Arise, Sir Paxman! Sculptor Stephen Hurst reviews Jeremy Paxman's first world war series
Stephen Hurst is a culptor, bronze-caster and writer who makes objects in cast metal, painted wood and aluminium reliefs and is an illustrator and war-historian
As the title implies, Jeremy Paxman’s new TV series Britain’s Great War is anglocentric. It will have a powerful influence upon the general public, not because it is a well-made or carefully researched programme, but because great numbers of people will watch it who are unlikely to visit the library or select books on the First World War in a bookshop.
Paxman’s manner appears even-handed, even cynical, but the selection of images tells a different story – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.
The programme begins with Big Ben and the countdown to the British ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from Belgium. This establishes the message of Germany alone being the guilty party.
Propaganda paintings and cartoons of the time then show us the horrors of German occupation (burning buildings, dead women and babies).
Paxman’s commentary continues in the same sceptical vein, as though ‘We don’t have to believe all we see’, but the images are uniformly nationalistic, sentimental (gentle peaceful lads going off to defend their country), and anti-German, reflecting the xenophobia of the time.
Many images show the German bombardment of the Yorkshire seaside towns with destroyed buildings and dead women and children.
Britain’s Great War is sloppily made. Paxman is shown by the canal at Mons, with lengthy shots of modern high-speed trains, but there is no mention of the crucial Battle of the Marne, nor any mention of the Belgian resistance to the invasion, nor the disastrous French opening battle. Nor is the transition to trench warfare explained.
Many of the images selected to illustrate trench warfare in 1914 were actually taken much later, some of them in summer or autumn, some in winter. Some British soldiers wear peaked caps, others helmets, though helmets were not issued until late 1915. The majority of the images of war are hackneyed, ones shown on TV many times.
Paxman’s programme has nothing new to say, exhibits no original research, and merely spreads the Government’s and the British Establishment’s propaganda. It would be unimportant if TV was not such a powerful medium.
Britain’s Great War, and the many similar TV shows that will follow it, are the only view of the war that will be seen by the majority of the public, who know little about the First World War and nothing about the extreme complexity of its causes.
You can see more of Stephen Hurst’s work at www.stephenbhurst.com