating an independent television licence.  The Conservatives substantially reduced the amount of the Levy, which immediately freed up substantial funds which could be put into new programming.

Jeremy Isaacs, an experienced programme-maker at both the BBC and ITV, knew that the reduction of the Levy meant that the time was right to make the series.  The speed at which it was green-lit was remarkable and it’s impossible to imagine a similar scenario happening today.  Within twenty-four hours the Managing Director of Thames, Howard Thomas, had agreed and the wheels started to move.

In retrospect this was a big risk, as the Thames board hadn’t been consulted and neither had the other ITV regions.  At this time, the dozen or so ITV regions all had to agree to network their programmes, so if the other regions had decided not to take The World At War then it would have been a major blow.  Twenty-six prime-time slots devoted to a WW2 documentary was a substantial undertaking, but Thames were happy to leave thoughts such as scheduling to a later date.

The first thing that Isaacs needed was to get a major figure onboard as a historical consultant.  Dr Noble Frankland, Director of the Imperial War Museum was an obvious choice, but he had not enjoyed the experience of working with the BBC a decade earlier on their WW1 series The Great War.

Frankland felt that on far too many occasions The Great War had used archive footage incorrectly by failing to distinguish when it had been reconstructed or faked.  He was heartened to learn that Isaacs shared his desire to be rigorous with the use of archive footage and happily agreed to work as the consultant on the series.

Taylor Downing deftly examines the various production processes that over the course of the next three years were responsible for bringing the twenty-six episodes into existence.

Several different directors worked on individual programmes and they all brought something different to the subjects tackled.  The availability of footage and interviewees also affected each episode, so that some featured only scant footage and relied heavily on eyewitness testimony and vice-versa.

Downing also discusses the role played by composer Carl Davis and narrator Laurence Olivier.  Olivier and Davis contributed to all twenty-six episodes and so they helped to give a unity to the overall series.  The inclusion of a major figure like Olivier was deemed essential by Thames’ management, and was somewhat against the wishes of Isaacs, and Downing feels that his mannered delivery is something that now dates the series.  I’d disagree with this as Olivier’s narration, for me, tends to always be spot on – and his narration is only used sparsely, as generally either the pictures or the eye witnesses are used to tell the story.

Also examined by Downing is the style of documentary that The World At War was and its enduring legacy.  Whilst, he concedes, it was out of date almost as soon as it was first broadcast (the revelations of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, came to light just too late to be used) the programme’s main themes and its use of first-hand testimonies means that it remains a series that is still able to resonate with audiences today.

Episode 20, Genocide, which documents the terrible events of the Holocaust, is just as uncomfortable to watch today as it was forty years ago, but the impact of both the footage and the eye-witnesses from both sides remain undimmed.  Many episodes of The World At War are outstanding, but surely none more so than this one.

Downing concedes that the series isn’t perfect, as although it presented a more global picture of the war than had previously been seen, there are still omissions – China and Poland, for example, are barely mentioned.

Overall, Downing’s book provides the reader with a clear overview and is the perfect companion to this landmark British documentary series.