Monday, 8 November 2010

The First World War From Above

The story of the Great War told from a unique new aerial perspective. Featuring two remarkable historical finds, including a piece of archive footage filmed from an airship in summer 1919, capturing the trenches and battlefields in a way that's rarely been seen before. And aerial photographs taken by First World War pilots - developed for the first time in over ninety years - show not only the devastation inflicted during the fighting, but also quirks and human stories visible only from above. Presented by Fergal Keane.

Seven days left to watch it on BBC iPlayer:

The First World War From Above
Mark Radice
Tuesday, 2 November 2010

I was approached to direct The First World War From Above earlier this year. Back then, my fantastic production team at the BBC had put together a dazzling array of stories and elements.

These included a piece of extraordinary archive footage, filmed from a camera strapped to a French airship in summer 1919, following the route of the Western Front and capturing the devastation in amazingly graphic detail. There was also the Imperial War Museum's collection of 150,000 First World War aerial photographs, a fascinating set of images giving a birds eye view of the battlefields.

Finally, we had a great selection of personal testimony: From Tommies in the trenches (and pilots up in the air) to the civilians who returned to their shattered towns and villages after the war.

The only challenge now was to turn it all into a film. How can you take such an iconic, enormous conflict such as the First World War and turn those four years of sacrifice into one hour of television?

When we met up with broadcaster and writer Fergal Keane, who was to present the film, we all agreed that, wherever possible, we had to try to reflect the lives and experiences of individuals - the soldiers, the pilots and the civilians who saw that corner of Western Europe utterly torn apart.

As we threw ourselves into the production, new and even more exciting stories started to emerge. Belgian archaeologist Birger Stichelbaut had been digging deep into the aerial images. He found that a photograph taken over Diksmuide in Belgium shows how some German soldiers unwittingly gave away their position to the British - by gardening.

Although the men's barracks were safely camouflaged under trees, the flowerbeds were clearly visible from above to British photographic experts. And once British commanders saw the flowerbeds, they soon directed their big guns onto the barracks.

We also learnt about the British tank stranded between enemy lines and 'rediscovered' it hidden inside an aerial photograph. Now historians have been able to map its precise location in the battlefields of Passchendaele.

We discovered that the huge networks of tunnels dug by both the British and Germans still lie underneath the villages along the Messines Ridge - and met a farmer's wife who fell into one of these tunnels just a few years ago.

And after some meticulous digging by our French researcher, Alice Doyard, we uncovered the incredible story of Jacques Trolley de Prévaux, the pilot who flew the airship above the Western Front and made the film in 1919.

I don't want to spoil the end of the film for anyone but Fergal finishes his journey through Belgium and France with a trip to Paris, where he meets Jacques' daughter - with some emotional and extraordinary results.

We're all very proud of the film. Do let us know what you think of it.

Mark Radice is the producer and director of The First World War From Above.

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