We need to tell the story again

The World at War was, when it was made in the early 1970s, the most expensive documentary series ever produced. Mixing archival footage and survivor interviews, in 26 episodes it told the story of the Second World War, skillfully shifting the focus between grand strategy and colossal battles, and the individual lives and experiences of combatants and civilians.


The underlying drive behind making The World at War was that the lived experience of global conflict was fading. The producers wanted to capture the voices of those who had lived through the horror of death camps and carpet bombing and total war, so that the lessons of the tragedy might not be lost.

Right now, with the rise of Putin, Trump, Brexit and harsh intolerant nationalist governments from Poland to India, from France to Brazil – it seems we are forgetting those lessons again. Someone needs to reboot The World at War, update the effects and graphics, bring in some new and fresh material, and tell the story again.

I saw the series first as a boy, perhaps forty years ago. It made a big impression, not least because of the opening titles. They showed words being burned away, like the pages of a book being consumed in fire. The theme music – an original score by veteran screen composer Carl Davis – played over these images. It was perfect: beautiful, tragic, unsettling with its jumpy shifts in tempo. Here it is, taken from the LP released to accompany the series. Just listen!

  • Artist: Various artists
  • Album: The World At War
  • Track: A1 The World At War Theme (composed by Carl Davis, performed by the London Festival Orchestra)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: SPA 325
  • Year:  1973

Screen time

We are an extremely visual culture, and becoming more so. As images and video becomes easier and easier to create and manipulate, and as screens become better and lighter and more portable, our ability to just read, or just listen, gradually erodes. I teach at a university, and it is a constant battle to keep students’ interest and attention. In lectures I prepare well, mix it up, use short video clips, images, use a few, well-chosen words – but it is hard work. One upside: the annoying students who used to talk up in the back rows are now sending texts to each other, so at least they are not disruptive.

The visual culture has two paradoxical outcomes.

While we are always looking for new and exciting images, our taste in music becomes more and more conservative. That is why commercial radio is such a wasteland of hits’n’memories. When was the last time you heard something on commercial radio which:

  1. you had not heard a hundred times before, and
  2. didn’t sound pretty much the same as the song before and the song after?singing detective

The other paradox is happier. If you create something visually arresting, while the eye is engaged, you can smuggle much more interesting sounds into the ear. People who would resist with violence if asked to listen to a bluegrass compilation will happily watch Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Ditto an album of contemporary classical music, and Game of Thrones. That is why much of the best and most innovative music of our time comes attached to some sort of screen production.

I love soundtrack albums for this reason. You never know quite what you will get. They are a great way to explore and discover music you would not otherwise hear. In the best cases, the music becomes almost a character in the film, evocative of mood and place. The Singing Detective, a BBC mini-series written by Dennis Potter and released in 1986 is as fine an example as any. The pop music of the 1940s becomes part of a dreamscape of a sick man, memories of his wartime childhood interweaving with fantasies of noir detective fiction.

The soundtrack album is wonderful, an extraordinary compilation of the music of the era. There are tracks by Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, the Andrews Sisters and a dozen more artists, but the track I have chosen to share is by someone I had never heard of before, Anne Shelton. She was a British blues singer with real talent, who became enormously popular with servicemen. “Blues in the Night” was one of her hits, and originally released in 1942.

  • Artist: Various Artists
  • LP Title: The Singing Detective: Music From The BBC-TV Serial
  • Side 1, Track 3: Anne Shelton “Blues In The Night” (recorded 1942)
  • Format: 12” LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: BBC REN 608
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986