It’s all history: Isaacs looks back fondly on broadcasting landmark

Sir Jeremy Isaacs

Sir Jeremy Isaacs

Few of us can claim the gift of prophecy and even the doyen of television grandees, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, would be reluctant to cast himself as someone who could see into the future.

Forty years ago, however, the young Isaacs had a vision of how television documentaries should be presented.

Taking advantage of an unusual tax loophole for broadcasters, Isaacs went to his employers,Thames Television, and proposed a ground-breaking series, which became the 26-episode The World At War.

Now in a remastered digital edition, with an additional 12 episodes, the 40th anniversary boxed set of DVDs comprises an astonishing 37-plus hours of film, providing the mythical visitor from Mars with a close to comprehensive view of the Second World War. The series boasts a gloriously memorable score by the composer Carl Davis and, of course, the idiosyncratic narrative by Laurence Olivier, complete with some distinctively odd pronunciations.

In one of those pub quiz moments, it is believed that an episode of The World At War is showing somewhere on the planet almost every day — Thames sold the series to more than 50 countries.

But although plainly quietly pleased with the continued success of his programmes, Sir Jeremy still thinks there are gaps.“The biggest problem was getting the Russians,” he says. “And besides that, historians will tell you that our state of knowledge has changed. For example, the secrets of Bletchley Park [the British code-breaking headquarters] were only first released in 1974, just after our transmission. So we were able to say that codes were broken, but we weren’t able to talk about Enigma [the iconic Nazi encryption device]. I also think there is not enough about China.”

Nevertheless, what is remarkable about The World At War is how little it has dated, particularly since it was made at a time when witnesses from both sides of the conflict, Allies and Axis, were alive and had relatively fresh stories to tell. Less than 30 years after the end of the war, there was the opportunity to speak to participants both ordinary and extraordinary, from housewives in Britain and Germany to Hitler’s secretary and architect, Albert Speer.

So how was the remastering of the series undertaken? “I am not an expert on technology,” replies Isaacs, “but what they have done is make the pictures sharper and the sound more vivid.

“Of course,” he adds with a wry laugh, “the fact is that the DVDs have been seen by millions and millions of people. New technology was an opportunity for the distributor to boost sales and bring it to people so that they could see it in better nick than it was before. But I think people watched the series because of the narrative, the fact that each episode told a complete story, the fact that each story had a beginning, a middle and an end — and they get pleasure from watching it. I think that the pleasure is improved by the new digital presentation, but I don’t think it is wholly dependent on it at all. I used to meet people who had seen it with their parents, as children, then later on watched it with their own children. The other day I met a man who buys these boxed sets for his grandchildren. So there is still a demand for it and it is still enjoyed.”

Sir Jeremy has first-hand proof of the continuing appeal of the series. “Not long ago I was in Brussels [he is chairman of Sky Arts and still travels the world on television business] and they have British customs posts inside the railway stations. I was walking towards the customs post and the officer called out to me: ‘I’ve just been watching episode 16 again!’” Not, as Isaacs admits, that he is certain of the content of episode 16.

The episode which has caused the most controversy, however, is number 20, the bleakly entitled Genocide. It was almost certainly the first time that the horrors of the death camps and the near obscene images of corpses being shovelled away after liberation had been shown on prime time television. His sole stipulation was that there should be no advertising breaks during that episode. “The British broadcasters behaved admirably,” he says. “They screened it at the same time as all the other episodes, 9pm.” Less admirable was the behaviour of the South African TV chief.

“I had been asked to fly out and lecture when the series — which was the most successful thing they had ever screened — was shown. I flew out on the Saturday night and landed at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. I was met and told that while I was in the air, the director-general of South African TV, a man called Swanepoel [the story still clearly rankles with Isaacs all these years later] had gone on his own news broadcast and announced that episode 20, due to be shown on the following Tuesday, would not be shown because it might upset some people living in the country.

“There was an outcry from the Jewish community and I was met by the press — Jewish youngsters were demonstrating. It was a very important issue because there had been no books, plays, or films about the Holocaust censored in South Africa. But television came under a different Act. When the Jewish community realised the series was going to be shown they went to a Cabinet minister and got his assurance that it would not be censored, because they wanted it known and seen in the country they lived in.”

With heated behind-the-scenes negotiations, it took two days for the decision of the director-general to be reversed. “Genocide was shown in South Africa and after it was broadcast I took a telephone call in my hotel from a German woman. She came from an area where a lot of ex-Nazis lived. She was in floods of tears, telling me — and perhaps it was true — that she had no idea that any of this had ever happened. That has stuck in my mind.”

The World at War 40th Anniversary (FremantleMedia International) is available on DVD & Blu-ray

Last updated: 1:50pm, August 28 2014