A generation lost

The 5th battalion of the Norfolk regiment was wiped out at Gallipolli. A new BBC drama returns to 1915.
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The Independent Culture
King George V's special envoy, the Reverend Charles Pierrepoint Edwards, surveys the battlefield after the slaughter at Gallipolli during the First World War. "Lunacy, the whole campaign," he sighs. "Thousands upon thousands killed or wounded - and for nothing."

The actor Ian McDiarmid, who plays Edwards in All the King's Men, a moving new BBC1 film about the loss of the Sandringham Company at Gallipolli in 1915, agrees with this assessment of the conflict. He reckons that the story about the notorious battlefield disappearance of the 5th battalion of the Norfolk Regiment is "an English tragedy, a microcosm of the whole ghastly mess".

Before they get wiped out at Gallipolli, the regimental commander in the film sums up the fatal arrogance of the British when he tells his troops that their Turkish foes "are essentially barbarians and no match for a disciplined force of well-equipped soldiers".

"There is an amazing sense of waste about it," McDiarmid continues. "At the beginning of a war, there is this tremendous feeling that men are being men and realising a side of themselves they can never realise in peacetime. The idea is that they'll be doing something worthwhile, and protecting what they have left behind. But once they start fighting, they realise that that isn't the case. They just can't believe the sheer horror caused by their commanders' incompetence. This film is full of people doing what they believe is for the best and then finding out it has disastrous consequences.

"Everyone has a relative who was involved in the First World War, so it's still highly personal," adds McDiarmid, a man of phenomenal energy who fitted in filming All the King's Men alongside "the day job" of running the Almeida Theatre in London, where he has produced shows like The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey, and Naked with Juliette Binoche. He is also currently receiving rave notices there in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.

Moreover, he has recently - somehow - found time to appear as Chancellor Palpatine in George Lucas's Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace; to deliver a memorably sinister Jaggers in the BBC's acclaimed version of Great Expectations; and to star opposite Johnny Depp in the latest Tim Burton movie, Sleepy Hollow.

In investigating what became of the Norfolk soldiers, the character of Edwards invests All the King's Men with a welcome complexity. "It's so easy to be trite in the war-film genre," says McDiarmid. "But All the King's Men constantly reminds us how complicated the truth is - including the truth about what actually happened to the Sandringham Company."

The troops in the battalion were drawn from the workers on King George V's Sandringham estate, and were led by Captain Frank Beck (played by David Jason, above), the Royal Land Agent. "The story is almost Shakespearean," McDiarmid continues, "in that you're shown the aristocracy and the lower orders simultaneously."

Writer Alma Cullen, who based her screenplay on Nigel McCrery's 1991 book, The Vanished Battalion, felt a heavy responsibility in recounting this dark period of our history. "As we approach the end of the century, I wanted to see the story of the Sandringham Company in the context of all war, going back as far as the Homeric war of The Iliad. When you address this material, you cannot escape the fact that these men were extraordinarily brave. It's impossible not to be moved by that. On arrival at Suvla Bay, they were confronted by waste, sordidness and terrible betrayal in the most graphic way possible - by walking over the bodies of their dead comrades on their way to camp."

Jason has the last word about All the King's Men. "Politicians all over the world should be forced to watch films like this. Then they would see that it's not them, but the man in the street who gets his legs blown off, and that it's not them, but these men's wives and children who are left crying because of the decisions they have made in their bunkers. We should have learned from our grandfathers' mistakes. We should be living in a better world by now."

`All The King's Men' tomorrow, 9pm BBC1

James Rampton