Great War Diaries: Turning diaries into compelling drama

Tuesday 5 August 2014, 14:50

Jan Peter Jan Peter Director and Screenwriter

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I first got involved in Great War Diaries four years ago, as both director and screenwriter.

Great War Diaries is a three-part factual drama about how ordinary people from all over Europe and the USA lived through the war, based on their personal diaries and letters.

I loved the idea of showing history as a kind of chaos or confusion; the way we all live history every day, without knowing the why, how or even the outcome of events.

It is in the real diaries and letters of ordinary people, those who lived through the Great War, that you can see this so clearly.

There are, of course, a great many diaries to choose from.

But it soon became obvious that those written by leading politicians and generals were of little use.

They were usually written with an eye to the future, for creating or preserving a legacy – where mistakes and doubts are almost never admitted to.

Instead, we chose to stick to the diaries of ordinary people, for example, a Russian girl, an Austrian peasant, an English volunteer munition factory worker.
During our research at the Imperial War Museum, we came across these handwritten pages, with tiny little drawings and some photographs in it.

Photo of Gabrielle West from her diary Gabrielle West while working at Standish Red Cross convalescence hospital, Gloucestershire

At the beginning it feels like a dreamy girl's diary, even though this well-bred girl from the south of England was 22 years old when she decided to volunteer as a worker in a munitions factory.

She had never worked before in her life, and you can feel the impact on her of the actual working and living conditions.

Gabrielle West diary pages A visit to the factory: ‘Powder in the air makes you splutter & gives you a horrid bitter taste’

But even though she seemed to be on the brink of collapse several times, she kept going, trying to do her bit - working, not in the shell assembly, but first in the kitchen and later as one of the first female police officers in Britain.

Her illustrations and cute little drawings were soon abandoned, but at the very end of this diary there is a small note about her sending the diary to the IWM, written in 1977, by 'GMW'.

Note: 1977, Standish House is still a large hospital, I hear. GMW. Perhaps the head would be amused by this if it is not wanted by your department. Miss G West, Selsey Vicarage, Stroud, Glos, England Gabrielle was 87 when she donated her journal

So almost 60 years after the Great War, this then elderly women was still "Miss West".

She survived both wars, and never married. I always tried to imagine her life - a very impressive women.

Naomi Sheldon as one of the first British policewomen, Gabrielle-West Gabrielle West is played by Naomi Sheldon, whose previous TV credits include The Hour and Doctors

From the beginning, I thought and believed that for a German to make a new series about the Great War could be only done in an honest, multi-perspective way.

This was a truly multi-national project, with every major nation that participated in the war involved.

Everyone had to be enabled to share his or her perspective, even though today we may feel it wrong, or out of place.

And for true authenticity, all of our characters had to speak their own language - which meant a film with seven different languages and an awful lot of subtitles.

To realise this goal was a hard fight with broadcasters and editors all over the world, but in the end, everyone agreed.

So we have now a series with maybe the most different languages spoken ever produced.

In the dialogue we can hear English as well as Italian, French, Austrian, German and Russian.

Shooting with all the actors from different countries was quite a job.

In the morning my director of photography, Jürgen Rehberg and I were filming in a Russian village, while in the afternoon we jumped to an English club, and all the distinction it brings with it.

Jan Peter with DOP Jurgen Rehberg on location in Canada Jan Peter with director of photography Jürgen Rehberg, on location in Canada

To keep all the different languages and temperaments in my mind was both challenging as well as mesmerising.

On some days I actually forgot which language was to be spoken on set and had to ask an assistant whether we were in Italy or France at that moment.

In the course of this huge project I have become increasingly aware of how important and precious handwritten testimonies of a time long past could can be – and how good it is not only to have journals from the great and the powerful, but from ordinary people.

Everyone can become a witness; I have started writing my diary again.

Jan Peter is the director and screenwriter of Great War Diaries.

Great War Diaries continues on Saturday, 9 August at 6pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programmes times please see the episode guide.

More on Great War Diaries:
Wikipedia: 14 - Diaries of the Great War
The Telegraph: Great War Diaries: A Global Remembrance

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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    Comment number 1.

    Having just watched the first two episodes of Great War Diaries (Episode one on the iPlayer, I have to say that it is by some margin simply the best of the frankly overly protracted crop of programmes with which the BBC has seen fit to bombard us in recognition of the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Particularly commendable is the decision to give at least as much weight to fronts other than the Western one. While I would not want to play down the significance of the latter, it is worth pointing out that it seems all but forgotten that at least as many people if not more (exact figures will never be known) died on an Eastern Front that was no less active or barbaric than its western counterpart and in its consequences, namely the revolutions of 1917 and what followed, played at least as significant a part in the history of the rest of the 20th Century, not least in the conduct of the even greater conflict of 1939-45, right up to our own day. Even less recognized is the part played by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the eventual formation the modern Middle East.

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    Comment number 2.

    I have found everything I've watched in the BBC's commemorative programming to be of fine quality and quite compelling viewing. The Great War Diaries is, I think, the very best so far. I've been spellbound by the first two parts; the acting is excellent, the stories fascinating and very moving. The story of Karl Kasser, the Austrian prisoner deported to Siberia brought me to tears this week, it was so well done. And I love the subtle and intelligent way in which film footage of the time has been woven into the stories.

    I sometimes fine that so much emphasis is placed on the fighting on the Western Front when the Great War is discussed or portrayed on TV that we tend to lose sight of the involvement of the countries of Eastern Europe. To hear from ordinary people East of Germany who were swept up into the conflict has made The Great War Diaries especially interesting to me. My sole regret is that there is only one further episode to go. Absolutely outstanding television, and congratulations to all involved. Bravo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I found the last episode enthralling even though I was starting to think "I can't listen to this before I go to sleep or I'll have nightmares" I continued watching. The nurse Sara was especially interesting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I've watched the first 2 episodes and am gripped by the drama. This is probably the most realistic drama to depict the horrors that my grandfather's generation went through. Everyone who has an interest in this period of history knows the details of what went on, and we view it now through a matter of fact lens, but we oftenfail to appreciate that it was a war fought by ordinary people just like ourselves. They had the same fears for their homes and families, and feared for their survival and that of their homelands, just like we would have done today. It was simply a stroke of genius to bring to life the letters and diaries written back to loved ones from the front, and it has made me see my grandfather's efforts in France in a different light.
    Looked at from 100 years in the future there is always an excuse to glorify the Great War, but we must never forget that all wars are fought by the younger generation, many of whom never saw their homeland again.
    The entire production is to be commended for including contributions from all sides and from all fronts, illustrating that this was, indeed, a global war.

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    Comment number 5.

    A brilliant three part drama. Curious to know why it has gone from eight episodes as outlined on Wikipedia to the three episodes shown on the BBC? I lost track of some of the stories of the diarists and found myself wanting to know more - any reason for three episode instead of eight? Other than that it was superb - great cast and even better when the dialogue is in the native language of the diarists.


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