The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain.
By Emma Hanna.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, January 2010.  Cloth: ISBN 978-0-7486-3389-0, $75.  224 pages.

Reviewed by Mark Celinscak, York University

The Great War was a watershed moment of the twentieth century. Unprecedented in human history, the war interrupted an entire generation of people. Indeed, the conflict upset value systems and it shook the confidence of many Europeans who once believed that they were the most rational of all people, in control of themselves and leaders of the world. In Britain, remembering the enormity of the war is a national preoccupation. Consequently, the Great War has been recalled and represented in a variety of forms as depicted in painting, poetry, and memorials. Since the 1960s, a dominant form for the commemoration of the war has been television.
In The Great War on the Small Screen: Representing the First World War in Contemporary Britain, Emma Hanna examines numerous British “televisual representations” of the Great War. The author discusses how these programs have influenced modern attitudes about the conflict.  According to Hanna, the act of creating and viewing television programs about the Great War has become a prominent remembrance ritual in contemporary Britain. Some programs about the conflict have become national sites of memory and mourning. Accordingly, the author suggests that the visual impetus for these representations has been drawn from Britain’s rich cultural inheritance and traditional frames of reference.
Hanna’s detailed and thoroughly researched work of cultural history tackles a variety of programs, including documentary, drama, comedy, and even “reality” television. Her seven slim chapters unfold more thematically than chronologically. In each chapter the author’s main focus is the narrative and chronological development of the making of the program, offering analysis on the design and imagery presented to the audience. While the sheer number of programs covered in the book means that Hanna is at times describing rather than analyzing, her survey of the vast landscape of British war programs in the postwar period will be useful to most students.
The author’s first chapter illustrates how the British education system has promoted the idea that the Great War can be largely understood through the study of literature or history alone. Yet, due to its increasing popularity -- particularly programs about the Great War -- Hanna correctly shows that contemporary audiences learn much about the past through the medium of television. Unfortunately, a large portion of the remainder of the chapter is spent repeating points that will be discussed in further detail in subsequent chapters.
In “A Monumental Monument: The Great War (BBC, 1964),” Hanna emphasizes the significance of the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War. According to the author, the program has become Britain’s “public war memorial to the dead,” a revered series that subsequent programs about the conflict are often measured against. However, The Great War also offered audiences a grand narrative, which, as Hanna illustrates in later chapters, soon fell out of style. Whether intentional or not, this echoes French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s notion concerning the “incredulity toward metanarratives.” In other words, for contemporary audiences, belief in grand narratives has collapsed.
In one of her best chapters, “Survivors: Veterans and the Nature of Personal Testimony,” the author shows how the use of personal testimony engages the listener and brings a sense of immediacy to the subject matter. Hanna contrasts the strength of personal testimony with its corresponding dangers when she shrewdly contextualizes Lions Led by Donkeys (Channel 4, 1985). This documentary program features survivors from the Battle of the Somme discussing their experiences seventy years later. Hanna reveals the problems of the judging of the past through the values of the present. Consequently, the documentary appears to reveal more about the social challenges of the day than it does about the Somme.
In a provocative chapter entitled “Heroes and Villains,” Hanna explains that television programs can push back against generally accepted notions and offer “revisionist conversations” about the past. An example would be the reputation of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a man who, despite guiding Britain to one of its most brutal victories, is typically portrayed as an “inept and stubborn commander.” In an attempt to offer a more balanced view of the man, Haig: The Unknown Soldier (BBC, 1996) explored the myths that surround him. However, as Hanna makes clear, critics panned the documentary and anti-Haig sentiments remain strong in Britain.
In “Drama, Comedy and Drama Documentary,” her fifth chapter, the author shows once again how programs that challenge the accepted memory of British soldiers in the Great War still struggle to find an audience. Controversy over The Monocled Mutineer (BBC, 1986) erupted over its historical accuracy. The series depicts mutinies and soldiers swearing, drinking and raping, acts that upset the “sacrosanct” memory that many contemporary audiences still hold of British soldiers from the war.
According to Hanna, by the 1990s, a number of programs attempted to explore the psychological effects of the war. In “Over the Top: Reality Experiential Television,” the author defends the often criticized reality series The Trench (BBC, 2002), a program that asked male volunteers to “re-experience” fundamental elements of the Western Front. Highlighting the widespread condemnation the show received, Hanna masterfully demonstrates that, at least culturally, the Great War has spawned firmly entrenched clichés and established images which general audiences find hard to abandon.
In her concluding chapter, “The Fear of Forgetting,” the author stresses how the modes of remembrance utilized in Britain’s “televisual representations” are firmly rooted in its past. Similar to arguments made by cultural historian Jay Winter, Hanna argues that these traditional values and classic images were developed to help the nation remember and grieve the loss of its sons. Traditional modes of remembrance helped mediate mourning.
Overall, Emma Hanna has written a succinct, thoroughly researched book on the influence of television on modern attitudes about the Great War. The author surveys and contextualizes a broad number of television programs. Due to its scope, this occasionally leaves the reader with programs described rather than evaluated. One hopes this means that the astute Hanna will have even more to contribute on the topic in the future.

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