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World War One: In Colour
writer: Simon Berthon

narrator: Kenneth Branagh

producers: Jonathan Martin and Philip Negus

312 minutes (E) 2002
Fremantle DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Capitalising on the greater availability of archive footage, and utilising recent technical advances to enhance eye-opening footage, British television producers have created some remarkable documentary series over the last few years. Typically based around major world conflicts, such flagship programmes have been popular as well as critical successes. Channel Five's six-part World War One: In Colour followed ITV's The Second World War In Colour (1999) and Britain At War In Colour (2000), but differs in one vital respect: none of the film available was originally shot in colour, so that used in the new series, of which it is claimed 75 percent had been previously unseen, is computer colourised for the occasion. More controversial is the decision of the programme makers to crop original material to better fit the widescreen TV format, an editing which reduces the amount of information available to the viewer at the top and bottom of the screen. There are some issues too, at least here and there, with the projection speed of selected material some of which still remains plainly wrong, irritatingly perpetuating the frenetic movements of the bad old days. (Not only this but the programme makers seem unaware that a lot of the surviving 'over the top' footage were contemporary reconstructions for the benefit of cinema audiences, shot on Salisbury Plain.) Supporting the extensive use of archive material are some effective use of computer graphics for when footage is unavailable, as well as some effective and moving interviews with surviving participants and pertinent extracts from diaries and memoirs.
   As a work of military scholarship, with the support of the Imperial War Museum, World War One In Colour is relatively conservative. Understandably, it avoids most of the revisionist controversies of recent years, although its stolid, fence-sitting approach - for instance as regards to the battered reputation of General Haig - makes the content less fresh and provocative than it might have been. With its traditional, purely chronological arrangement of events, although admittedly subdivided under such major themes as the ground war, the conflict in the air, etc, one ultimately feels that the series lost an opportunity to provide a history of the Great War as significant to our time as was the BBC's 26-part The Great War (1964) a generation ago. In short, there are no surprises here and, apart from the colourisation; this is a series that could have been made 20 or 30 years ago.
   For this viewer at least this last element was, ironically, the most distracting. Granted that the original material is of variable quality, and despite claims by the programme makers that advances in computer technology has now made outstanding colourisation possible, the result is often less impressive than one might have expected. Too often images are unsubtle, with colour blanketing elements of a scene, giving an effect that is somehow contrived. Compared to the often-stunning footage seen for the first time in The Second World War In Colour, the present series is far more of a compromise by programme makers and viewers alike.
   With these caveats aside, a lot of the archive material selected is undoubtedly impressive - apparently 490 technicians were involved with its manipulation and the programme drew on sources from around the world - while Kenneth Branagh does an impressively impassive job as narrator. Evidently inspired by the standard set by Lawrence Olivier for the great World At War series from almost 30 years ago, Branagh's even tones heighten rather than level the dramatic events on display and provide the ideal compliment to the images.
   World War One In Colour is presented on two discs with three 50-minute episodes on each disc. They contain the same general background facts, timeline and 20 biographies as static text screens, a rather unimaginative display of facts given the likely educational market. There are also interviews with the film makers while the second disc offers Tactics & Strategy, in effect a whole seventh programme, mixing archive footage with new computer graphics to illustrate in detail 13 specific aspects of the conflict.
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