Image of German troops advancing on the Russian army. Image courtesy of Fremantle Media.
Image of German troops advancing on the Russian army. Image courtesy of Fremantle Media.

Our guest blogger Taylor Downing is a historian and writer whose best selling books include works on the Second World War as well as other popular histories. Taylor also writes on the history of film and television. Recent publications include The World At War (BFI Palgrave Macmillan 2012) an account of the making of the landmark documentary series, and a number of publications on the Second World War including Night Raid (Little, Brown 2013), Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown 2011) and Churchill’s War Lab (Little, Brown 2010). Taylor is currently writing the history of a series of change making scientists from the First World War, to be published in 2014.

The World at War is forty years old! It was first shown to immense acclaim on ITV from October 1973 and it has never been off television screens somewhere in the world since. It is as popular with viewers today as it was when first shown, making it the most successful history series ever produced by British television. The title music by Carl Davis, the graphics with the flames and faces of war, the heavyweight commentary by Laurence Olivier, the stunning archive material and the brilliant interviews with those who took part in and witnessed events are as dynamic and compelling a combination today as they were forty years ago. The Imperial War Museum (IWM)World  played an important role in making the series with the then director, Dr Noble Frankland acting as historical consultant. IWM staff viewed and commented on copies of the programmes as they were being made so it is entirely fitting that the IWM should mark the anniversary. Behind the entire project was Jeremy Isaacs (today Sir Jeremy Isaacs). It was his vision that imagined the series in the first place and as producer he oversaw every step of the production process, but he is the first to admit that the series would not have been as successful without the team of fifty talented people who worked on it over a period of three years. It was a young team and many of those who made the series gathered at the IWM to mark the birthday. For nearly all of them, working on the series was the most important creative experience of their lives. 

Could The World at War be made today? No. Obviously, many of those whose dramatic testimony informs every episode have now passed, but more than that, The World at War was very much of its time. It was made by Thames Television in an era when there were only three television channels in Britain. Thames was not only wealthy but was ambitious and wanted to prove that ITV could make programmes every bit as good as the BBC. The company embraced the vision of Jeremy Isaacs and gave him and his team the time and resources to make the series.

The World at War did not glorify war or celebrate Britain’s role as one of the victors. The World at War does not take sides. It presents the horror of war from all perspectives, whether from a victim of the Blitz on London or Coventry, a housewife in Berlin, a resident of Leningrad, or a survivor of the Tokyo fire raids. Whether it takes you to the deserts of North Africa, the vast expanses of the Eastern Front, or the beaches of Normandy or Okinawa, the series shows both sides of the conflict. It is not a military history it is a people’s history. Watch it again when it next comes around. You’ll find it an extraordinary experience, I can assure you.