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BBC marks First World War centenary with major programmes

Stories of the First World War are being gathered by the BBC for the centenary

Jeremy Paxman in Hartlepool with the clock that was stopped by a 1914 bombardment
Jeremy Paxman in Hartlepool with the clock that was stopped by a 1914 bombardment

More than six months before the 100th anniversary of the actual start of Britain’s involvement in the First World War, the BBC is on manoeuvres.

Reflecting the enduring fascination with a conflict which left nearly every community with a war memorial, the broadcaster is exercising its public service brief with a host of “Great War” related programmes and projects across the country.

This evening, at Hartlepool College of Further Education, an invited audience will get an early screening of the first episode of a four-part documentary series, Britain’s Great War, presented by Jeremy Paxman.

Why Hartlepool? Because it suffered one of the first German offensives against Britain. On the morning of December 16, 1914, units of the Imperial German Navy attacked the town, along with Scarborough and Whitby.

In roughly 50 minutes, Hartlepool was hit by 1,150 shells, which killed 117 people. It was the cruelest indication that this was a war unlikely to be over by Christmas and unlikely to leave many people unscathed.

The documentary series, produced in partnership with The Open University, launches what the BBC are describing as their biggest and most ambitious season.

According to the billing, it will show how the First World War affected the lives of British people and helped to create what we know as modern Britain.

In the first episode, Jeremy Paxman meets a 105-year-old witness to the Hartlepool bombardment, who explains how she thought the Germans had landed. Sadly, the old lady has passed away since the episode was filmed, but her recorded memory will remain forever.


Paxman, who spent two days in Hartlepool researching the series, is shown with a clock which stopped at the moment the shells hit – a poignant memorial to those who died.

The series begins with the episode featuring Hartlepool on Monday on BBC1.

Meanwhile, the BBC has embarked on an ambitious project called World War One at Home, which is designed to bring powerful stories to life.

“It will uncover surprising stories about familiar neighbourhoods where the wounded were treated, major scientific developments happened, prisoners of war were held and where heroes are buried,” according to a BBC spokeswoman. “It will explore personal stories of how families were torn apart and how they faced the challenges brought by the war, as well as accounts of the vastly important role women played.

“There will also be a diverse range of voices reflecting the many soldiers who came to Britain from overseas.”

Altogether the BBC plan to collect 1,400 stories, including 100 from the North East, that will be broadcast both locally and nationally.

On a completely different note, the BBC has announced it is teaming up with The Cultural Spring – an Arts Council-funded initiative to raise participation in the arts in South Tyneside, to present The Great North Passion.

It is an ambitious re-telling of the Easter Passion story based in South Shields and to be broadcast on BBC1 on Good Friday, April 18.

In the months preceding the one-hour live event and broadcast, a number of shipping containers will be located in various North East communities.

Each will have an associated artist who will transform the container into a work of art, reflecting the spirit of the local area and also representing one of the Stations of the Cross. The containers will all come together in Bents Park, South Shields, to form a huge cross-shaped installation to serve as a backdrop to the Easter story of the Passion.

Aaqil Ahmed, head of BBC religion and ethics, said: “The Great North Passion shows exactly how committed the BBC is to making accessible and groundbreaking religious programming and we’re delighted that this year’s broadcast will be coming from the North East.

“This is event television at its best, working with local partners, community groups, artists, performers and the wider BBC to deliver a programme that not only marks Easter significantly but also for as wide an audience as possible.”

Graeme Thompson, chairman of The Cultural Spring, said: “The event will provide a spectacular launchpad for our project and we’re really grateful to South Tyneside Council for their amazing support.”

The Cultural Spring is an initiative involving the University of Sunderland, the Customs House, South Shields, and Sunderland’s Music, Arts and Culture Trust.


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