The carnage, horror, bravery and humanity of World War I has inspired such bigscreen fare as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Paths of Glory” and “Gallipoli” — and now, as the centenary of the outbreak of the “war to end all wars” approaches on July 28, the BBC is offering unprecedented smallscreen coverage in a way that only a well-funded pubcaster can.
From now until 2018, more than 100 specially commissioned programs will be made available on TV, radio and online — approximately 2,500 hours of content. In fact, in January, the blitz began with four-part documentary “Britian’s Great War.”
“We know that by many definitions, it is the most ambitious (undertaking) we have ever mounted,” explains Adrian Van Klaveren, the BBC executive in charge of the commemoration. And while that may sound like hype, for once, reality appears to match the hard sell.
Van Klaveren notes that the shows will be running for four years — nearly as long as the war lasted — with dramas, docs, arts and children’s programs (such as CBBC series “Horrible Histories”) slotted. It is not yet clear how much of this fare will air on the BBC’s overseas channels, but Van Klaveren says the dramas are the content most likely to travel, and expects interest from international buyers in “The Crimson Field,” set in an army hospital; and international co-productions like “The Great War Diary.”
Three-part miniseries “37 Days,” a reconstruction of the European political crisis that led to Britain declaring war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, has sold to BBC Entertainment Africa as well as to webs in Oz, Estonia, Iceland, Iran, Denmark, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey and Ukraine.
But will non-Europeans be interested in a conflict whose complex causes remain widely disputed 100 years later? There is yet no U.S. production partner: The war largely involved Europe; the U.S. didn’t enter it until 1917.
The world ought to be concerned, says Mark Hayhurst, who wrote “37 Days.” “The First World War redrew the map of Europe and parts of Asia, and thrust the United States onto the world stage in a leadership position.”
German pubcaster NDR is one of 25 partners on “Great War Diary,” budgeted at €5 million ($6.5 million) and developed in eight-hour and four-hour versions. The mini tells the story of the war through first-hand accounts using contemporary journals of soldiers and non-combatants on all sides of the conflict.
The project is produced by Looks Film & TV and Les Films D’Ici, and has made allies of the war’s original opponents: It was initiated by Franco-German pubcaster ARTE and German regional TV nets NDR, SWR and WDR. They were subsequently joined by the BBC, German public radio webs NTR/VPRO and ORF, Italy’s RAI Educational, Wales’ S4C and Ireland’s TG4, as well as other European entities.
Also selling well internationally is BBC Worldwide’s “Royal Cousins at War,” a doc examining the difficult relationships between the English, German and Russian royal families in the run-up to 1914. It’s been bought by broadcasters in Oz, across Eastern Europe, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Denmark and Sweden.
But does World War I — which, unlike the second World War, seems buried in the mists of history — deserve such a hefty slice of television?
Van Klaveren expresses no doubts. “This kind of centenary commemoration plays to all the BBC’s traditional strengths,” he says. “Major events and the stories that surround them have always been a big part of what people expect from (us), and what our audience values.”