Jeremy Paxman's War

It’s only January and I must confess that war memorial weariness is already in danger of overtaking me, so heaven knows what I’ll be like come August.  Nevertheless, I did have some positive anticipation for Jeremy Paxman’s new series on the outbreak of the war, telling it from the British perspective, and I wasn’t disappointed.  In an age where many television documentary presenters are often a little anaemic and underwhelming on the small screen, Paxman somehow bursts through the medium with which he is so familiar, bringing his melancholy mien and authoritative tones to burnish his own telling of the story with some elan. 

Paxman’s documentary was imbued with a strong narrative drive, and the rather worn outlines of this history were somehow brought clearly into focus once again.  Amongst the more familiar aspects, Paxman gave us less well known stories too – the visit by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, the bird-watcher of Fallodon, to the bird house at London Zoo two days before war was declared; the tears of Britain’s leaders; the early exploits of Boy Scouts on the south coast, given days off school after a night of watching for Germans; the tale of the first German spy, Karl Lody *; and the abominably self-serving, yet hugely successful, travelling recruitment show of Horatio Bottomley.  These were interspersed with some often excellently researched original footage and a carefully assembled picture of a Britain going to war which also challenged some received notions.  Foremost among these, perhaps, was the effort made by Paxman and his producers to show us that the war was not simply welcomed by a jingoistic public.  Its reception was far more nuanced, and the expectation of war was a bitter one for many even before it began.

Of course there are quibbles with the programme, not least the odd determination of producers and editors to intersperse archive footage and Paxman’s presentation with jarring modern images of express trains and 21st century city life.  I know it’s difficult to find a continuous stream of archive film, but the modern shots seem lazy and irrelevant.  But this is a small quibble in a programme that also gave us an interview with a 105 year old lady who remembered the bombing of Hartlepool, and the newly double barrelled Julian Kitchener-Fellowes on his distinguished ancestor, Lord Kitchener.

Jeremy Paxman has managed to set a high standard in this, 2014’s first substantive documentary on the outbreak of the modern world’s watershed conflict, although even as he described the reactions of the politicians to the oncoming storm in that distant summer, I couldn’t help find myself wondering how the Great Inquisitor might have interviewed them about their terrors and decisions.  With a little mercy, I hope.

* A brief history of the German spy Karl Lody is here at Rupert Colley's "History in an Hour' website.


Anonymous said…
Loved the series. Amazing photographs and archive footage beautifully put together.
Looking forward to see the rest.

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