Media: Why I can't stop talking about the war

Tragedies in his own family have given Peter Salmon, Controller of BBC1, a personal mission to make sure the public never forgets the horrors of conflict. Here, he describes his feelings of guilt

Anyone who has grown up in this war-torn century has been touched at some time by loss and sadness. Whether it was Gallipoli in the First World War or the Battle of Britain in the Second, whether it was fighting wars or keeping peace, this country's military campaigns have shaped our lives and scarred our collective consciousness.

Global conflict has traumatic local consequences. That idea of the bigger story, told by personal voices and individual histories, is at the root of a trilogy of programmes about to start on BBC 1.

The season, Century of Conflict, marks a career-long ambition for me. It is a personal reflection and a public tribute, and it recalls some key events in our century while they still resonate strongly.

I was brought up in a Lancashire mill town, hundreds of miles away from any front yet with a bleak cemetery that told its own nightmares. And, as with many others, images of war haunted my imagination then - and they do still.

So many of my close relations have served in the armed forces this century. And their service stirs up complex feelings in me.

I can recall the statue of a soldier boy that dominates this windswept North of England graveyard. It's close to where generations of my own family have been buried: my Grandfather Alexander - whose own father Alexander died at Gallipoli - and my uncle, all three of whom served in the same East Lancashire Regiment, and my own father who joined the RAF towards the end of the Second World War.

My own great grandfather even has a sad and rather curious connection with BBC 1's popular star David Jason.

Jason plays Captain Frank Beck in our autumn centrepiece drama All The King's Men. Beck, late of the King's Regiment and general manager of King George V's Sandringham Estate, disappeared with his men in a wall of enemy fire in Gallipoli in August 1915.

The story of that vanished battalion, said Winston Churchill in 1919, was "the greatest unsolved mystery of this century".

My Great Grandfather, Alexander Shapcott, died that very same month on that very same Turkish peninsula. His name is on the Hellas War Memorial, a 30m-high obelisk that can still be seen by ships passing through the Dardanelles. He was a Private in his 20s. Just eight weeks before he'd lost his brother William, a drummer boy and my Great Uncle - yet another one of 20,000 soldiers who died in that notorious and savage campaign.

With the Century of Conflict, I wanted to reflect the loss, the pride and the debt of honour we owe to every one of those tens of thousands of servicemen and women. Alongside All The King's Men, we also chronicle some of our most desperate moments, in the Second World War in a documentary series, Finest Hour, and end with our peacekeeping force enmeshed in Bosnia, the subject of our two-part drama Warriors.

Selfishly, I hope my three young sons never join them, never know the fear and agonies of war, never feel the sort of remorse that I've felt as I've passed that lonely graveyard statue, standing to attention with its grey puttees and battered helmet.

And yet, I've been fascinated by Europe's century of conflict - as a boy, as I was growing up and later as a television producer. That's why I'm privileged to be able to be embarking on a project that will dominate BBC 1 schedules this month. It tries to show how war has shaped the UK's identity. It's been a lifelong obsession: a decade ago, as a documentary producer with BBC 2, I spearheaded a season of documentaries under the banner War and Peace. Two years later I mounted Channel 4's Bloody Bosnia season during that terrible conflict.

As Controller of BBC 1, I feel we can finally and - I hope - memorably define a century of armed service and bloodshed with some of the biggest dramas and documentaries we've transmitted.

After all, from literature to film, art to real life, it's been a century where war has shaped British life. We began the century defending an empire. Forty years later we were fighting for our lives, and this decade we've been in conflict once again in Europe, this time as peacekeepers. From superpower to European power, we've emerged scarred and changed. I'm filled with equal amounts of horror and fascination at the thought of war. Those of us who have never fought, but who grew up in the shadow of war, feel a mixture of guilt and gratitude. Guilt that we were never called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, and gratitude to those strangers who paid the most terrible price for the common good.

War this century has moulded Britain as it is today. I remember being captivated by Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory, where I learned how the First World War effort gave shape to the Britain I grew up in, its trains, pubs and shops, organised to fight that most bloody of conflicts.

It was a disturbing and tangible experience in the backstreets of Burnley, where I grew up, to feel war's cold fingers touch the lives of so many. In the 1950s and 1960s war still echoed in the pub songs my family sang: Pack Up Your Troubles and It's A Long Way to Tipperary. Veterans were visible then as they hobbled in the streets. And not just on Poppy Days.

Every living room had a grainy, faded photo from some regiment and on television, war movies stimulated playground songs. I was that five-year- old marching round the school yard, recruiting for a game of soldiers, chanting "All join in for Japs and Commandos ...". We truly grew up in the shadow of war.

British television has long had an imaginative relationship with war. From Alan Bleasdale's Monocled Mutineer to Jeremy Isaacs' The World at War, from Richard Curtis and Ben Elton's Blackadder Goes Forth to Perry and Croft's Dad's Army, and from Richard Eyre's Tumbledown to Steve Humphries' Veterans. Each piece has added its own layer of sorrow, nostalgia, bitterness and even humour to the best and worst of our century.

You get a strong sense of loss and yearning from the centrepiece of our Century of Conflict season, Alma Cullen's All The King's Men. It captures, in moving and chilling fashion, the way war can connect a cosy homestead with the killing fields: one minute with your nearest and dearest, the next in a vicious bayonet fight. Recently as many of us watched the Kosovo conflict unfold on the BBC News, and saw how terror and bloodshed had stolen into the lives of ordinary villagers, I felt that same sense of "everyday" horror once again.

The Balkans war prompted BBC 1 to commission one of BBC 1's other autumn centrepieces, Leigh Jackson's Warriors, directed by Peter Kosminsky. It's important to remind people how fragile was Europe's peace, how complex it is for soldiers to be peacekeepers and underline the heart of darkness that can be found in the most ordinary communities.

When BBC Head of Serials Jane Tranter first brought the project to me she can scarcely have imagined how this year's events in Kosovo might overtake and underscore it. The theme is once more the same: ordinary men thrown into a bewildering foreign arena in the pursuit of peace.

The more our Century of Conflict season has crystallised, the more it has felt like public service of a profound kind. I want to make the final Remembrance Weekend of the century echo around the land. As the lives of so many First World War veterans are now only tangible through oral history archive, I also wanted to shift documentary focus to those servicemen and women who lived through our Second Great War from 1939 to 1945.

But, I was fascinated to watch the camera narrow its lens to one particular, one precise period. Phil Craig and Brian Lapping, from the company that made The Death of Yugoslavia, felt television had neglected a crucial six months around 1940 where our nation's very survival was at stake. Hitler stood at Normandy, Atlantic convoys were being sunk, Luftwaffe bombers were in the skies and misery stalked the streets of our cities. Arguably it was our Finest Hour, a time of extraordinary valour. We came through ... and the rest is history.

Or is it? If it is, it certainly isn't dusty or dry, dead and buried. I feel it in my own family life, in the poems I love, the songs we still sing and the literature that inspires and moves many of us. And I want it to resonate again this year so we never take such bravery or losses for granted. The conflict in the Balkans has warned us all about complacency and our common European cause.

Just a month ago I walked the Thames Path with a friend. We chanced upon dozens of concrete pillboxes that line the riverbanks. It's hard to believe that the meandering Thames was Stopline Red, a last desperate defence line, designed to keep Hitler's invading army from the English Midlands. Even here, in rural, soon to be 21st-century Britain, there are still solid reminders of how war has touched and changed our lives, forever.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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