Tag Archives: bbc

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – Radio appearances and signings

I’ve got a few exciting pieces of news.

Firstly, I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth on Saturday 7th April, between 11am and 3pm.

I appeared on BBC Radio Solent earlier today, talking about Portsmouth’s Women of World War Two. It is available to listen to on the BBC website; my interview is about 1 hour and 53 minutes in. I’m not sure if you can listen to it from abroad I’m afraid, and it is only online for seven days.

At the time of writing my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ is ranked around 13,000 on Amazon, out of 5.6 MILLION books! That works out at me being in the top 0.2%! Currently, the book is also ranked at #99 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Second World War Military History. #100? Only Robert Lyman’s ‘Operation Suicide’, which I reviewed last week! I have some way to go though before I overhaul Winston Churchill and Stephen Ambrose and reach 90 ;)

On Monday I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Solent, and actually ended up recording two segments – one on Portsmouth’s women who served in the Second World War, for their ‘Women in a man’s world’ series, and a second piece promoting my book in general.

My first book talk at the D-Day Museum on Thursday went very well, and the first happy customers went away with signed copies. Pre-ordered copies have been shipping out via Amazon, some of my relatives received their copies towards the end of last week. If you would like to order a copy, please see the various links immediately to the right of the page.

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Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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Filed under western front, World War One

Christmas Message from James

After I’ve had a few days of down time over christmas – which for me constitutes divorcing myself from the laptop for a few days! – I have had a chance to sit back and reflect on what an amazing year it has been.

This time last year I had just started work on my first book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’. The contract was inked in January, and after a mammoth effort the book was handed into the publishers in June. I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about the writing process, the publishing industry and much more besides! In particular, in future I would give myself much more time, and in particular, I would try not to move house three days before the hand-in date!

After a bit of a rest – including a nice trip to the Dartmoor Folk Festival, and settling in to my new quarters in Chichester, I have started work on my project looking at Portsmouth’s fallen heroes from the Great War. Research is still ongoing, and I am still considering how best to present this research, but I do very much have my eyes on the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 in 2014, or the 100th anniversary of the Somme in 2016.

The most popular topics on my blog this year have been ‘The Sinking of the Laconia‘, a BBC docu-drama in January, and the visit of the US Aircraft Carrier George H.W. Bush to the Solent in May. Anything to do with the Falklands seems to go down pretty well. Sadly I haven’t been able to post as much as I would like, due to work commitments, lack of internet at times of the year, etc, I am still pretty pleased with the hit rate I am getting. But I won’t pre-empt my review of the year, which rightly belongs on new years eve.

When I think back to the time that I started this blog, it’s almost like it was a different person who started it. I literally began blogging through boredom, and thought that if I was going to spend my mid-twenties singledom reading military books and visiting museums, I had might as well do something constructive with it. Now, over two years later, my first book is due out in a little more than a month, I’ve written text for display at the Spinnaker Tower, and certainly by no means least, I have moved in with my Girlfriend Sarah. I don’t mind admitting that when I started my blog in the summer of 2009 I was still recovering from a period of suffering from some pretty severe depression. Realising that what I have to say interests people has motivated me more than anyone could ever know, and its certainly helped me move on and up in life. I just want anyone reading this to know, that if you really want to achieve something, you can if you work hard enough. It doesn’t matter what illness you may suffer from, or what school you went to, or where you grew up. True, that might mean that you might have to work harder, but in the process you will have earnt it so much more.

I would like to thank you all for your support, participation and kindness throughout the past twelve months. You all really help make it happen. I am always very interested to hear comments, feedback, ideas or the like. We live in a very uncertain and very unpredictable world, and it has never been more important for us to champion the understanding of the past, and in particular study and understanding of military history.

From my Girlfriend Sarah and I, a very happy Christmas to you all.

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British Army programmes on BBC iplayer

I’ve stumbled upon a fantastic collection of programmes on the British Army on bbciplayer, some modern, and some archive. Apparently, unbeknown to me, BBC4 have launched an ‘Army Collection‘, many of which are available to view online. Only, I’m afraid to say, to those of you watching in the UK. But to those of us sitting up in bed suffering from a hideous case of man-flu, its a goldmine!

One series I know will be very popular is The Paras, a famous 1982 documentary. There is also a set of 30-minute regimental histories, covering amongst other the Grenadiers and Coldstreamers, the Paras and the Gurkhas. Some of it is a little basic, and as usual with anything Regimental in the British Army, everyone’s own Regiment is of course the best ever bar none. But when you watch the ‘In the Highest Tradition’ programmes, you realise that all Regiments have their own, equally barmy, traditions and claims to fame. I also realise I could never have made an officer – silver service is not my style, give me take-away any time.

The BBC have also made available a great set of programmes from the Silver Jubilee in 1977, including the Scots Guards Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards. My personal favourite is the Queen reviewing the 4th Division of the British Army of the Rhine on the Sennelager training area in Germany. It involved 578 tracked vehicles, over 3,000 troops, and 27 Regiments. Incredible stuff, and something we will probably never see the like of ever again – it would be unthinkable to bring together a division for just a review! 3 Regiments of Chieftan  Main Battle tanks, 1 Recce Regiment, and 4 armoured infantry Battalions in 432 AFV’s, as well as supporting arms, including Gazelle and Scout Helicopters. Abbott 105mm guns, M109 155mm guns, 175mm guns, Lance nuclear missiles, Engineer AFVs including bridge laying equipment, RAMC Field Ambulances, REME in Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Stalwarts, you name it.

Other treats include ‘how to make a Royal Marine officer’, the life of a Household Cavalry Corporal of Horse, the Pathfinder Platoon in training, training in the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, Panorama behind the scenes at Sandhurst, and the Army in Belize and Borneo.

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Busy time in naval news circles

British crewmen lift a Royal Air Force British...

Harriers on Illustrious - maybe not a thing of the past

It’s been a very busy few days in naval news circles.

Firstly, the BBC reported that the bill for the CVF/QE class Aircraft Carrier project has rised by another billion pounds to nearly £7bn. And according to the reports, it still seems uncertain exactly whether one or two – or any – of the aircraft carriers will be fitted to operate jet aircraft. BBC Business Editor Robert Peston offers an explanation here. My take? Costs rises in big projects are always described as ‘just one of those things’, but when its the public purse thats carrying the can, is that good enough?

Secondly, last Thursday the Portsmouth News carried an exclusive report from un-named senior naval sources that HMS Illustrious is being equipped to operate Harriers. Is it possible that the crisis in Libya, and the RAF’s unconfirmed plea for an Aircraft Carrier have forced a very tacit u-turn from the Coalition Government?Originally Illustrious was going in for a ‘regular’ refit as a strike carrier. Then we were told that she was being fitted out as a Helicopter Carrier to fill in for HMS Ocean while she is in refit, and now the possibility of her being a strike carrier again is floated out. As we discussed here recently, it does not take much to turn a helicopter carrier into a harrier carrier – higher grade paint, plus of course spares and armaments. And crucially Illustrious still has her ski ramp. The Harriers themselves have not been scrapped, and are in storage at RAF Cottesmore. Apparently it would take around two months for them to be regenerated a fit state for operations. It seems like a sensible step to me, but of course a sensible step would have been to keep Ark Royal in the first place.

Finally, the recent issue of Warship: International Fleet Review is good value as usual. A healthy dose of deserved spite directed at the Coalition Government and the Strategic Defence Review, and plenty of sound editorial on how events in Libya and the Arab world have undermined the Defence Review only a matter of weeks after it was published. For me, the big question is, if the current Government can get its Defence Policy so wrong, do we trust them to ever get it right at all? How did the Government allow themselves to be hoodwinked so badly by the RAF? If only some of our politicians had a grasp of history – they would have known that the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to suit their arguments, and apparently won the air war in the Falklands singlehandedly.

Also in Warship IFR, there are some interesting opinions – believable, in my view – that the Defence Review was soft on the RAF thanks to underhand lobbying and bad advice from light blue quarters, and also as a sop to the then Chief of Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who was asked to step down as soon as the review was completed. Having read a lot of the thinking from the current CDS, General Sir David Richards, I doubt very much whether he would have wanted the RAF to remain as it has, with most of its expensive toys retained. How did anyone think it was a good idea to have a Defence Review steered by a senior officer who then left, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces?

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The Sinking of the Laconia – Links, previews and interviews

In readiness for the Docu-dramaThe Sinking of the Laconia, due to hit our screens later this week, here are a few interesting links I have found about the programme, the ship and the incident.

BBC webpage
Wikipedia entry
Internet Movie Database
Guardian interview with writer Alan Bleasdale
Suite101 page
BBC press pack with interviews and more
Interviews with the main characters
Werner Hartenstein (U-Boat Captain)
U-Boat.net page

Hopefully on Tuesday or Wednesday I will give you some insight into my personal connection with the Laconia, by sharing my Great-Uncle Tommy’s story.

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Filed under merchant navy, Navy, On TV, Uncategorized, World War Two