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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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