NARRATED by Edith Bowman, The School That Went to War is a series of 30-minute programmes on World War One that will be broadcast over five weeks, from today on BBC Radio Scotland at 1330, until the tenth of next month.
Examining the Great War, Scottish school pupils track the lives of soldiers and families from their community.
To compliment the series, BBC Scotland Learning is making two programmes for School Radio.
The first looks at how to delve into local history and the second goes behind the scenes of The School That Went to War.
BBC Radio Scotland producer, Yvonne Slater, answers the questions…
Who commissioned the series?
Jeff Zycinski, head of Radio for BBC Scotland, commissioned the series as part of the BBC’s World War One commemorations. He had the idea of working with a group of pupils as they discovered the stories of soldiers from their community and gained a better understanding of the impact of WW1 in Scotland. My colleague, Liza Greig, developed the five-part series that was commissioned.
Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘sound and feel’?
We wanted to put the school pupils at the very centre of the programmes. They do the research and interview the historians – we hear the questions they want to ask and their reactions to their soldiers’ experiences.
We intercut this with students trying out activities connected to the war in their classes. They tried army training 1914-style in PE and cooking fish sausages from a WW1 recipe in Food Technology. The trip to the battlefields was a chance for the students to put themselves in their soldiers’ shoes and reflect on what they would have experienced on the frontlines.
The pupils were tracking the lives of soldiers who had gone to their school, but they also looked at how the community would have coped on the home front. And they explored the stories of a conscientious objector who was prepared to take any punishment for his beliefs, and a nurse from Portobello who’d spent the entire war at the front.
Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?
We worked with a group of 13 pupils from S1 to S6 at Portobello High School, in Edinburgh. We identified the school with the help of colleagues in BBC Learning. Portobello had already started WW1 projects in a variety of classes. The young people involved volunteered for the project because they were interested in history and were prepared to share their thoughts and feelings about their research.
Liza and I worked together initially on the ideas for the themes and format for the series but by then, Liza had a lot of commitments for Commonwealth Games programming so I was the producer fortunate enough to get to make the series. Help and guidance has been provided by senior producer, Lynsey Moyes, and editor, Jane Fowler, who is also co-ordinator for BBC Scotland’s coverage of the WW1 centenary.
Early on, we also did a two day workshop at the school with BBC Scotland’s L.A.B. where the pupils made film and audio content about Portobello and life in WW1. This also helped the group of students to get to know each other before they started the project in earnest.
Key to the programmes were the school’s own archives – the log book kept by the headmaster during the war years and his register of all pupils attending the school. Both helped us to identify stories and soldiers. We’ve had a lot of help throughout from school librarian, Lauren Thow, history teacher, Mamie Phil, and retired head of history, Sheila MacIver. Further help came from fellow BBC producer, Louise Yeoman, whose expertise in archive research proved invaluable.
We were delighted to work with Edith Bowman, who narrated to series.
What kit and software?
Most of the recordings were made with a Tascam DR-100 MK II, using its in-built stereo mic or a Shure VP88. I also used a Sound Devices 722 for recording during the trip to the WW1 battlefields. We chose an interesting editing workflow for this series – I edited on Pro Tools, stored the tracks on VCS Highlander and then the programmes were mixed on SADiE by Malcolm Torrie.
What were the main production challenges?
This felt like a very different way of structuring the recordings because the young people took on two different roles. They were telling their soldier’s stories and reflecting on what they discovered, as well as asking questions of experts to put their research into context. We had to balance how much of the story they found out before they spoke to historians so that we could capture their first reactions but also make sure they knew enough to feel confident asking questions.
At the start, many activities essential to the student’s research made valuable learning experiences for them – for example, searching the online military records – but it didn’t always make great radio… We had to find other ways to represent these parts of the story.
What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?
I very much enjoyed working with the young people – it was quite moving to see how much the students connected with their soldiers, particularly when we went to visit their graves in France and Belgium.
The young people’s reactions could be surprising at times – one of the stories was about an under-age recruit and the pupils were almost as shocked that he had lied about his age on official war documents as they were to find out he was only 15 years-old when he signed up.
Never work with children? I’d do it again, in an instant.