You’ve probably sat through episodes of this epic documentary on the Second World War in school classrooms, wondering if this is a break from learning or a window into a particularly scary past. Revisiting the landmark series as a free adult is a rare and extraordinary TV experience. And there’s no one setting fire to your jacket or flirting with your crush.
The World at War was made in the early 1970s by ace producer Jeremy Isaacs, scripted by Neal Ascherson and others, with an imperious if quirky voiceover by Laurence Olivier, pulling together an account of this seismic period. It was made at the only moment it really could have been: when key people who were there – Hitler’s private secretary Traudl Junge, or Nazi architect Albert Speer – were still alive, but when there was enough distance from the catastrophic events to offer perspective and balance (no ‘Britain vs the world’ canards here).
The episodes jump around the theatres of battle, with footage from the war in the Atlantic to the back-and-forth of Rommel and Monty in North Africa, from the fetid jungles of Burma to the Blitz, and the jubilant scenes of VE day. But it’s the interviews which really stop the clock: ordinary citizens describing fear and betrayal in the Warsaw ghetto, lucky not to have been pulled onto trains heading fatefully east; accounts of astonishing resistance heroism, or decorated officers reliving the worst of Stalingrad and the liberation of Brussels and Paris. As the title implies, almost all of us are descended from people involved in some way.
Writing in The Telegraph in 2020, Chris Harvey says that he “became immersed in its epic scale and scope – war played out in deserts and jungles, on endless plains of ice and snow; battles at sea, battles in the air, struggles for unassailable positions on rocky hilltops, hand-to-hand fighting in bombed-out cities.” He says that a friend pointed out, “for sheer narrative, the Second World War beats Lord of the Rings all ends up.”
First aired October 1973