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TV review: I Was There shows the sad horror of the Great War

The survivors of the First World War speak directly to the camera, telling us about madness, despair, hysterical rats and some saucy songs.

This show, I Was There, was composed solely of interviews recorded for a 1960s documentary and which have now been dusted down and digitised.

The ex-soldiers who featured were in late middle-age when filmed and it was strange to see them as sensible men in suits. We're so accustomed to seeing the British Tommy either in flickering black and white as pale young boys waving from a train, or as old men in wheelchairs at the Cenotaph with a blanket across their knees. These interviews lifted them clean out of the jerky 1914 footage and made them solid, and it restored the thin old men to their sturdy middle-age and, in doing so, made the Great War seem real and near.

History on TV so often fails due to the monstrous figure of the presenter. It may be Andrew Marr, clowning around, or Jeremy Paxman trying to flog the programme's accompanying book. It could be a trendy academic in slim-fitting jeans, using the show to illustrate his coiffed hair and pet theories.

This documentary dispensed with these self-conscious, self-interested people and left the story in the tired but capable hands of the only true experts: those who were there.

The interviews were linked together with throaty cello music and captions so brief ('it was a war of attrition', for example) that they couldn't be intrusive.

There was a sense that the BBC were quietly and respectfully leaving the stage open to the interviewees who showed that they needed no gimmicks or graphics to make history come to life.

Some spoke of insanity, saying 'the air was an inferno. Your mind was another inferno. Reason was blasted out of it', and even the rats were driven to hysteria by the deafening noise of battle. Others relied on humour to cope with the horror and told how they'd flirt with French barmaids and bewilder them by singing bawdy songs, going 'inky pinky parlez-vous…'

Everyone had a different way of coping with the fact that training and skill and rank had nothing to do with your chances of survival. Out on no-man's land it was down to chance and luck.

And amidst tales of barbed wire and stinking mud was the story of Katie Morter. She was a young factory worker in Manchester, newly married when her husband went off to France. When he came home on leave he insisted he buy her a present. Katie hardly dared ask for what she really wanted: a white felt hat with a mauve feather in the brim. She had seen it in the shop window but feared it was too expensive but her husband marched her to the shop and presented her with the magnificent white hat. She was so proud that day that they both went round to Katie's factory, the leatherworks, so she could show off the hat and her brave soldier husband to her friends, all of whom lined up to shake his hand.

'I'm afraid I shall never come back again,' he told Katie's brother as he waited to catch his train back to the front.

And he didn't. Katie received the letter announcing his death and tried to write to his Sergeant only to find he had died too.

She went into labour but remembers nothing of 'its' birth because, she says, everything she loved was gone.

Katie Morter told her story plainly. There were no tears and self-pity and there would have been no counselling for her. She doesn't say what happened in her later life, but I assume she simply went back to the leatherworks, earned her wage and raised her child, and the white felt hat would have been placed in the back of a wardrobe and I doubt she ever wore it again.

I cried at her story as it was so plain and understated. This was the terrible hand history had dealt her and there was nothing to be done but live with it. The programme provided no comment and no sad music, and in keeping its distance it honoured the agony of the bereaved.

These stories were just too important to be diced and interrupted and talked over by an irritating presenter. An eager academic who is far too keen to enunciate and look grim at the right moments would have been an insult. A hot-shot 30-something PhD who has had training in how to gesticulate and tilt your head to camera would have been an irrelevance at best, an insult at worst.

Thank heavens the BBC put aside their superstar presenters and their inane quotas and just let these dignified and brave people speak to us.

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