When I was at school, the only way that most teachers would get teenage pupils interested in World War One was by showing episodes of Blackadder Goes Forth. So knowing that the teenage demographic is the hardest to reach, the BBC have tried something different during their coverage of The Great War.
Using the techniques that made the BAFTA-winning Our War so engaging, BBC Three have conjured up a trio of episodes that they hope will make more children interested in learning about the conflict.
The first episode of Our World War takes us to the first major battle of the war, namely the Battle of Mons. This conflict saw 80,000 of Britain’s best soldiers being deployed to Southern Belgium after receiving intelligence that that’s where the Germans were heading. The English army’s hopes were to fend off the German army in Belgium before they were able to invade France but, as the programme shows, they weren’t successful.
This particular episode focuses on the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, who were tasked with guarding the Nimy Bridge in Mons but were unaware just how close the Germans were to them. The makers of Our World War have specifically focused on real-life soldiers who were the same age as most of the target audience. One of the soldiers is Sid Godley, a member of the Royal Fusiliers who is initially presented as being quite ignorant…
This is evident when his troop happen upon a family of Belgian refugees, and Sid makes a remark about rats leaving a sinking ship. Sid’s comments and unprofessional behaviour seemingly irked his superior officers, but at the same time, it’s clear that they are fiercely protective of him.
Another young member of the group is Billy Hollbrook, a more level-headed member of the group whose job it is to relay messages from one troop of soldiers to another. Meanwhile, the commanding officers, Fred Steele and Maurice Deece, are presented as professional soldiers who don’t believe that the conflict will be as serious as it eventually becomes.
What I liked about Our World War was the way in which it spent time establishing the feelings of the characters before the Battle of Mons actually began. We see the soldiers early on laughing and joking with one another and enjoying the food offered to them by the locals, and even the sceptical Sid eventually came round to the idea of eating a croissant, although the texture of the pastry did seem particularly alien to him.
The drama is also incredibly well-paced and the tension rises over time, with the soldiers snapping at one another before the enemy eventually arrives. Our World War spent the second half of its running time focusing on the battle itself, as one by one, the men start to lose their lives. Dease’s death is a particularly emotional moment as Steele stands over his friend’s body and tells him that he did all that he could. Even Godley goes from trouble-maker to hero as he agrees to fend the Germans off whilst Steele withdraws the rest of his troops.
The way the Battle of Mons itself is depicted is incredibly realistic as the soldiers eventually realise that they are outnumbered and that they have little time to prepare for what the Germans have in store for them. As we learn in the final moments of the episode, The Battle of Mons saw Britain lose most of its professional soldiers, but it fought on regardless.
Although I can’t say I was personally engaged throughout Our World War, I felt it was an incredibly admirable effort to do something different with a dramatisation of the conflict. The use of quick-editing, intense cinematography and the interactive maps that are associated with Our War made the piece feel quite exciting. Even the colours used in the episode made it feel more realistic, and it had the feeling of both a war movie and a documentary at the same time.
Another great technique was the use of contemporary music, with both PJ Harvey’s ‘Big Exit’ and Cat Power’s ‘Red Apples’ being used during some of the episode’s most prominent sequences. The utilisation of real-life footage during the film’s closing moments also helps add some context to the drama, and again makes what we’ve seen feel real. The interspersing of newsreel footage with the closing moments of tonight’s episode really made me think about the sacrifices made by these men. I was glad to learn that both Godley and Hollbrook survived the war, and the use of a radio interview with the latter was a brilliant way to end the programme.
Our World War was also bolstered by some fine performances from a great ensemble cast, and praise must go to Silk’s Theo Barklem-Biggs for his well-rounded portrayal of Sid Godley,a young man who goes from being an annoying oaf to one of the group’s biggest heroes. Godley is the character that the young audience is asked to identify with, and I felt that Barklem-Biggs did a good job of portraying his transformation. I also enjoyed the performance from Jefferson Hall as Steele, who really came into his own during the episode’s closing moments as we saw his character make the decision to withdraw his troops.
Our World War is yet another demonstration of the way in which BBC Three can adapt an issue for its key audience, and I felt that the programme was actually one of the BBC’s best World War One offerings so far this year, primarily due to its use of innovative techniques and modern music.
Visually, Our World War does it all it can to liven up a subject that plenty of teenagers would find dull. In addition, it presents identifiable characters who were the same age as the channel’s key demographic when they entered the war. Although Our World War didn’t engage me thoroughly, I greatly admire the way in which it dealt with the subject, and for that reason, I’m definitely going to keep watching the series.
Our World War is also a programme I can see a lot of history teachers showing their classes in years to come as it finally provides an alternative to those classic Blackadder episodes.
What did you think to Our World War? Did you find it a suitable alternative to the rest of the BBC’s World War One coverage?
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