Main content

Introducing the World War One Centenary on the BBC

Adrian Van Klaveren

Controller, World War One Centenary

 In his autobiography, John Reith, the BBC’s first Director General, wrote:  “In a sense, I had been looking forward to war for years”. As the First World War began, he was a 25 year old working for an engineering firm but also a member of the Territorial Army. He was immediately called up and sent to France as an officer. His palpable unease at using the phrase looking forward in the context of war is something we can share a hundred years later. And today we have now reached an important moment where I can begin to share details of my plans to mark the centenary of World War One on the BBC.

Earlier in the year I wrote about what we were trying to achieve. We have deliberately approached the centenary with an ambition to reach and engage as many people as we possibly can with programmes ranging from documentaries to drama, from live event coverage to music and for audiences ranging from children in the UK to the audiences for our international services around the world. We will commemorate those who died, recognising both achievements and suffering. But we have also set ourselves the challenge of increasing understanding of a war which is undoubtedly complex in its causes, its course and its consequences.

In total we already have well over 130 newly commissioned programmes – added to which will be many more hundreds of hours of coverage in our normal daily output and programmes from the archive.

Of course, we will be part of the national moments of memorial, focused particularly around the events on 4 August in Glasgow, Belgium and London. Those moments will be central to the nation’s remembrance of the events of the war and its huge death toll. The BBC News and Events teams will be at the heart of those occasion and the other anniversary events which follow ensuring that everyone at home can feel connected and part of such a significant commemoration of our collective history.

Television is offering a rich mix based around documentaries and drama. Starting in January Britain’s Great War presented by Jeremy Paxman will tell the story of the war’s impact on Britain.  David Reynolds’ series The Long Shadow will explore the war’s aftermath while the arguments about the war’s causes, justification and impact will be explored from differing points of view in programmes presented by Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson.

There will be major TV drama too with The Ark on BBC One taking viewers into the lives of the medics and their patients at a fictional field hospital behind the trenches, while BBC Two’s 37 Days explores the politics behind the build-up to war. Tony Jordan is writing The Passing-Bells for BBC One which will tell the story of two individual soldiers, one British and one German. 

BBC Radio’s approach to the centenary roots the output in reliving and reassessing the events of 100 years ago.  Margaret MacMillan’s definitive 42-part day-by-day series recounts the events that triggered Britain’s entry into the war whilst Christopher Clark will be exploring the war’s causes. Radio 4 will be airing two hugely ambitious dramas: Homefront – running for half the year, five days a week, for four years in 15-minute instalments, telling stories of what life in Britain was like during the war; and Tommies – a series of plays across the four years telling the story of the war itself.

On both radio and television the impact of the war on the arts will feature prominently. There will be programming about poetry, paintings and music including a reimagining of the ballads of the time by contemporary folk musicians for BBC Radio 2. The Cultural Front on Radio 4 will look at how the war changed the worlds of literature, music, drama and the visual arts. Radio 3 will mark the centenary both in the Proms and through a series of special programmes looking at the war’s impact on music and culture.

But we know that as well as shaping the world in which we live, the war changed so much for so many individuals and that it has so many powerful personal connections for us all as individuals. Even though there are no survivors who fought in the war itself, so many families and communities were touched by the conflict and have a story to tell. My own grandfather fought in the Battle of the Somme, where he was seriously injured.

We are unearthing unique family and community stories as part of our World War One At Home project across the UK, with the radio, television and online content supported by outside broadcasts and live events. I hope that during the course of our four-year season, we will help others discover their own personal connections with The Great War and tell those stories across the BBC’s local and national outlets. We will have built a collection of over 1400 original stories, all rooted in individual places, which will be a significant legacy for future generations looking to find out more about the war.

This was of course the first truly global war. It redrew the international map in a way which makes it impossible to fully understand recent history in the Balkans or what’s happening now in the Middle East without understanding the consequences of the Great War. It was a war fought by people from every part of the world which shaped the world in which we now live and this will be reflected across many of our programmes.

Internationally BBC World Service and BBC World News will reflect the very different ways in which the war is remembered and commemorated around the world and will be both staging special debates and delving into individual stories.

Something we have thought hard about is how we reach younger audiences. In trying to reach many different audiences, we are commissioning programming that will connect young people with the war beyond what they perhaps studied at school. BBC Three is undertaking a series called Our World War, done in the style of the Our War series in Afghanistan but clearly in a very different way for events 100 years ago. And the BBC Children’s teams are creating drama, documentaries and even a special Horrible Histories to encourage our youngest viewers to understand the war and the role children played. BBC Learning is playing an important role in ensuring the programmes we are making become a resource to inspire and encourage learning in the years ahead.

Online will be the home of all BBC material. It will be the place to find out more about our programmes including catching up with what you might have missed or seeing what’s in store. But it’s also the place where we’ll be offering innovative interactive content and background to different aspects of the war, rich in video and audio and steadily expanding in range over the course of the four years.

As the nation’s broadcaster, the BBC is uniquely placed to reach people of all ages and from all parts of the country, helping to broaden understanding about what the conflict actually meant both on a global scale and the many individual stories within it. Working with our partners, above all the Imperial War Museum and the members of the centenary partnership,, we want to use the next four years to frame how World War One is understood and remembered for generations to come. I hope that viewers and listeners across the country will join us as we set out to the Western Front and beyond to uncover the real stories behind World War One and help people find their own connections with the defining conflict of the 20th century.


Adrian Van Klaveren is Controller, World War One Centenary.



More Posts


BBC executives speech round-up