Forty years on, ‘The World at War’ has lost none of its power
It was commissioned to justify a tax break but the series has outlived its creator, Thames Television
Sir Laurence Olivier: his narration was a major factor in the success of ‘The World at War’. Photograph: Getty Images
Few opening words to a television series can be remembered by an audience, yet the early phrases of The World at War live on in the memory.
“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944 . . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years . . . was dead,” intoned Laurence Olivier.
The words retold the story of Oradour-sur-Glane, the tiny French village whose population was massacred by the Das Reich SS Division’s soldiers in the days after D-Day.
“The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven . . . into this church.
“Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then . . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial,” Olivier went on.
Forty years later, The World at War, produced by Jeremy Isaacs, has never been off the screen: 50 countries bought the ITV-produced programmes.
The opening words reflected much of Isaac’s ambitions: “He wanted to show how the war affected people’s lives across the globe,” writes Taylor Dowling in History Today.
Unencrusted with nostalgia
Later, Isaacs said he wanted to show young people history that was “unencrusted with the nostalgia of an earlier generation – we were not interested in the retelling of our parents’ old soldiers’ stories” but, rather, war with all of its horrors.
As so often happens, a work of genius was prompted by self-interest: largely the need of independent television in Britain to prove that it could make quality programming.
Never fans of the BBC, the Conservatives had established a levy on advertising when they paved the way for independent television in the mid-1950s. In 1971, however, they halved the levy, offering a huge windfall for the ITV companies, but it came at a price: the money had to be spent on programming.
Isaacs was the first to Thames Television – which had £500,000 spare – with “the big idea”: the first television series on the second World War, done like no programme before.
Unlike the BBC’s The Great War documentary series on the first World War, which interwove rare original archive with film recreations, Isaacs strove for authenticity.
He was helped, Dowling recounts, by the fact that relations between the BBC
and the Imperial War Museum had been poisoned by the experience of The Great War.
Fifty people worked for three years on The World at War, interspersing interviews with surviving generals and field marshals alongside those with Berlin housewives. Four decades on, the quality of the series remains unquestioned, while the music of Carl Davis and Olivier’s narration still haunt the memory.