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

Media Editor

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015