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Half a century of the World at War

It was then the most expensive documentary ever made and, many think, the greatest

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Earlier this year, Jeff Harvey bumped into an old friend, a man in late middle age. Knowing that Harvey had worked on The World at War, his acquaintance began telling the retired editor what the series meant to him. “He started talking about Oradour,” Harvey says, referencing the massacre that graphically introduces the programme’s first episode. Paraphrasing Laurence Olivier’s sonorous narration, Harvey’s friend continued, “Down this road, the soldiers came.” By the time they had gone, that summer’s day in 1944, over 600 French civilians were dead, burnt and shot by the Waffen-SS. But to Harvey’s friend, it was like the war had never ended. “He went to pieces,” Harvey recalls. “It was quite extraordinary — it was like he was there, and this is a 50-, 60-year-old guy.” 

Listen to World at War alumni, and you’ll hear these stories again and again, of how this programme from another age can still affect and inform and inspire. But it didn’t just appear overnight. First aired 50 years ago, for just over six months from 31 October 1973, this epic documentary series on the Second World War was built on dedication and sweat, its young team of writers, directors, researchers and editors all sacrificing years of their lives to change filmmaking forever. And if it continues to affect viewers today, The World at War boasts a deeper legacy, forever shifting our perceptions of the conflict, even as it gives chintz-dappled glimpses of the vanished 1970s.

The journey to The World at War arguably began in 1964. That year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the BBC broadcast The Great War. The programme was a success: Michael Redgrave was a dignified narrator, while interviews with rank-and-file veterans offset an earlier tendency to focus on statesmen and generals. But as James Chapman says, The Great War was far less convincing from a technical perspective. “The Germans all appear to be left-handed,” is how the University of Leicester professor puts it. With the BBC manipulating archival footage to make it seem like each army always attacked from their allotted direction, the viewer’s screen acted as a sort of ersatz No Man’s Land. 

The Imperial War Museum, which provided much of the footage for The Great War, was unimpressed by such tricks. The filmmakers had “less integrity than I expected”, sniffed Noble Frankland, the museum’s then director, a fact that left him reluctant to partner with the BBC again. 

Crucially, however, Frankland had no problems with Thames Television. An ITV franchise holder, the company had by the late 1960s already collaborated with Frankland for a show on Lord Mountbatten. And if that warm relationship ultimately led Frankland to become the historical advisor for The World at War — and for the Imperial War Museum to offer mountains of archive material — it helped that the BBC’s commercial rival would shortly receive an influx of cash. Thanks to a drastic change to advertising levies, announced by Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1971, ITV secured what was commonly characterised, both then and now, as a licence to print money. 

With coffers full — and perhaps determined not to repeat the mistakes of The Great War — Thames Television’s director of features rushed to commission a series on the twentieth century’s other international cataclysm: the Second World War. Over a frantic 48 hours, Sir Jeremy Isaacs did just that, spurring a process that would finally see The World at War balloon to 26 episodes, exploring everything from the Blitz to the Bomb, and with a budget, about £12 million in today’s money, that then made it the most expensive documentary ever produced.

Not that largesse was always evident at the time. Due to a lack of space in London, the 50-strong production staff was instead shipped out to Teddington Studios, specifically to a collection of ramshackle prefab huts. “These were old, wartime, flimsy structures that flooded and had thin walls,” remembers Raye Farr, one of the primary archival film researchers on the series. At least, Farr continues, the dreary conditions engendered a kind of barrack-room comradeship, the surreal atmosphere only heightened by the juxtaposition of the earnest documentary with the game shows and comedies for which the studios were more famous. 

On one occasion, Liz Sutherland, the series production manager, recalls Eric Morecambe dropping by the canteen for a chat. On another, an actor dressed as a bishop asked a member of the team what they were working on. Upon hearing the topic, he earnestly enquired who was playing Hitler. 

This strange isolation was further compounded by the team’s intense schedule. Over the two years he spent on The World at War, Harvey says he often worked weekends. Farr says that her dreams in those days involved two sets of personalities: Göring, Himmler and Hitler — and The Beatles. 

You get the sense, moreover, that the relative inexperience of many recruits, zealous young freelancers in their 20s and 30s, pushed them to soar in the first big tests of their careers. “I think he’s crazy!” is how Martin Smith, originally an editor, describes Isaacs’s suggestion that he produce an episode himself. “We’re on the most expensive documentary series being made in the world, and he’s inviting a greenhorn really!”

Smith ultimately took up his boss’s offer, producing and directing the “Red Star” episode on the Soviet Union, and “Nemesis” on the collapse of the Third Reich, a decision he calls the best of his professional life. Nor was Smith alone in benefitting from such flexible leadership. Isaacs, knighted in 1996, had a robust vision of what The World at War should be: one faithful to the source material while preserving the bottom-up ethos of The Great War. But he was happy to give his team space to develop their own styles. “You were left to do your own thing,” says David Elstein, who himself produced, directed and wrote episodes while still in his twenties. 

This is apparent even now. Peter Batty, for example, was obviously most interested in the thrust of war, filling his episodes with the rumble of tanks and the howling of Stukas. Smith took a gentler approach in “Red Star” — evoking Soviet perseverance through poetry. “Will there be a rendezvous? I know not. I only know we still must fight,” Olivier intones, quoting a Russian work of 1942. “‘We are sand grains in infinity, never to meet, nevermore see light.”

Towards the end of episode 18, examining Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands, the camera fixes on a pensive man in a suit. He was in the Dutch resistance, and describes the day he was ordered to kill a pair of collaborators, a couple. After bringing them to a cellar to die, however, the fighter realised that the woman was pregnant. Not wishing to execute an innocent child, the partisans let their captives go — but not, apparently, forever. In perfect English, the Dutchman freely admits that he merely waited until the war was over, and “people could do with them what was necessary”. 

There are many moments like this in The World at War, where men and women relive the war with amazing clarity. In the “Inside the Reich” episode, for example, a woman admits that after curbing the stay of some Jewish fugitives, they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz. “And why I say this is the most painful and terrible story for me to have to tell,” she concedes, “is because after they left, I realised Hitler had turned me into a murderer.” 

If the vengeful impulses of a Dutch partisan are at least explicable, interviews with senior Nazis drag the honesty to truly shocking depths. In one scene, Karl Wolff, an SS functionary and Heinrich Himmler’s adjutant, describes witnessing a mass shooting near Minsk. Himmler was so close to the killing, Wolff recalls, that the brains of one victim splattered on his coat. 

Many see such interviews, including with civilians, as vital to the whole project. As Elstein puts it: “Being hit by a Luftwaffe bomb? Any individual who has experienced that is going to tell you a story.” Yet if these stories act as floodlights to the cruelty and pathos of war, how did the filmmakers secure so many frank eyewitnesses? 

Intensely collaborative, staff eagerly conducted interviews on behalf of colleagues

In the first place, the answer has much to do with the production team’s diligence. Intensely collaborative, staff eagerly conducted interviews on behalf of colleagues, for instance when Elstein met both Curtis LeMay and Hollywood star and war hero James Stewart on a single trip to California. Other researchers proved tenacious under less pleasant conditions. Fluent in German, Susan McConachy spent months ingratiating herself with ex-Nazis, even cooking meals for Karl Wolff. McConachy’s blonde hair and blue eyes also made her popular: Wolff confided that she was the sort of woman the SS liked to breed from. 

If it involved fewer moral quandaries — Farr stresses that McConachy exercised “incredible restraint and judgement and discretion” in preserving her ethical framework around men like Wolff — securing Soviet interviewees was challenging, too. Smith says he lobbied Moscow with “masses” of telex messages, a campaign initially stymied by Cold War bickering. 

Eventually, though, he got a call from the Novosti press agency in London. “We would be willing to supply you with a crew,” Smith remembers them saying, adding that he could choose interviewees from a pre-arranged list. In the event, Smith says that no topic was off limits during the resulting trip to the Soviet Union, though Isaacs was unhappy that many Red Army veterans insisted on being interviewed wearing their medals. 

Besides these efforts, the timing of production may also have encouraged interviewees to speak out. “When the war they’re involved in is over, they tend to put it behind them,” suggests Taylor Downing, author of a book on The World at War and a distinguished filmmaker himself. “And then it’s usually when people are either in their mid-50s, or 60s, or thinking about retirement, that they start thinking back to their wartime experiences.” Undoubtedly, many of the most powerful interviews are with subjects in middle age, with everyone from Japanese bureaucrats to Hitler’s secretary more reflective than they ever could have been in 1945.

Testimonies were also heightened by the perfect overlay of archive footage that made The World at War so thrilling — for instance when British soldiers recount the mud and heat of Burma, dovetailed by perfect shots of endless jungle. Once again, none of this would have been possible without hard work. Farr and her colleagues scoured archives worldwide to find the right footage, ultimately sifting through 3.5 million feet of film. 

If that wasn’t exhausting enough, staff always had to be wary to not use clips misleadingly. Harvey says editors quickly learnt the difference between a Messerschmitt and a Heinkel, even when they were zipping across the screen at 200 miles an hour. Equal rigour was applied to sound effects, especially when representatives from the Imperial War Museum checked both video and audio for accuracy. 

Alongside footage and interviews, the third pillar was audio. By turns moving and indignant, Olivier remains an engaging guide to the action, though his eccentric pronunciations (“Staleen” for “Stalin”) can sometimes be distracting. Far more important, at any rate, is the programme’s score, composed by Carl Davis. In keeping with the series as a whole, Davis emphasised that he worked closely with other wings of the production team, only putting pen to paper after seeing rough cuts of different episodes. He was also careful to pin his music to the show’s anti-war mast. “We were not going to have a big, jingoistic, heroic march,” he described of his iconic opening theme. “It had to express a humanistic approach.” 

If the theme shadows Central European composers such as Smetana, appropriate given the war’s causes and victims, you can hear such soul-twisting music over and over. To strains of Chopin, “Warsaw Aftermath” captures Poland’s torment in a nosedive of piano keys. The French and Soviets receive comparable treatment, a care the composer extended to the Wehrmacht as well. “Off they march to whatever their duties were that day,” is how Davis characterised the piece, at once dogged and oppressive. “You’re not thinking, you’re just doing what you’re told to do — even if it’s something completely horrible.” 

In 2000, the BFI decided to rate the hundred best British television shows. The top of the chart was what you’d expect: Doctor Who, Fawlty Towers, Blue Peter. But coming in at number 19, the highest straight documentary to rank, was The World at War. To an extent, the achievement is unremarkable: by the time it finished airing in May 1974, the series had mostly united journalistic critics in praise. 

Typical are the comments of the Daily Telegraph, whose reviewer described the “magnificently well-made series” as one of the “most genuinely educative” programmes yet produced on the Second World War. 

If anything, meanwhile, the programme’s popular reputation has only solidified in the 23 years since that BFI poll. 

It helps that the show’s distinctive style has burrowed through the medium at large. Chapman sees echoes in People’s Century (1995) and The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997), even if not every successor proved quite as scrupulous with archival footage. Elsewhere, the programme’s afterlife is more explicit. Lady Gillian Isaacs highlights The Cold War, a 1998–9 show co-produced by her husband. 

“This series,” she explains, “uses the same format, and like The World at War, was made at the right moment, including the best archive footage, and balancing everyday experience with interviews of the leading players.” After becoming the first chief executive of Channel 4, Isaacs also commissioned The Struggles for Poland, a nine-part series on the country’s brutal twentieth century. For his part, Smith approached Isaacs with the original idea, and also hired Farr to work on the project. 

This influence is matched beyond the studio gates. Downing says the focus on the Eastern Front was “quite a punch” to an Anglophone audience raised on Dunkirk and D-Day, and one comfortable seeing the Soviets through an anti-communist lens. 

Just as important is how the Holocaust was pushed to the moral heart of the conflict

Just as important is how the Holocaust was pushed to the moral heart of the conflict. The “Genocide” episode was the first time many British viewers witnessed the full horror of the death camps. Even today, the panning shots of bloated corpses can be disturbing, as can interviews with ravaged survivors. 

It soon became impossible, at any rate, to condone the Daily Mirror’s plea, made shortly after the episode aired, that we “shudder our way back to fiction” and forget. Years later, meanwhile, Farr and Smith would both go on to become directors of the permanent exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, with Smith citing The World at War as key inspiration.

Despite its legacy, no one now claims The World at War is faultless. Beyond quibbles over things like the retro graphics, this is partly down to time and space. “The balance of programming lost peace in Europe,” Elstein says, suggesting that post-war wrangling in Greece or Ukraine proved too convoluted to tackle properly. The war in the Pacific is covered, but many insiders now regret the scant attention paid to China, parts of which had been at war with Japan since 1931. Other omissions can be blamed on the security services. When the series was made, Bletchley Park’s codebreaking was still secret. With this knowledge, episodes on North Africa and the Battle of the Atlantic would surely have been different. 

The filmmakers were as alive to these problems as they could be. Apart from patiently answering sackfuls of angry letters, with complaints ranging from sweeping (Dutch complicity with the Nazis) to specific (individual naval engagements), staff sought to remedy issues later. Indeed, Isaacs partly commissioned The Struggles for Poland to make up for earlier shortfalls. 

Anyway, these imperfections make The World at War even more valuable now. For if the series acts as a haunting relic of the war, it also provides insights into the mores of the 1970s. Contemporary politics muscles in: Chapman sees the Vietnam War as shaping the show’s dovish instincts. Omissions, notably around colonial troops, may be revealing too. “In some cases,” Chapman says, “these are things that we just know more about since the series was made.” 

Past these broad historiographical questions, however, The World at War feels most dated in the details. In one episode, a group of cockneys gather in an East End pub and reminisce about the Blitz. The accents, the suits, the wallpaper — it all speaks to a city, a country, that no longer exists. The same is true when you hear the cut-glass voice of Anthony Eden, or are ushered into the mustard-tinged parlours of ageing officers. “What England is this, that I lived through?” Elstein asks. “I mean, the difference in attitudes, behaviour is just so marked.” 

Such nostalgia is understandable. For many, The World at War was the pinnacle of their careers, unfurling vast professional opportunities and forging friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Since 1973, Liz Sutherland says that colleagues have met for anniversary celebrations every decade. But when we spoke, she hadn’t heard anything about an event this year. 

Susan McConachy died in 2006. Isobel Hinshelwood, instrumental in assembling those cockneys at the pub, died in 2002. Carl Davis died, soon after we spoke, in August of this year. Isaacs is alive but, at over 90, is too old to do interviews. “Sadly,” Sutherland admits, “quite a few people are no longer with us as time goes by.” Now in their seventies and eighties, other World at War alumni will inevitably follow, mirroring the wartime generation they so vividly evoked. Yet as they go, their work will remain, telling new audiences of the day the soldiers came. 

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