Made Here: The Great War: An Elegy, BBC Two

SAYS the BBC – here – about ‘The Great War: An Elegy’, being broadcast tomorrow, Saturday evening: “Acclaimed poet, Simon Armitage, has written seven new poems about World War One, which form the centre of his latest television documentary.

“Armitage visits a Normandy village; a German prison camp, one of England’s ‘Thankful Villages’ – those settlements which lost no men in WWI – and a remote corner of the Scottish Highlands. In each, he considers the deaths of the 700,000 British soldiers in the conflict.”

The programme has been made by BBC Scotland for BBC Two, network. It is being broadcast at 2000 hours.

It is a Culture Show Special and, here, producer/director, Zoe Silver, answers the questions…

Who commissioned the programme?

This one-off film was commissioned by Janice Hadlow as a Culture Show Special, to form part of the BBC’s four year-long World War One Centenary Season.

Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’.

It was clear from day one was that we couldn’t make an archive film – not just because we knew there would be so many archive films being made about WW1, but also because Simon Armitage was interested in considering how we commemorate the dead for the next 100 years.

There are about 30 seconds of archive in the whole 59 minutes and hopefully the contemporaneity of all the scenes makes the content resonate in a different way.

We also knew Simon had to really ‘own’ the film and be present as often as possible – we had seven very different stories and he had to be the one to bring them together. So we made a proper film and not seven shorts that were stuck together.

We wanted things to look real, so we went with available light as much as possible and did a lot of hand-held stuff. However, we still took time to compose and consider our shots – things were never supposed to look like they were grabbed on-the-go.

Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?

Assistant producer, Jacqueline Houston, was recruited at the recommendation of series producer, Matthew Springford, who kept telling me if I didn’t get her booked and contracted she’d be nabbed by someone else! Thank goodness we did. Jacq is just superb. She understood absolutely what I was trying to achieve and was a joy to work with.

Cameraman, Nik Porter, was totally on board with what we could both see was an opportunity to make something very filmic and modern.

Sound man, Andy Boag, is a colleague of Nik’s who I’d never worked with before but who was ‘patience itself’. It’s hard trying to record really detailed and moving poems in the middle of seaside gales or school kids mobbing the gates of the Imperial War Museum.

Editor, Enda Mullen, has worked on loads of Culture Shows, Imagines and music docs. He is very patient. He is also married to me.

What kit and software?

We shot on a Sony F55 using a Fujinon Cabrio 19-90mm zoom, a cinema-style zoom lens, which gives an absolutely beautiful look.

Nik suggested using this zoom as a way of getting a fantastic look whilst allowing us to work in the way we needed – under considerable time pressure and responding flexibly to our environment.

We couldn’t have made the film look the way it does without it. I was seriously impressed. The whole experience confirmed Nik’s love of this bit of kit and he has since purchased one of his own.

His kids didn’t need Christmas pressies anyway…

Enda edited the film on FCP X.

It was all finished at Serious, who were just excellent.

What were the main production challenges?

Scheduling the shoot – it’s always hard but this was especially tricky. We spent hours and hours ‘tearing our hair out’ trying to come up with ways to fit a travel-heavy schedule into a lean budget and a realistic timeframe, flying into daft airports at daft times, driving half way across Germany one day and half way across France another, getting into ridiculous car rental scenarios and getting a late night ferry into Portsmouth only to be told our room reservations didn’t exist…

Okay, those last two are pretty much par for the course.

What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?

I loved working with Simon and feel he’s created beautiful, thought provoking poems of real value. To be somehow involved in their creation was a genuine privilege. I also feel very fortunate to have been able to spend so much time reading and learning about the war, and reflecting on what happened.

More prosaically, because our budget was so constrained, on most shoots it was just Simon, me (director), Nik (camera) and Andy (sound) so although it was wildly hard work we quickly became a really solid team and, very quickly, we all understood what we were trying to achieve. Cups of tea were, however, horribly thin on the ground. One day we shot in London and had a lovely runner. I was so happy.

I was pregnant all the way through the making of this film and I also really enjoyed not thinking about feeling ludicrously sick as I had other things to concentrate on.