After Pathos?

Until recently, you could take it for granted that any television drama centred on the First World War would be dripping with pathos. Think Birdsong, with its key image of Eddie Redmayne (The Old Etonian male model) gazing mournfully into the distance in ways that showed off his cheekbones. Think The Village, with its piling up of horror, grimness and suffering. Think the second series of Downton Abbey, with its indulgence of every weepy well-worn Great War cliché the writer could remember, from a poor devil shot at dawn to a cripple emotively discovering the use of his legs.
This month, there’s a change in the air. Three very different programmes have tackled the War, without recourse to any kind of Sir-Andrew-Motion-and-water weepiness.
The Wipers Times showed us hard-working soldiers combating the strain of warfare with humour. It even gave us what may be a TV first, a portrayal of a senior officer who cared for and understood his men.
Another BBC programme, the serial Peaky Blinders, which I’m rather enjoying, shows us post-war Birmingham. The ex-soldiers portrayed here are not victims but utter bastards, who have internalised the violent lessons of war, and have brought them home. The whole thing is presented with melodramatic intensity and a crashingly modern soundtrack.
Then there’s Chickens, a sitcom series about non-combatants during the War. It’s not very good, and I’ve only managed to force myself to watch one-and-a-half episodes, but at least it doesn’t try to wring the emotional withers of the audience.
My guess would be that the centenary has got writers thinking creatively. There’s going to be a demand for WW1 material, but dear old Harry Patch is dead and there’s only so much fun to be found in futility. So they’ve looked for other aspects of the subject. Let’s hope it continues. Some treatments will be more fruitful than others, but that’s the way it goes.



  1. David
    Posted December 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    One of the 1970’s TV drama series that used characters with a background of the Great War, and was a little more varied from the usual pathos, was “When the boat comes in” BBC1 1976.

    The main character, Jack Ford played by the excellent actor James Bolam, was a demobbed army NCO who was intelligent and determined to use his knowledge and experiences from army life to ensure that he did not return to the skilled manual work that he had done before the war.

    In an early episode Jack Ford speaks of his pride in being part of the army that beat the german army in 1918 on the battlefield. I am sure that many ex-service personnel of the time would have felt the same.

    This pride contradicted my understanding at the time that the Great War was a shameful episode and that the british were on the winning side merely because the germans fell away before them as german morale collapsed. My view was perhaps the obverse of the german view that their armies were undefeated on the battlefield but lost because they were “stabbed in the back” by factions of society in Germany.

    It is one of the strengths of drama to jolt us out of our pre-conceptions and make us think again. I think that this was one of the things that made me re-think my attitudes to the Great War. I now have a different understanding of the scale of the allied victory on the western front from August 1918 onwards, having read the work of historians other than Liddel-Hart.

  2. Posted December 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. That’s a very good point. I’ve mostly considered the controversial seventies programmes, of the Ken Loach school, so I’m very interested in this counter-example.

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