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Macmillan Higher Education Palgrave Higher Education

The World at War

ISBN 9781844574834
Publication Date November 2012
Formats Paperback Ebook (EPUB) 
Publisher British Film Institute
Series BFI TV Classics

Forty years after it was first broadcast on ITV, The World at War remains the most influential and renowned history programme ever produced by British television: an examination of the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, featuring archival footage, eyewitness accounts, a powerful narration read by Laurence Olivier, and haunting music by Carl Davis. The twenty-six part series took more than two years, a production team of fifty, and a cost of £800,000, to make (the equivalent to about £12,000,000 today). But the epic scale of its production was more than matched by its impact. Attracting audiences of up to 10,000,000 in 1973, as well as winning a plethora of awards, it has ever since been regularly screened around the world, with sales of VHS and DVD copies making it one of the highest selling factual series.

In this latest BFI TV Classics book, TV producer and writer Taylor Downing takes a critical look at The World at War, exploring, among other things: the style of the series; the ethos of the series to tell the story of ordinary people caught up in the war rather than a story of military campaigns told by generals and admirals; the many claims made at the time about the accurate use of black and white and colour archive film in the series; the contested claims that the series is "definitive"; and its legacy for Television History. Downing's fascinating study includes interviews with the series producer, Jeremy Isaacs, and the other programme makers and researchers, as well as original research gathered from the archives of Thames Television, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the papers of Jeremy Isaacs, the production records at the Imperial War Museum, and the press response to the series at the time of first transmission and since. Downing's insightful study is fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in the monumental television production.

TAYLOR DOWNING is a television producer and writer. As managing director of Flashback Television he has produced more than 200 documentaries including many award winning history programmes. In 2008 he won the Grierson Award for Best Historical Documentary for 1983 – The Brink of Apocalypse (Channel 4 and Discovery US co-pro). He won the first ever BFI Award for Archival Achievement in 1985. Taylor is author of Churchill's War Lab (Little, Brown 2010) and Spies in the Sky (Little, Brown 2011), Cold War (1996, with Jeremy Isaacs) and Olympia (a BFI Film Classic). He regularly writes on Television History for History Today magazine and has lectured on Television History at the universities of Cambridge, Lincoln and Queen's, Belfast in the last two years. Taylor began his career at the Imperial War Museum in 1976 soon after the making of The World at War and then at Thames Television in the history unit that was set up following the huge success of The World at War.

1 The Time
2 History on Television
4 The Decision
5 Announcement
6 The Treatment
7 Format
8 The Team
9 Music and Words
10 Production
11 Content
12 The Holocaust
13 Conclusions
14 Aftermath


'Taylor Downing has constructed a fascinating story...The World at War was and remains a landmark, the significance of which we can better appreciate through this clear, incisive and readable book.' -David Reynolds, The Guardian
"An illuminating and informative companion piece." - Media Education Journal
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