Television through the eyes of ordinary soldiers? The BBC's The Great War and eyewitness testimony

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One of the central features of the ground-breaking BBC documentary The Great War was the inclusion of eyewitness testimony. The material recorded for the series has been constantly re-used in BBC radio and television documentaries and in academic writing. However, the selection of witnesses in 1964 and the role they played in the documentary has received scant attention. Relying on documents available at the BBC Written Archives Centre and the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, this article addresses the selection of eyewitnesses. It shows that more than a quarter of the veterans appearing in the series can best be described as elite voices. This qualifies the widely-held belief that the documentary gave voice to ‘ordinary’ people. Moreover, veterans’ testimonies were not spontaneous, ‘off-the-cuff’ tales as recent First World War centenary coverage has suggested. They were often based on published autobiographies or similar written accounts. Finally, it is argued that the veterans were ‘moral literary witnesses’ whose storytelling was crucial in determining the tone of the series. Their accounts undermined the revisionist narrative advanced by the series’ principal writers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)642-661
Number of pages20
Issue number3
Early online date1 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2018


  • First World War
  • BBC
  • Documentary Film
  • Talking Heads
  • Witnessing


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