One summers evening as I was sitting in my grandparents flat in Sheffield my grandpa came in with a fully loaded carrier bag of VHS tapes, as it WAS the mid-1990s. He asked me to stop what I was doing, and asked if we could watch a series of history tapes together, to which I readily agreed.
Looking back it held no resonance to me then and my grandfather was never one to tell you what he was thinking when two oblique references would suffice, but it looks very different now. These were times he had lived through and which had shaped who he was, from the things the entire family knew and laughed about, to the things we spoke about quietly, the things he mentioned to me only once, and no doubt the things he only ever thought about.
And even then, only quietly.
I have no doubt that I have nothing approaching a full understanding of his experiences, nor those of the people who lived through the 1930s and 40s in any of the countries covered in the series. This said, the show’s greatest asset was its use of talking heads from British lords, Hollywood actors, German infantrymen, Japanese admirals and everything in between in order to catalogue their memories “Before they are taken from us.”
Scenes from the series have stayed with me because of their imediate power, or their occurence in the conversations I had with my grandfather after we watched each episode from June to December that year; prime amongst them the title sequences and Oradour sur Glane from the air.
These episodes are now available on youtube, and (temporarily) on the BBC iPlayer, and are such a fine achievement that I retract all previous claims I made to The Wire being the best television ever made, in favour of The World at War.
I now share my grandpa’s wish to read the book of the series, containing transcripts of the hundreds of hours of interviews undertaken to make the series.