We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’. The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme. It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.
In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War. I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).
Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky? Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching. Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’
At one level, this is fair enough. The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas. I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey. But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration. The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website. In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.
Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism. Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama. Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise. As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode. In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.
So why do I keep watching? Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace? Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so. The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good. It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts. Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure. I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.
There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so. It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase. Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War. I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way. So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas. I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.
There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this. Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances. But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health. Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy. Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit. In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.
This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War. The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent. Using them in this way is not always comfortable. For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how. For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief. Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.
The whole sorry effort has been dissected in detail for many errors in a lengthy thread on The Great War Forum”. More like a soap than a drama.
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