The Crimson Field

New drama for BBC One

Interview with writer and creator Sarah Phelps

Category: BBC One; Drama
Writer and creator Sarah Phelps talks about why she wrote The Crimson Field.

How did The Crimson Field come about?

All of this came about because we were filming Great Expectations which I’d adapted, and Anne Pivcevic (executive producer) and Sarah Barton said ‘we want to talk to you about a book’ - and I said ‘great.’ And the book was The Roses Of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald, which is a history of nursing during the First World War, and this was the starting point for a lot of other research and reading, which became the foundation, the idea of nurses – military nurses and volunteer nurses – in the First World War.

And the untold stories of women who were in France or all over the theatre of conflict as it were, both at home and overseas, and just being able to tell different stories about the War from a woman’s perspective, and what it was actually like to nurse the men – the soldiers in the First World War.

How much research did you have to do into the First World War?

I have done so much research into the First World War. I have read so much about it. I am amazed at the stuff I never knew, I never thought I would know, especially about the medical, and the surgical, and the nursing aspects - besides all the battles and the experiences of the Tommy.

I’ve been reading academic studies of surgery and nursing, 1914 to 1918, diaries and excerpts from journals that had been handwritten then typed up by relatives years later who then submitted them to the Imperial War Museum. I’ve read from all sorts of different sources, and all sorts of different sorts of places to build up a picture of the War as it is in 1915, and the experiences of people in 1915.

From that research, were there any particular things that really resonated? Or took you by surprise?

There are some really excellent books, but also I found looking at contemporary photographs at the time, cameras were banned at the Front but people sneaked them through and took all sorts of pictures, and looking at the photographs, they tell an incredible story.

One of my favourite bits and the most resonant for me, there was a just really ad hoc journal that had been typed up, and it was memories of hospital. So obviously this had happened after people had been asked for their memories of one particularly happy hospital run by some really extraordinary people.

They were describing their own memories of the hospital at this time and there was one image that absolutely hit into my heart, which was the sound of a volunteer nurse, like our girls in the drama, whisking egg whites. The sound of her fork against the bowl in a darkened Ward, whisking egg whites to feed to a man who had most of his face blown away. They used to feed some patients what they call ‘egg flip’ which was just frothed egg whites which was perhaps all they could eat, or stomach or be able to swallow because they’d had these terrible injuries.

And this tiny little description of the sound of a young volunteer girl, come from a sheltered background in England, who was now standing in a tented ward somewhere in France, whisking egg whites with a fork, to feed to a man whose face had been blown off – the sound of her fork against the side of the bowl – that’s an image that went like a knife into my heart.

Do you incorporate that into The Crimson Field?

Yes. I’ve tried to put that scene, just that little moment, in its entirety into episode two, where there’s a boy that’s got a terrible head wound, he isn’t eating, he’s just dying slowly. There’s just a little moment with Kitty beating egg whites in a bowl because I just loved that so much, because there’s something about it which is incredibly evocative – the sound of that fork against the bowl, and then trying to feed a man who was dying in front of you from injuries that were just untreatable.

There’s an incredible array of characters in this drama, it’s such an ensemble piece. How do you go about creating so many complex characters?

I always wanted to write an ensemble piece for this, because I just really like the idea of writing ensemble pieces because then you can get the richness and complexity of people’s experiences.

One of the other reasons for wanting to write about the First World War is to show who people were before the War, and what they became after the War. And so, rather than wanting to narrow it down to an experience, say for one of the volunteers or for one of the military nurses, I wanted to try and tell a story of what our country was like. So having people with as many different life experiences, crash-landing into this hospital, and all having to live and work and rub along together, seemed to me to be much more truthful than trying to tell the story through one person’s eyes, which might narrow the experience.

I think that there’s a feeling that life in Britain before the First World War was a rather sun-dappled quiet and easy place to be. It’s always depicted as this beautiful long hot summer, this innocence, but it wasn’t. Edwardian Britain was a really schizophrenic place to be. Although 1900 had been and gone, the 20th Century hadn’t begun yet, In some of the Edwardian ladies' diaries that I read, there’s a feeling of boredom that’s almost depraved, as if everyone’s waiting for something to happen...  And then this War explodes.

I wanted to really give the impression, by having a lot of different characters, exactly what sort of country Britain was before the War, with a lot of movement and a lot of people high bound in tradition, and yet at the same time there was a lot going on politically, socially, sexually. It was a very strange place to be from what I’ve read.

Are the characters based on anyone you know?

The characters aren’t really based on anyone I know. I kind of made them up, but for example all the the women are named after significant women in my family, and some of them have experiences that are not dissimilar to women in my family.

For example one of the characters is in the process of getting divorced, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do, it was very rare and you were very scandalous if you were a divorced woman in this period. And my Great Grandmother divorced her rather terrible husband after the First World War in the 1920s and it was still a very very scandalous thing to do.

I wanted to partly tell that story of what it’s like to be a woman trying to get out of what was a very difficult marriage, and how that impacts on her, and why she ended up in that situation in the first place.

There are elements of family stories in the stories that I’m telling, but those are much more from the Second World War but I took the emotional truth of those stories and put them into this series.

There are many strong female characters in the drama. Was that something you wanted?

If you’re going to write a drama where you are writing about a War hospital, and about nurses - you are going to have female characters. I’ve seen a lot of War dramas, and I think one of the interesting things is you don’t really think about other people who were there and there were a hell of a lot of women. Both at home, on the Home Front and in France, in Belgium, in Germany – there were some women who were really very close to the Front in the Flying Ambulance Corps.

I haven’t really seen those stories before, and it was just an opportunity to tell them, and to show people that had come from quite privileged backgrounds or quite sheltered backgrounds, or who had very different sorts of lives - generally been being prepared for marriage and being prepared for motherhood - hurtled into this experience.

It’s an incredible cast that you’ve assembled. How much of an input did you have with casting?

I think with casting we got some brilliant people in. Generally you watched the auditions, and you know when that person has arrived. You know when that character is there, and there they are! They are absolutely complete, and it’s really exciting when you know that right actor has arrived and is doing it right in front of you. That’s a real thrill.

What do you hope viewers take away from the drama?

I hope viewers get a sense of the scale of the war, and that it comes from it from a slightly different perspective. Not at the Front, we are further back, but nonetheless this is where men were healed and put back together again, or not, and there’s a real sense of being at the cutting edge of life and death, and that this was utterly transformative.

It was transformative medically. Medicine leaps exponentially during the four years of the First World War.

It’s amazing really when you think about how little they had to work with, at the start of the War, that anybody survived at all, but they survived because of amazing women and amazing men putting themselves on the line all the time.

Perhaps we’re still living through how bad the damage was. I just hope what comes across – because certainly what came across to me in all my reading – you get terrible acts of brutality and terrible acts of cruelty, but what really really shines is the humanity.

The ability to be courageous, to be loving and to be compassionate, and even in terrible fear and terrible horror, the ability to show great acts of humanity, is what really made my heart sing when I was writing, and so I hope that the audience take it from that.

And that they love the characters as much as I do, and care about them as much as I do, because they are living through this, and falling in and out of love, making friends and discovering things about themselves, and discovering themselves too.

This is when the 20th Century begins. This is where our 20th Century was birthed, in this dark crucible of this war, and I think it’s watching these people being birthed with it, discovering who they are, and weirdly in all of this death finding life. That’s what I hope the audience take from it.