British Universities Film & Video Council

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The World at War – 40 years later

First screened on British television in October 1973, the documentary series The World at War proved to be a milestone in the history of ITV. Professor James Chapman explores its roots and its critical standing.

About the author: James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester. He is the author of nine books including The British at War: Cinema, State and Propaganda, 1939-1945 (I.B. Tauris, 1998), Past and Present: National Identity and the British Historical Film (I. B. Tauris, 2005), War and Film (Reaktion, 2008) and Projecting the Future: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema, co-authored with Nicholas J. Cull (IB Tauris, 2012). He is a Council member of IAMHIST and editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television.

The World at War is undoubtedly a landmark in the genre of historical documentary on television. Perhaps the most significant fact about the praise lavished upon the series – produced by Jeremy Isaacs for Thames Television and first broadcast on the ITV network in 1973-4 – is that the acclaim has come from both television critics and professional historians. A reviewer in the Daily Express, upon the occasion of its repeat on Channel 4 in the early 1980s, averred that ‘it will always rank as one of the finest achievements since the dawn of television’.(1) For the historian D. C. Watt it was ‘one of the great historical television series’. (2) Yet for all the plaudits and awards, the making of The World at War was not without its problems and the series attracted as much controversy as acclaim.

Production history
The unknown history of The World at War is that it was was made when it was, and how it was, due to a very particular set of institutional circumstances within the television industry. The series was not, as sometimes assumed, a sequel or follow-up to The Great War, broadcast to great acclaim by BBC2 in 1964. The Great War had made extensive use of ‘eye-witness’ testimony from surviving participants alongside archival film from the vaults of the Imperial War Museum. However, it had also drawn criticism for doctoring the archive materials, for example in reversing footage so that British troops were always seen attacking in the same direction, and for using reconstructed sequences without recognition that they were not the ‘real’ thing. Noble Frankland, the Director of the Imperial War Museum, was so disappointed with The Great War that he disowned it and refused to work with its producer, Tony Essex, again. (3)

Laurence Olivier recording the narration for The World at War (© 1973 Thames Television Ltd. Courtesy of FremantleMedia Enterprises)

Frankland’s experience with The Great War to some extent explains why The World at War came to be made by Thames rather than the BBC. Another reason was that the Budget of 1971 had unexpectedly reduced the amount of their advertising revenue that the independent television franchise holders had to turn over to the Independent Television Authority. This left contractors such as Thames with more money in their coffers than expected and looking for something to spend it on. Jeremy Isaacs, then Controller of the Features Department at Thames, suggested making ‘the history of the Second World War’. (4) The idea appealed to Thames because the ITV network had been under criticism for not doing enough to fulfil its public service remit. This point was noted at the time by television critic Peter Fiddick, who remarked that ‘Thames has proved to its network colleagues that a serious programme can sustain the demands of peak time’. (5)

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