A few years ago, I was having lunch with Richard Lake, a businessman based in Bomber County, Lincolnshire. Richard is a great fellow and has an especially keen interest in the Second World War. It was he who personally paid for the Canadian Lancaster to fly over to the UK for the summer, for example. He’s also been a big backer of the International Bomber Command Memorial. Anyway, he was complaining that most TV documentaries on the subject left him feeling cold. He was rarely, if ever, learning something he did not already know. Most documentaries dumbed down, he felt. They showed the same old archive he’d seen lots of times before, perpetuated myths and bad history or revolved around gizmos and projects that looked impressive but cast little new light.
I had to admit that I rather agreed – and have been involved in numerous programmes that fall into those categories. Hunting Hitler was fascinating to film and do because I travelled loads and got access to places and objects I would never have normally been able to see but it was terrible history and based on a bonkers conspiracy theory that didn’t remotely hold up. Watching the MacGregor brothers hurtle around the sky in a Mk IX Spitfire in a documentary about the Battle of Britain told me nothing and was historically utterly irrelevant. Archive-based documentaries with a dull narrator and a few talking head historians are mostly just a bit boring. They’re cheaply made with low production values and look it too.
Richard and I got chatting and we agreed that it would be good to make documentaries that didn’t use old, cheap and overused archive as wallpaper, didn’t repeat what had already happened every fifteen minutes, and which, instead, bore right down into the nitty-gritty. There would be more chat, more covering of the ground on which the fighting took place, more explanation of the wider context of the war and yes, more on the operational level – that aspect of the war that was so vital, which explains how it was fought and managed by the various combatant nations, and yet which is invariably totally ignored in documentaries on the subject.
A plan started to hatch and a small production company, Typhoon Pictures, was formed with Richard and me, but also Aaron Young, with whom I had made a number of documentaries for the BBC, from The Battle of Britain, to Dam Busters, to The Battle for Malta. In those, I had both written and presented, in what had grown into a very genuine collaboration, and in which Aaron and I had pretty much total control. Aaron had since created his own and very successful production company, Bright Button. A fourth partner, Martin Davidson, then joined. It was Martin who had commissioned those films I’d made with Aaron and he had overseen the golden age of BBC history on TV, but had since left the corporation. His passion and experience would be invaluable.
So, off we went and filmed a three-part series based on the research I’d done for my book of the same name, Normandy 44. I feel that the old days of one presenter, walking along a beach, pontificating, delivering a punchline and exiting stage-right, have gone. Better, we reckoned, to have viewers being a fly on the wall, watching and listening a conversation, on location where the events talked about happened. I could do the history, but some military perspective would be interesting, and so I called up an old friend, Dr Mike Simpson, a former US Army Ranger and special forces physician. Mike was on the Osama bin Laden operation, has been decorated for bravery in Iraq and been deployed all over the place. He’s also a very smart and articulate guy and a good pal, so the ideal person to accompany me in Normandy. And he proved to be every bit as good as I’d hoped and more, offering all sorts of perspectives I’d not considered or thought about before.
The series we ended up making is light on archive, but there’s a lot of content and production values are high – and we covered a huge amount of ground and definitely discussed more about D-Day and the Normandy campaign than has been ever attempted before on TV. I really hope those watching will learn something new and that it feels fresh, different, and talks up to its viewers not down.
The plan is to make more – and to create a slate of WWII-related documentary films and in differing styles, but sticking to some common principles: no archive as wallpaper, no living veterans but rather, have actors read out diaries, letter, details from much more contemporary eye-witness accounts.
More importantly, it’s a medium through which we can tell a different narrative of the war – rather than a Wikipedia infused, myth-laden and tired old narrative that has been kicked into touch a long time ago in academic study of this period. In fact, the aim is to give people the very latest and best academic work on the subject but in an easily digestible and visually exciting and fascinating form.
To start with, though, we have Normandy 44: D-Day and the Battle for France. It’s available on Amazon and I really hope as many people as possible get a chance to see it and enjoy it. If you do, and it works, then will have created an exciting new formula for creating high-content Second World War television documentaries and it means we’ll be able to make more series and films in the future. Television is changing dramatically at the moment; it’s exciting to be pioneering a new and fresh way presenting this incredible and endlessly fascinating subject.