About two thirds of the way through the first episode of The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire (BBC2; six parts starting 18 July; prod/dir: Alastair Laurence) there is a sequence which could stand as a paradigm of what can be done with history on television. Peter Barton stands in the field where, a hundred years ago, inexperienced British soldiers, young pals recruited from northern towns, advanced towards German lines in the offensive that would later be known as the Battle of the Somme. The scene has been set with aerial drone shots, archive footage and plenty of music but now, crucially, there is no music.
Unlike many of his calling, the presenter shows no wild desperation to persuade us of the ‘incredible’ nature of his story. His arms do not gyrate like manic windmills nor is his delivery a staccato of plosives, forced out in a bid to inject passion into a flat script. Barton can do emotion, as we see in episode two, but here secure in his knowledge he recounts simple facts. The troops were told not to stop and shoot at the enemy. Apparently, all opposition had already been neutralised by British artillery fire. Likewise they were told not to run – a steady walk would be adequate. And there you have the story of the Somme: massive casualties which can be attributed to a combination of profound errors on the part of the British command and the inherent capacity for carnage of the new mechanised warfare. This is the story which most viewers already knew and, when we later hear an account from one of the (in fact plentiful) German defenders, recalling their surprise that the British were strolling towards them (“If they had run they could easily have overwhelmed us”), we realise that most viewers had it about right.
This six-part series will not shock viewers to the core by overturning their most dearly loved beliefs. Occasionally it flirts with that idea (yielding, presumably, to executive producer pressure) but in fact it offers us refinement rather than revelation. Our existing knowledge is enhanced through minor embellishments such as the apparently wilful desire on the part of the British to pass as much intelligence as possible to the enemy and even the dark hints that the balance of atrocities committed may lean more towards us than them.
The programme was, in a word, a commemoration and, as such, a fitting sequel to the live broadcast from the Somme memorial at Thiepval on the anniversary of the battle two weeks earlier. The ceremony, crafted deliberately for television, began with the sound of a whistle, just as it had a hundred years before. Serving soldiers spoke aloud the words written by combatants who were there on the first day and, not for the first time in history, ritual took a step towards drama. To be able to commemorate that ‘feeling of now’ from a moment in the past is something you can probably only achieve live and on the day. When it happens, though, it helps us to reinforce and re-examine one of those moments through which we collectively understand ourselves.
We might call such moments iconic in the very modern sense of being a brightly coloured picture which one can easily click in order to produce a desired response. There are many such icons on our national screen at the moment. Most of them would benefit from robust critical analysis. In the Battle of the Somme, however, we have one which, by virtue of its admissions of failure and its respect for participants on both sides, really does deserve its capacity to make the British feel good about themselves. That fact that, in these gentle yet powerful programmes, British factual television has managed to rise to the occasion is also a matter for pride, if not wonder.
The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire is available on BBC iplayer
Photo: Jake Robinson