Tag Archives: British Television

The World at War: The Complete Series


"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. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. 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. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, China, in a world at war."

– Sir Laurence Olivier reading the opening lines to "The World at War," 1973

World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, almost 72 years ago.  Anyone officially old enough to fight in that year would be ninety years old now.  In context, when I was a child in the 1980's, there were still thousands of World War I veterans still alive, but they were in their 90's.  Now, the experience of fighting in that First World War has passed from living memory.   The 1980's don't seem that long ago.

Fortunately, there are many excellent chronicles of the time in the last century when we faced, and overcame, the greatest threat to human civilization since the Black Plague.  Standing tall among the many excellent documentaries on the subject is the epic "The World at War," which first aired on ITV in the United Kingdom in 1973 and 1974, and eventually syndicated on PBS during the 1980's.

The World at War is special for a number of reasons, and not just because it is one of the most acclaimed series in television history.  It is narrated by the great Sir Laurence Olivier, commonly regarded as the finest actor of his generation.  It was made at a time when many persons with important first-hand knowledge of the War were still alive, such as Winston Churchill's personal secretary.

Most importantly, the documentary never loses sight of the human toll of the War. It successfully avoids the shallow, rah-rah heroism so often seen in films about the War, especially in the 50's and 60's. The War was a fight against evil, there's no denying that, but it's nothing to be celebrated.

The World at War is rightfully acclaimed, but it has its ups and downs too. The Burma episode feels like it goes on forever and the series itself focuses more heavily on the European War than the Pacific. Even so, the highlights greatly outnumber the missteps. The episode about The Battle of Britain is simply titled, and described, as "Alone." The episode about Stalingrad contains no battle footage, but it doesn't need any. The episode on the Holocaust is one of the most awarded episodes of television ever broadcast. The final episode ties everything up masterfully, with Olivier's voiceover hauntingly asking us to remember.

The twenty-six episode series is available from a couple of different sources, and well worth your time. Evil, after all, never really goes away, and destroying it is a ghastly affair. By remembering the War, it underlines the importance of stopping evil before it gains power. Learning this lesson is the best way to honor those who were lost.

(C) 2017 D.G. McCabe


Downton Abbey – The Complete Series

Let’s do something a little different.  Downton Abbey is a series about history, unlikely drama but history nonetheless.  With that, I imagine a foreword to a fictional book about our characters, written by one of their children.  For your reading pleasure, here is the foreword to the 1959 book “Downton Abbey: A Portrait of My Mother’s Youth” by Marigold Crawley, written by her good friend and fellow popular writer, Ellen Worthington.

Foreword: Downton Abbey, a View From the Gallery

When Marigold told me she was writing a book about the events that took place at Downton Abbey between the summer of 1912 and date of her mother’s wedding in December of 1925, I thought she was mad.  While her last book “Children of the Our Age” dealt with her family’s experience during the Second World War, she was at a distinct advantage there.  First and foremost, she personally lived through those years.

How much could possibly have happened at a sleepy country estate during that time period to warrant such a history?  Improbably, Marigold then told me the volume would even largely gloss over the years of the Great War and focus heavily on the 1920’s.

I was at the point of advising her to pursue another topic.  Then I saw her mountain of research, including interviews with most of the major players (even one with her great-grandmother that she had done as a child).  I was so impressed that I insisted that I must write the foreword, so here we are.

I have known the Crawley family for many years, ever since the first time I made the trek to Downton Abbey with Marigold when we were children in the early 1930’s.  When I went through her notes, I was surprised and a little shocked to learn about everything that transpired there during the fourteen years depicted within this volume.

Some of the events herein are hard to believe.  Matthew Crawley, for instance, was a dull solicitor.  Then, struck by good fortune, found himself heir to a wealthy estate.  Struck by bad fortune, he was thought paralyzed from a wound during the Great War.  Then, good fortune again, he fully recovered and married.  Then he died in a car accident.

There’s a relative who “returned from the dead” during the War.  There’s the scandalous incident with a Turkish diplomat, which has long been an open secret in certain circles.  There’s a romance between a valet and a lady’s maid that would be fit for a Thomas Hardy novel.  It’s frankly hard to believe that so many things could happen to one family and their staff during a scant fourteen years.

What struck me most about the story, however, is the development of the characters.   Marigold has described her mother’s character arc in her previous writings (most notably a thorough history of The Sketch Magazine), but it’s no less jarring here that the strong, brilliant woman I’ve known all my life was once nearly consumed by jealously and depression.  Thomas Barrow, the Crawley family butler, who I have only known as patient and kind, was apparently a conniving sneak at one point.  Even Tom Branson, one of the pioneers of the automotive industry in Great Britain, was for a time banned from his native Ireland for being a socialist revolutionary.

My favorite character stays consistent throughout the story, and that’s Marigold’s great-grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Marigold insists the woman will haunt my dreams with biting words if I were to refer to her by her birth name).  She was at the same time the voice of upper class aristocratic angst and the voice of reason and kindness.  I wish I had known her in life, but she is so well depicted herein that we have the next best thing (although Marigold’s mother and her aunt Mary have certainly inherited a solid amount of the Dowager Countess’ wit).

That one family had given Marigold three voluminous histories is scarcely believable, but when you meet the people described herein, you will see why these stories continue to be so popular.   I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Ellen Worthington, London, 1958


(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe