With the 100th anniversary of the most terrible conflict in world history coming in 2014, Jesse Whittock identifies the projects and producers that will shape World War I in the minds of a new generation of TV viewers.
War programming has the unique power to shock, appall and intrigue in equal measures, hence its enduring appeal despite the horror of the subject matter. Though there are thematic channels following the war genre 24/7 and thousands of hours of drama, documentary and current affairs dedicated to conflicts, the 100-year anniversary of World War I, which ran for four grim years between 1914 and 1918, is of critical importance to broadcasters.
“All the networks are doing something for the anniversaries, which sadly last four years,” says Content Television and Digital’s president, Greg Phillips. “It is absolutely crucial to get it right,” adds one programme buyer.
War is a concept that every country experiences differently, and television producers are factoring that into their content. Germany’s ZDF Enterprises was in Cannes last week pitching an international version of Doomsday – World War I (pictured below), a historical drama-documentary miniseries that ZDF’s history unit coproduced with France Télévisions that examines how events of the Great War impacted on the key players in World War II two decades later.
“A version was produced from the German perspective but it was also conceived as and international coproduction. Each episode has two perspectives – one German and one Allied,” says ZDFE’s factual coproduction manager Dr. Nikolas Hülbusch.
He describes the international version has having “more of a French and a global voice”, something which ABC in Australia and Discovery Networks International EMEA agree on, having pre-bought the 3x50mins show.
Approaching the same story through the eyes of opposing factions in the global conflict was also key for Tony Jordan’s Red Planet Pictures, which is producing upcoming BBC One drama The Passing-Bells (aka The Great War).
“We’ve approached this in a very unique way: from the point of view of two soldiers – one English and one German,” says Red Planet’s head of drama Belinda Campbell. “Both journeys are given the same emphasis – they are separate but ultimately entwined. The important thing is it is about the reality of the war for the naïve young men who were sent to fight from all countries around the world.”
To that end, Red Planet headed to MIPCOM, alongside series distributor BBC Worldwide, to find a German broadcast partner, says production executive Alex Jones. “Tony came up with the show from a creative point of view rather than looking at it as a coproduction opportunity, but obviously it lends itself quite nicely to a copro, specifically with Germany.”
The series was developed as a 5x60mins series but Jones says this has been cut to a 5x30mins format to fit with the BBC’s plans to strip it across as a week next year. “We understand TV doesn’t work the same around the world and we’re working internationally on the idea of having 2x90mins and 4x45mins versions,” he says.
This week, the BBC announced its plans to commemorate the war with its biggest ever single season initiative comprising 130 programmes and 2,500 hours of programming across its linear, radio and online channels. Linear shows include Britain’s Great War, a four-part BBC One doc series presented by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman about how the lives of Britons were affected by the conflict; BBC Two shows The Necessary War, which will comprise a pair of one-offs, and The Pity of War, in which historian Niall Ferguson will argue what the First World War meant from different perspectives; and BBC Three Our War spin-off Our World War.
BBC director-general Tony Hall said on the initiative: “This season is going to have a profound impact on the way we think about World War I. On television, on radio and on digital, we’ll be exploring how this conflict, above all others, shaped our families, our communities, our world – and continues to influence us today.’’
Others are looking reach audiences around the world with content with broad storylines. Endemol Worldwide Distribution has rights to a pair of anniversary scripted series: another BBC One offering, The Ark; and Nine Network miniseries Gallipoli.
The Ark, which EWD’s CEO Cathy Payne describes as “a really significant piece of telly”, is a six-part drama starring Oona Chaplin, Suranne Jones and Hermione Norris about the nurses that worked in the tented medical field hospitals on the WWI battlefields. It comes from BBC’s in-house production team and went into production in August. Payne says BBC One plans to play it in a Sunday night primetime slot next year as part of the pan-BBC season and potentially over each year of the war’s anniversary.
Gallipoli, meanwhile, is one of a number of WWI series Australia’s key broadcasters are producing about the infamous battle fought between the Allied forces and those of the German backed Ottoman Empire in the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915. The 4x120mins miniseries comes from Endemol’s Southern Star and is based on a book by Les Carlyon. It tells how the ill-fated invasion led to a greater awareness of the horrors of war among Australians.
It will launch in 1915 – the 100-year anniversary of the battle – and compete with pay TV leader Foxtel’s The Gallipoli Story, which will focus on a group of embedded journalists, including Keith Murdoch, father of News Corp boss and Foxtel majority shareholder Rupert Murdoch, and the role they played in triggering the end of the conflict.
Avatar star Sam Worthington’s FullClip Productions is working with NBCUniversal-owned Aussie prodco Matchbox Pictures to create the serialised show ahead of the anniversary of the first Allied landings on April 25, 2015.
Banijay Group’s Australian prodco Screentime, meanwhile, is creating a series with ABC TV that focuses on the “lesser known aspects of this terrible event”, explains Screentime’s executive chairman Des Monaghan. ANZAC Girls will go out on ABC1 and is another six-part series, but this time about the Australian and New Zealand nurses on the frontline. It is based on Peter Rees’ book The Other ANZACs and All3Media International has begun distributing it.
“We didn’t go to the obvious route of being stuck in the mud in the trenches and wanted to find a fresh way of telling this horrific story,” says Monaghan. “These women did amazing work in the most appalling circumstances and they were treated very badly; they were alien creatures to the soldiers.”
The absurdity of war that classic shows such as M.A.S.H. and Dad’s Army captured is at the core of another British WWI series. BBC One’s The Wipers Times, which went out in September in the UK, is notable not only as the first scripted TV role Monty Python star and travel broadcaster Michael Palin has taken in nearly two decades, but also for the unique approach it is taking to the subject. “It’s not a documentary or a comedy,” says Content Television’s Phillips, whose company will be selling it at MIPCOM. “If anything it’s a poignant black comedy.”
Wipers has Private Eye editor Ian Hislop among its writers and follows the story of the titular satirical trenches newspaper that became a salvation for many British soldiers.
“I remember [Richard Attenborough’s 1969 satirical film] Oh! What a Lovely War, which never really got the recognition it deserved. It was an indictment and it was clever, and this is too: it shows you the awful tragedy and that through all that absurdity humour can be found,” says Phillips. Though some territories may not fully understand the British sensibilities it highlights, “it is sensitive, event-suitable television,” he adds.
ABC Commercial, the sales arm of the Australian pubcaster, will hit Cannes with the 1x60mins Great War Horses, which is currently in production and focuses on the 135,000 Australian war horses. It presented the show at a European Broadcasting Union Media Summit in Brussels that allowed broadcasters to offer a taste of their upcoming anniversary programming, says ABC Commercial’s manager of content sales Natalie Lawley.
Also on the slate is 1x90mins/2x45mins Sam Neill-narrated Waves of ANZAC Cove, 1x55mins docs Monash – The Forgotten Anzac and Lost in Flanders.
Lawley says buyers were requesting anniversary content even back at MIPTV in April, primarily for 60-minute primetime slots. European networks made for the highest demand but Japanese channels were also extremely interested, she reports.
EWD’s Payne points to the need to make WWI accessible and relatable. “You should always know your materials and someone who doesn’t is one of my pet hates,” she says. Those selling First World War shows should know that many territories that were not involved may be initially unwilling buyers, each distributor interviewed agrees.
One company that knows the subject matter better than most is UK-based indie producer World Media Rights. The prodco is a specialist in military history, often producing for the A+E network that bares the genre’s name as well as other major factual players such as Discovery.
Ahead of next year, WMR is producing War & Revolution, an archive-based doc series that purports to contain material from a previously untouched secret film vault Joseph Stalin had hidden in 1924. “Stalin felt he had created a new world order so he basically confiscated all the footage he could come across and put it under the guard of [Bolshevik secret police] the Cheka,” says WMR CEO Alan Griffiths.
He claims the series is among one of very few to actually contain original Russian footage from the conflict. WMR’s business model works by selling its shows at low cost to numerous cable channels around the world. Producing WWI content creates its own issues for this, as, Griffiths notes, the war as “fought along national lines”.
This means what works for a Canadian audience might not work for a UK or Belgian audience, and that even the US, a minor player in the conflict, will be a hard sell. “World War II is much easier as it was much bigger, fought in several theatres and the Americans were there almost from the start,” notes Griffiths.
“There is a big difference in selling landmark TV compared to regular shows,” adds ABC Commercial’s Lawley. “Landmark TV can generate higher license fees, due to the high production values, as well as presenting more opportunity to invest in significant publicity. Having said that, there can also be more competition in the marketplace for the limited slots broadcasters have to acquire for.” ZDFE’s Hülbusch adds that though anniversary programming can have a limited shelf life, he expects WWI shows to have a “long tail”.
The European Broadcasting Union plans to give public broadcasters an extra space to display their centenary programming. Its Eurovision project comprises thematically-linked WWI projects, support for high-profile international coproductions and the means for pubcasters to share archive materials.
One result is 4x60mins doc series 14 – Diaries of the Great War (The Great War Diary, pictured, above), in which stories from seven countries around the world tell the human stories of life during the conflict through archive and dramatic re-enactments.
Leading production is Germany’s LOOKS Film & TV Produktionen, with Les Films D‘Ici, CTVC and CwmniDa also attached. Arte, NDR, SWR, WDR, NTR/VPRO and ORF are on board as coproducers, and the BBC, Czech Television, DR, Historia, NRK, RAI, RTVSLO, S4C, SBS in Australia, Spiegel Geschichte, SVT, TG4, Toute l’histoire and YLE will also broadcast it.
“Great War Diary has a completely international point of view. It is completely multilingual, which is something that, when the story is told, tends be overlooked as people focus on the national narrative,” says Eurovision’s TV project manager Matthew Trustram.
“The other important element is the amount of research that has gone into finding the real diaries. There were thousands of diaries taken into account before it was boiled down.”
LOOKS is also leading numerous producers on Small Hands in a Big War, a 8x25mins series aimed at educating children aged eight to 12 about the war. It has 15 pubcasters attached.
Other projects include a Centenary Concert in Sarajevo on June 28 – the official 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of war – coproduced by Bosnia & Herzogovina pubcaster BHRT, ZDF and France Télévisions. The BBC and Italy’s RAI are also among pubcasters engaging in an archive clips exchange programme to allow them to share content for their local projects.
The ultimate outcome of war is, of course, loss and destruction, something Switzerland’s First Hand Film wants to highlight with its new 1x50mins doc Footprints of War, which comes from German firms Werwiewas and Inselfilm and is for ZDF and its satellite channel 3sat. The programme looks at how military attacks have shocking long-term effects on global ecosystems.
“War is foremost a human tragedy, and a focus on nature is usually not part of that perception, but it seems impossible to fully understand the meaning of a war without that particular environmental focus,” says Werwiewas’ Max Mönch.
What is universally understood by all is the importance of the centenary, both from a humanitarian and commercial perspective. “After all, the war affected most of the world,” says ZDFE’s Hülbusch.