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

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.

Olivier was paid a fortune to do it – £38,000 – but he hated every minute of it, feeling “constrained by reading to a microphone in a tiny studio”.

“But without doubt his voice with all his idiosyncratic pronunciations (Stahleen for Stalin; Sovie’t instead of Soviet) is part of the success of the series,” Dowling argues.

Much of the work was gruelling, recording the testimony of those who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis or others.

But there were moments of levity too: “Sue McConarchy, one of the researchers, remembered returning from a particularly demanding trip to interview ex-SS members and sitting down in the canteen next to a man improbably dressed in medieval jousting gear.

“What are you working on?’ he asked her. ‘The second World War,’ she replied. ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ he responded. ‘Who’s playing Hitler?’”

Large-scale execution
The World at War recorded history, but it made it too, featuring the first interview with Heinrich Himmler’s adjutant, Karl Wolff, who admitted on camera witnessing a large-scale execution standing alongside Himmler.

Even though Isaacs had been given a £440,000 budget for the series, he managed to spend more than twice that sum – more than £12 million (€14 million) in today’s money –
but nobody seemed to mind much, unlike today.

First shown in Britain and the US, the series was broadcast by RTÉ later, becoming as popular in Ireland as it did throughout the world.

Ten million people watched some episodes in Britain, an unheard-of figure for a TV history series, while some chapters – particularly the
one on the Holocaust – left viewers scarred.

Each of the 26 episodes was 52 minutes long, not including advertising – the ITV standard format for the time. Unlike other programmes, though, The World at War was shown with just one commercial break in the middle. The Holocaust episode was screened without interruption.

The series has outlasted its creator, Thames Television, which lost its licence 21 years ago. The Imperial War Museum, however, still benefits, since it won 5 per cent of the revenues from overseas
sales, which are still strong
40 years on.

The World at War ends
in the same place it began: with images of Oradour-sur-Glane – still a shrine to the horrors of war – with Olivier saying simply: “Remember.”

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