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Making the series

by Julian Birkett, Series Producer

What was it like to live in Britain during the First World War? How did it change the country - dramatically, and permanently? Those are the questions that lie behind Britain’s Great War, the four part series presented by Jeremy Paxman that will kick off the season of BBC programmes about the First World War. The answers surprised all of us.

We think we know what the First World War was about: mud and death, young men needlessly slaughtered by blinkered generals, an entire generation sacrificed. That is only part of the picture, and not all of it true. There were huge changes in Britain too: despite the shock and misery of a modern industrial war - which for the first time pitted the resources and resolve of entire populations against each other - at the end of it, standards of health, nutrition, political representation and sexual equality had risen as the state took a far greater responsibility for its citizens than had ever before been imagined.

How to tell the complex, unknown story of the British at war was the challenge. We had to find surprising and moving stories of individuals or incidents. These were some that intrigued us: the Pals’ Battalion that formed around the Hearts of Midlothian football team; how the Oriental fantasy that is Brighton pavilion became a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers; how when the flood of volunteers became a trickle, and conscription was introduced, over a million men appealed against going to war in tribunals held in every town in the country; the German U-boat abandoned in the Medway, only visible at low tideone of hundreds that tried to starve Britain into submission in 1917; the story of Marie Corelli, the celebrated romantic novelist who overnight became a national hate figure when she was discovered hoarding food; the bitterness of striking Glasgow shipbuilders who felt it was not their war but the bosses’; the sensational trial of Noel Pemberton Billing, the maverick MP who claimed to have evidence of a conspiracy of highly placed sexual deviants, members of the British establishment being blackmailed by the German secret service, whose activities explained Britain’s failure to win the war.

Social class is a theme that runs through the series, exemplified by the tale of two men who experienced the war in different ways: Tommy Agar Robartes, a Cornish aristocrat who would not be held back from volunteering, like so many of his class who suffered disproportionate losses at the front; and the working class writer Robert Roberts, whose father owned a corner shop in Salford. He called his account of the Great War The Great Release, as he saw men come back from the fighting stronger and better fed than when they left, and women who worked in wartime factories with money in their pockets for the first time in their lives.

Britain’s Great War does not play down the grief and suffering of a terrible conflict. Rather it chooses to tell a different, unfamiliar story: the story of how the First World War affected the people of Britain, and dragged the country into the modern age.