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WW1 beyond the mud and trenches: BBC’s plans for the centenary of World War One

BBC chief says the First World War programmes lined up for 2014 will consider both the wider conflict and its impact on Britain

It would be “utterly inappropriate” if the BBC’s treatment of the centenary of the First World War adopted a tone of “celebration”, according to the senior executive in charge of the corporation’s four years of coverage.

Adrian Van Klaveren told The Independent that he was equally determined that the BBC’s output would not be trapped in the sombre mood of the annual Remembrance Day service but would explore the impact of the conflict on Britain’s economy, its class system and its place in the world.

He said the BBC had a duty to look beyond the popular idea that the Great War was a story of “mud and trenches” and to impress on British audiences the pain suffered by Australia and New Zealand over the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Unveiling details of the BBC’s coverage, the former controller of Radio 5 Live revealed that the BBC would be screening My Great War, a version of the classic 1964 television series The Great War, which was originally voiced by Michael Redgrave. “There is a lot of material in that series that wasn’t used; interviews that never saw the light of day,” Mr Van Klaveren said. “We are re-exploring that and making a programme specifically around that archive.”

The BBC’s coverage will begin early next year with a four-part BBC 1 series presented by Jeremy Paxman. On 28 June, the BBC will broadcast live from Sarajevo, where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – which prompted the outbreak of war – is being marked by events including a concert performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The moment will be examined in a real-time documentary on Radio 2 hosted by Jeremy Vine.

Day by Day, a Radio 4 documentary series presented by the historian Margaret MacMillan, will then trace the 37 days between the Sarajevo attack and Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August. The same period will also be covered in a three-part BBC 2 drama called 37 Days.

Mr Van Klaveren compared his role to that of a “conductor” and said he was determined that “the different perspectives” of the war were understood. “There is a danger that the WW1 is seen purely in terms of the Western Front, in terms of mud and trenches and barbed wire and through the perspective of what the poets wrote,” he said. “There is much more than that.”

The BBC’s output will include coverage of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 and the participation in the war of a million troops from India. No programmes have been commissioned from German sources, although Mr Van Klaveren said German perspectives would be represented in shows such as The Passing Bells, a five-part drama series from Tony Jordan which tells the stories of two young soldiers from opposing sides.

The other key centenary anniversaries that are likely to be the subjects of live broadcast are Remembrance Week 2014, Gallipoli in April 2015, the battle of the Somme and the battle of Jutland in 2016, the battle of Passchendaele in 2017 and the declaration of peace in 2018.

Mr Van Klaveren is anxious that the coverage of the conflict, which cost 37 million lives around the world, strikes the right mood. “What we can’t do for four years is something which feels like the tone adopted throughout Remembrance Day because you won’t be able to get into the more difficult and uncomfortable questions,” he said. “Equally what it can’t be about is about celebration either – that would be utterly inappropriate. It’s about a tone which is poignant but not mawkish and which is serious but not over sombre.”

Mr Van Klaveren was given the role following his involvement in the BBC’s Lord McAlpine fiasco last year. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, he was seconded from Radio 5 Live into a temporary role as head of news – only for Newsnight to promptly make false allegations of sex abuse against the former Conservative Party treasurer.

Following publication of the critical Pollard report into BBC News, Mr Van Klaveren was given a new role. He expressed pride in his record at 5 Live,  “successfully moving the station from London to Salford” and giving it “a sense of purpose”. He denied that some BBC colleagues were resentful of his new role after an episode that damaged the organisation’s reputation. “I’ve really not picked that up at all,” he said. “My sense of this project is that people see how important it is and are keen to be involved and supporting me in my role of trying to make [the BBC] do everything it possibly can.”

He admitted feeling “great responsibility” for overseeing a project which will have an important part in underscoring the BBC’s public service role as it prepares to negotiate its licence fees beyond 2016. “This is a wonderful opportunity to show this is what the BBC is worth and what it can contribute.”

100 years on: Highlights of the BBC's centenary coverage

Britain’s Great War

The opening series in the BBC’s four years of First World War coverage, Jeremy Paxman’s four-part documentary for BBC 1 will draw upon his expertise of British history and examine how the conflict changed the country and the lives of the people.

The Passing Bells

Drama writer Tony Jordan (creator of the BBC’s Life on Mars and leading writer for EastEnders) is writing a five-part BBC 1 series following two young soldiers, one British and one German, as they adapt to life on the front.

37 Days

Three-part BBC 2 drama, written by Mark Hayhurst and starring Sinead Cusack (pictured), Ian McDiarmid and Tim Pigott-Smith, which questions assumptions that the Sarajevo shooting made the conflict inevitable.

My Great War

Film made from the unseen archive of the classic 26-part 1964 series The Great War, which recorded hundreds of hours of interview footage. BBC 4 Collections will also publish a selection of the original interview recordings in their entirety on BBC iPlayer.