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WW1 in Film and Television

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New WW1 comedy ‘Chickens’: avoiding war under hostile fire from ladies left behind

Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Jonny Sweet

Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Jonny Sweet as war-evaders George, Cecil and Bert, in Channel Four’s Comedy Showcase “Chickens”

It’s late 1914. In the sleepy Kent village of Rittle-on-Sea, where booming artillery occasionally is heard from across the Channel, three twenty-something blokes are the last men remaining. All the rest have gone with the army to endure the shelling of those guns.

Our ‘heroes’ are George, Cecil and Bert, and as the citizens of Rittle see them, they are chickens, worthy of the white feather, deserving only contempt.

Which is what they get in spades. Early in the Comedy Showcase presentation aired Sept. 2nd on Britain’s Channel 4, the post lady delivers the lads’ mail with a curt one-word greeting: “Traitors.” Some villagers have decorated the cottage they share with derogatory graffiti.

The men put as good a face on things as they can.

In this unfriendly world of women, children and the infirm, the hapless fellows are thrust upon each other for company and moral support, despite having little in common. Each in his own way must somehow prove his manhood in what is no longer a man’s world. And while the war is safely distant, there is no avoiding the hostile fire of scorn and derision.

Chaps proving their manhood by any means necessary

Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet — all of Inbetweeners fame — wrote and star in Chickens.

George (Thomas) is a Quaker and therefore a conscientious objector. In actuality he is quite courageous, but few think so. The headmaster (portrayed by Rupert Vansittart) obliquely questions his sexuality, but is determined to keep him on, as he is the “last male teacher in the village.” If the women were to take over, fears the headmaster, all would be lost.

Cecil (Bird) can’t get into the army because of flat feet. He would have gone to the war, but it’s not possible. People assume, however, that he’s faking it, and accuse him of making up illnesses. This keeps him constantly on the defensive, and he frequently has to make apologies for his friends, especially Bert.

Bert (Sweet) is an unapologetic coward with little conscience or morals who won’t let public opinion come between him and what he wants – which is usually the village women. When not playing the Lothario, he shamelessly assumes the role of wronged party. In one scene, he comes before the village Relief Society to complain about brown water coming from his tap. Protesting it could cause him bodily harm, he exclaims before shocked war-widows, worried wives and civic ladies, “My corpse will be on your head!”

Of course, Cecil is does what little he is able to smooth things over, before almost falling over the Army recruiting table behind him.

Finding laughs in a period that had little to laugh about

I confess I gave up watching television seven years ago. As an American, I grew up on Hollywood-produced comedies. My experience of British sit-coms is meager. I know nothing at all about Inbetweeners, the series Bird, Thomas and Sweet worked on before Chickens.

The idea of a modern-style comedy set in a somber milieu like1914 Kent is an odd one and took me a bit of getting used to. Nevertheless, it seems to work.

This is no rip-snorting chain of laughs delivered with firecracker timing. The laughs are doled out with war-time restraint, but when they come, they are quite enjoyable ones. The situation at the finale, as our heroes leave the pub and encounter a certain baby tree planted in memory of a fallen townsman, is particularly clever.

The sets and period costumes, especially as worn by the ladies of Rittle-on-Sea, are wonderful to look at. A talented roster of actresses delightfully bring the village women to life, among them Sarah Daykin (Toby), Emerald Fennell (Any Human Heart), Olivia Hallinan (Lark Rise To Candleford), Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Young Leonardo) and Jessica Barden (Tamara Drewe, Hanna).

Chickens may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I must commend its creators for brewing up a pot like this. Some have criticised the show as being “Inbetweeners set in 1914. ” I wouldn’t know. I take it on its own merits and find this particular idea intriguing.

Hopefully Channel 4 will pick Chickens up and keep developing the potential that’s here. There are some great characters here waiting to be fleshed out, especially among the women. Now that I’ve met them, I’m extremely curious to find out what happens next.

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Watch a clip from Chickens: “Civilian Relief Committee” (UK only)

“On the Box” review of Chickens

Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet talk about Chickens. (UK only)

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‘Private Peaceful’, by War Horse author Morpurgo, begins filming in Suffolk

The tragic (and, many say, unjust) summary executions of some 300 British soldiers during WW1 are evoked in Michael Morpurgo’s novel, now coming to the movies.

Michael Morpurgo, Private PeacefulWar Horse author Michael Morpurgo’s other novel of World War One, Private Peaceful, is on its way to the big screen. This news should delight Morpurgo fans, coming mere months before Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated adaptation of War Horse hits cinemas world-wide.

Principal photography on Private Peaceful began the last week of August in the village of Woolpit, in Suffolk, England.

Morpurgo is an executive producer on the project.

Set in the fields of rural Devon from 1908 and in the front line trenches of Flanders during the First World War, Private Peaceful is a classic rite of passage story about two brothers, Tommo and Charlie Peaceful. It chronicles the exuberance and pain of their teenage love for the same girl, and the pressures of their feudal family life.

When war breaks out, the boys enlist and go to the front lines of Flanders. There, they learn more than they ever wanted to know about horrors and folly of war, the cruelty of command, and the ultimate price of courage and cowardice.

Battlefield injustice: the inspration for Private Peaceful

After writing War Horse, his first book about the World War One, Morpurgo visited Ypres in Belgium, where he learned of the 300 British soldiers executed during the war for cowardice or desertion – two for simply falling asleep at their posts.

“I read transcripts of their trials, and saw how unjust it had been” says Morpurgo. “I visited their graves and knew I had to tell this story.”

The all-British cast of Private Peaceful includes George MacKay (The Boys are Back, Birdsong), Jack O’Connell (Eden Lake, Harry Brown, Skins), Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter, The History Boys, Withnail and I), Alexandra Roach (The Iron Lady), Frances De La Tour (Alice in Wonderland, The History Boys, The Book of Eli).

Private Peaceful is produced by Guy de Beaujeu and Simon Reade for Fluidity Films in association with Poonamallee Productions. Its being developed in association with Peppermint Pictures. UK distributors are Exile Media.

Former Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler will compose the score for the film. Knopfler has scored a number of films, including Local Hero, Wag The Dog and The Princess Bride.

2003 review of Private Peaceful by the Guardian

Filming Faulk’s epic novel of love and the Somme: the story so far…

News from the set of BBC’s epic WWI drama Birdsong, now in production, is slow in coming, but here’s what we know at this point:

Cover of Sebastian Faulks' BirdsongIn May, the BBC revealed that Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel of illicit love, friendship under fire, and the ‘Great War’ that eventually alters everything, would finally be produced as a two-part television drama. This possibly disappointed some fans who for years have looked forward to a big screen adaptation.

That this hugely popular bestseller is coming to the screen at all, however, is certainly cause for excitement. Early, if so far meager, indications are that viewers will not be disappointed.

Birdsong is the story of young Englishman Stephen Wraysford, who, while temporarily attached to a textile plant in France in 1910, finds himself drawn to the plant owner’s beautiful wife Isabelle. They soon begin an intense affair that eventually meets an abrupt – and unexpected — end.

Much of the novel is set six years later, in the trenches near Amiens, during the lead-up to, and aftermath of, the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme. Wraysford and his friend Michael Weir are officers in charge of miners who dig tunnels and set explosives beneath enemy lines prior to the campaign.

One of the miners is Jack Firebrace, whose life will intersect with Stephen’s in a profound way.

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

British Tommies going over the top at the Somme

Perhaps the most gripping arc in the story is the actual first day of the Somme battle itself. Faulks’ descriptions of the carnage and dreadful toll of that day are set forth with harrowing and unforgettable vividness. It’s the most chilling of several strong story arcs that have made Birdsong a much-loved – and bestselling – classic, and it’s sure to be the heart-rending set piece of the film.

Birdsong has sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Making Birdsong: the long odyssey from book to screen

In the BBC film, Stephen Wraysford is portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (Saving Grace, Pillars of the Earth, Glorious 39). His lover Isabelle is portrayed by Clemence Poesy (Harry Potter: Deathly Hallows 1 & 2, In Bruges).

Birdsong had an overwhelming impact on me when I first read it as a teen,” says Redmayne.

While the story has been a gigantic best-seller since it appeared in 1993, and more recently has been produced on the West End stage in London, the novel has long eluded the transition to the big screen.

For 18 years, film rights-holder Working Title has tried to get it there. Many directors have been attached. A number of scripts have been commissioned. Actors have been named and then renamed, among them Ralph Feinnes, Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The script being shot is by Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady). Philip Martin (Wallander, Prime Suspect 7) is directing.

First Photos of Birdsong? and… the Battle of the Big Budgets

Filming got underway in Hungary in mid-June. One twitter post had Redmayne arriving at the airport in Budapest on June 10. Beyond that, scant information has been forthcoming.

As of August 29, however, these photos of Poesy and Redmayne, labelled Birdsong and bearing the stamp of BBC 1, have appeared on a Clemence Poesy fan site. The shots of Redmayne and Poesy together certainly embody the intensity of attraction between Stephen and Isabelle.

In May, BBC’s Head of Drama Ben Stephenson said Birdsong signals BBC’s intent to start making some of “the best drama in the world.” He added that the network aims to go head to head with American TV in the arena of big-budget drama.

The moving and uniquely British story of Birdsong is certainly big enough for such a budget. If all goes well with filming and post-production, there is no reason the result shouldn’t draw a massive audience, introduce many to the tragedy of the Somme, and give the Americans a run for their money.

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Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong Page (official)

The horse that carried Spielberg to the First World War

The director had no interest in WW1… until he met an unforgettable horse named Joey.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved farm horse Joey, in Dreamworks' forthcoming War Horse

I confess to being a bit of a sucker for movies about horses. I watched Seabiscuit twice, and fell in love with the story of Hidalgo. Something about that scrappy, come-from-behind spirit of these amazing creatures that just gets you right there every time. And now, here comes a horse movie that, judging from the trailer, is going to lasso hearts everywhere and ride off with them like… well… like a pack of horse thieves.

This Christmas, Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks Pictures will release War Horse, described as “an epic adventure for audiences of all ages, and an unforgettable odyssey of friendship, discovery and courage.” Spielberg himself directed this epic story of a young boy named Albert and his beloved farm horse Joey. At the outbreak of WWI, Joey is sold to the British cavalry by Albert’s father and dispatched to the front lines. From there, Joey begins an extraordinary journey, fraught with dangers and obstacles. Albert, unable to forget his friend, leaves home for the battlefields of France to find his horse and bring him home.

The film is based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, whose inspiration for the book came from several sources around Devon, where he lives. One old soldier had been “involved with ‘orses” in the day. An old cavalry veteran of the war told Morpurgo how he had confided all his hopes and fears to his horse. Another eyewitness related how the army came to the village to buy horses for the cavalry and for pulling such equipment of war as artillery and ambulances. Researching deeper, Morpurgo learned the tragic facts of how over 10 million horses died in the war on all sides, some 940,000 of them British.

Morpurgo tells of receiving inspiration, as well, from a young boy who had come to his Nethercott farm for city children. Nervous and withdrawn, the child had spoken to no one for two years. One night, Morpurgo discovered the child in the stable, talking “19 to the dozen” to Morpurgo’s horse Hebe about his day on the farm. Morpurgo realized that the horse was listening and, in its own way, understanding the child.

Morpurgo’s War Horse was a phenomenal success and went on to be adapted into a triumphant, international theatrical hit – which is where Steven Spielberg first encountered it with a passionate reaction.

“I thought the story was absolutely fascinating, and I was simply transported,” the director recalls.  “It was a very honest story, I saw it as a movie for families, the journey of a boy and a horse who were once so close, whose destinies drive them far apart. “To me, this is a story about belief, hope and tenacity – the tenacity of a boy and a horse driven by devotion.” he says.

Though Spielberg has directed or produced numerous films and television programs set in the Second World War, including Saving Private Ryan, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Band of Brothers, he admitted in a recent interview with Vanity Fair that, prior to learning about the War Horse book and play, “I had never been that interested in World War One”.

War Horse opens in the US on 28 December, 2011, and in the UK on 13 January, 2012. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, War Horse stars Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irvine, Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Kebbell. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis penned the screenplay based on the book by Michael Morpurgo and the recent stage play by Nick Stafford, produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain and directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot.

Official movie site for War Horse

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

Learning WW1 history through model kits, movies, books and comics

How do popular cultural forms give relevancy and meaning to an event as seemingly antique as World War One?

Still from Beneath Hill 60

The tribulations of German and Australian miners beneath the trenches of Flanders are harrowingly depicted in the film Beneath Hill 60

I happened recently upon a moving YouTube video commemorating the infamous Battle of the Somme, which began on the 1st of July, 1916. In a war that set the standard for wanton wastage of human life, that date marks what remains the bloodiest single day in British military history, with casualties approaching 60 thousand British soldiers killed, wounded or missing.

My introduction to the horrific facts of the Somme was Sebastian Faulks’ epic 1993 novel Birdsong, which, incidentally, is finally in production as a two part television film for the BBC (more on that in an upcoming post). That novel is well worth taking the time to read, especially if you are, like me, a relative newcomer to the First World War. Not least among the many interesting aspects of the novel is its depiction of the miners on both sides whose unenviable (and dangerous!) task was to bore beneath the killing fields of Flanders and France to plant explosives beneath enemy positions. Again, google this subject to learn more. I’d also recommend the excellent, if harrowing, Australian film, Beneath Hill 60, which I intend to write about soon.

Speaking of writing: why this blog? Well, I certainly don’t iplan to expound upon historical arcana in professorial fashion. I am not (at least not yet) enough of an expert for that, and there are plenty of fine Web sites that do it well. (I’ll recommend many as we go along). But I do admit to an insatiable fascination with this cataclysmic, dreadfully sorrowful, but endlessly fascinating era of human history, and a desire to learn more.

Bi-plane kits, old flicks on TV… and Enemy Ace!
It’s an interest first kindled in the mid 1960’s, when I was in my early teens, building my first plastic model kits of quaint double-winged airplanes, the originals of which were flown by daring men with names like Richthofen and Rickenbacker. I read DC comic books starring a red Fokker-flying German known as “Enemy Ace.” On television, if I were lucky, I’d occasionally thrill to old movies like Dawn Patrol and Sgt. York. At the cinema, the big event of 1966 was The Blue Max.

Of course, because of all this, I soon sought out the books, the histories. But my interest in those days was still adolescent, semi-indoctrinated with strange notions of the “glory of war.” It wasn’t until I actually read, a bit later, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and, soon after, Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo’s dreadfully dark indictment of all wars, that I glimpsed the real secret of all wars: war is never glorious, and such enterprise is wasteful and ruinous. No conflict was more profligately so than the First World War, which claimed upwards of 15 million lives, and left few nations unscathed. Eventually, as I came of age and liable for the Vietnam-era draft, other interests came to the fore, and my fascination with the First World War receeded into the background.

Back with a vengeance
It resurfaced, however, some 45 years later. And again, model airplanes were the key! Whether it was a hankering for the scent of enamel paint, a desire to re-create some pleasureable hours of my youth, or just too much too much time on my hands, I don’t know, but I had a powerful desire to build one of those bi-planes again. With the internet, I found that my options had multiplied exponentially. The sheer amount of data available to one now, just on WW1 aircraft, mind-jarring. Beyond that, the universe of WW1 on the Web is vast. You can learn anything there is to know. You can find books aplenty, fiction and non-fiction. Countless films have been made and are there for the discovering. And there is much, so much, more.

Nieuport 17 model kit

My recently-completed 1:48-scale Nieuport-17. The kit is by Czech Republic manufacturer Eduard.

That’s where I hope, via this site, to make a contribution: to stimulate interest in this period, especially among “newcomers” like myself… not so much by rehashing the names, places and facts of the war themselves, but by seeking out and examining the many forms the event has taken – literary, artistic, commercial – in the popular mind and culture, over the 97 years since its advent. If as a result we find ourselves seeking to know more about those names, dates and places, so much the better. Because those things are still worth knowing about.

I invite you to join me in the exploration, which should prove interesting, edifying, sobering, entertaining and I’m sure (dare I say it?) fun.

The First World War soon turns 100

Let me quickly add that we’re rapidly approaching, in 2014, the centenary anniversary of that event. In the coming years, we’ll likely start hearing much about those times. Hopefully the more we hear, the less danger there will be of WW1 becoming an antique, forgotten relic of the past. Its terrors, repercussions and echoes remain with us in so many ways. It’s last veterans may have passed away in 2011, but the war itself was too terrible, too profound in its consequences, even for us today, ever to be forgotten.

All text Copyright ©2011 Rick Koobs

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