Military Classics: Jeremy Isaacs’ The World at War (1973)

Military Times reviews the classic award-winning TV documentary series, about to be reissued in high-definition on Blu-Ray and DVD.

In May 1964, the BBC made television history by broadcasting the first in their new 26-part series The Great War. Comprising weekly episodes of 40 minutes each spread over six months, and with a distinctive mix of archive footage and eyewitness interviews, it was unlike anything previously attempted in either scale or form. Yet it was proclaimed a brilliant success.

What then of that other, more recent, even more terrible conflict? After The Great War, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted a television history of the Second World War. The BBC, unsurprisingly, was the first to envisage doing so, but they moved too slowly. The ITV network was under intense pressure from their regulators to spend money making good programmes. When Jeremy Isaacs, the Head of Features at Thames Television, made a firm proposal, pointing out that the BBC might gazump them if ITV did not move fast, he got the go-ahead within 24 hours.

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Work began in April 1971, and the first programme was broadcast on 31 October 1973, going out at peak time in a midweek slot across the entire ITV network. The impact was massive.

The first programme began – shockingly and unforgettably – with Oradur-sur-Glane. It was here, on Sunday 10 June 1944, that a company of Waffen-SS shot all the men of the village, herded the women and children into the church, and then set it on fire. All 642 inhabitants of the French village were murdered.

The camera pans over the ruins, preserved as a monument to the massacred, and the deep brown voice of Laurence Olivier explains what happened here. As he finishes, he says that these martyrdoms must stand representative for ‘thousands of other martyrdoms in a world at war’. Then, with a crash, the title sequence begins: the haunting theme tune, momentous yet somehow sombre at the same time, and the succession of faces, hollowed by suffering, staring accusingly out of a darkened screen, flames flickering behind them. And the audience now knew that a tragedy of massive proportions was about to unfold.

The first programme, written by Neal Ascherson, was about Nazi Germany. Immediately afterwards, in the second, the focus shifted to Britain, and the ‘phoney war’ was observed through British eyes. Then another shift, to France, and the blitzkrieg campaign of May-June 1940. By then, the audience was hooked – hooked by a brilliant combination of narrative, analysis, footage, and eyewitness testimony.

Central to The World at War was a rejection of a narrowly ‘military’ history. Chief historical advisor Noble Frankland had been asked to identify 15 key military events on which the story of the war turned. These, explains Series Producer Jeremy Isaacs, were ‘the rocks that took us on the journey’ – events like Operation Barbarossa, Pearl Harbour, and El Alamein.

But this was to be more than an account of titanic military struggles. It was also to be a political history and a people’s history.

Isaacs was at the forefront of TV documentary film-making. He had turned This Week into an innovative, single-subject, current affairs series in which ordinary people were often centre-stage. This ‘politics from below’ approach – as it might be called – had been made possible by changes in film-making technology. Heavy, static 35mm cameras had made formal interviews with politicians the more or less inescapable staple of current affairs TV. The introduction of light, hand-held, highly mobile 16mm cameras suddenly meant that TV could go into workplaces, onto estates, and into people’s living-rooms.

This informed Isaacs’ vision for The World at War. In the fourth programme, for example, the camera goes into an East End pub. A group of Cockneys, men and women, are sat round the table with their pints. And they describe the Blitz, the camera jumping from one to another, as if we have simply stumbled upon this group of locals reminiscing together. The recollections are vivid. ‘The Great War witnesses were that much older,’ explains Isaacs, ‘whereas ours were younger, more robust, better able to remember.’ For this reason, the fact that The World at War was made less than 30 years after the end of the war is one of its great strengths.

New film technology helped make a people’s history of the war possible. But the approach reflected contemporary concerns. Leading academic historians were adopting a consciously ‘history from below’ approach to the past. More widely, the cultural revolution of the Sixties, and the mass protests at the end of the decade, had created a far more democratic political atmosphere. The Vietnam War was approaching its climax: a living example of a people’s war, with its combination of peasant guerrillas and student radicals bringing the world’s greatest superpower to defeat. Isaacs’ approach in The World at War fitted the mood of the times.

The World at War has just been reissued in a new high-definition version to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Jeremy Isaacs, aware of a previous generation of viewers who watched the series as children or with their children, looks forward to it now being seen by a new generation. ‘It deals with a war of which we can be proud – which may not be true of more recent events – and my great wish is that it will stimulate those who see it now to read more history.

Three one-hour programmes cover what Antony Beevor covers in three mighty books – Stalingrad, Berlin, and D-Day. That shows how much more there is to learn. A further measure of The World at War’s success may be the millions of our fellow citizens jolted into reading more.’

Further information

The new high-definition version of The World at War has been distributed by FremantleMedia and is the result of two years’ hard work improving sound and picture quality. It incorporates a range of new features such as optional sub-titles for the hard-of-hearing. It will be available at all good DVD retailers from 20 September in both Blu-Ray (£99.99) and conventional DVD (£79.99) formats.