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from the Guardian 11 March 2002

The battle for ratings
You can find out more here about the bbc tv series The Trench
The battle for ratings

TV preview by Mark Lawson

Later this year, a British television company will broadcast Camp, a four-part series in which a hundred volunteers relive the experience of the victims of the Nazi death-camps. The participants will be shaved and starved and subjected to medical experiments modelled on those of Dr Mengele.

At the end of each episode, 25 of the volunteers, randomly selected by computer, will be given a card marked "Oven" and escorted to replica cattle trucks. Responding to objections from Holocaust survivors, the producer said: "This is a serious historical exercise intended to bring home to young viewers in particular the terrible daily horror of the final solution."

Don't worry. I just made up Camp, I think, although the quest for controversy and ratings in television is now such that one man's satire of television is another's pilot for Channel 5. But my point is that most of us would feel instantly that an Auschwitz role-playing show is an impossible proposition; you couldn't get it commissioned. So why has there been excited publicity and viewer anticipation for The Trench (Friday, 9pm, BBC2)?

This three-part series asks a group of contemporary men to spend two weeks living in dug-out mud in France, reconstructing the lives of soldiers in the trenches in 1916. I can see that there's a difference of historical sensitivity between Camp and The Trench. The first world war was an act of political folly; the Holocaust an expression of racist evil. There are also far fewer survivors of the trenches likely to be offended by the show and no neo-Kitchener party whose members might tune in for the wrong reasons to watch squaddies squirming in the dirt. Even so, The Trench risked offending the dignity of history and the dead.

Slipping the preview cassette into the machine, I felt as nervous as a conscientious objector on the day the call-up papers were sent out. So what, when the fog of the credits has lifted, do we see? Previously known for This Life and Teachers, the actor Andrew Lincoln now teaches us about That Death as narrator. He first reveals the rules. The activities of the participants are shaped by the diaries of the "Hull Pals", the 10th Batallion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. The dirt, meals, latrines, lice and rats are all real, and the sound and light effects of gunfire and flares will be played throughout the exercise. A trained army officer is in charge of the simulation.

However, in welcome proof of the survival of public service values in British television, the volunteers will not be asked to charge towards machine-guns in the final episode. A tap on the shoulder from the producer and a ticket back home to England represent death. It's soon clear that, at the level of daily soldiering, we're watching something more real than a Spielberg war drama. This is Method Acting far beyond anything Robert De Niro imagined. The seniors daily inspect the rank feet of the other ranks, and if these men get trench-foot, it won't be the result of Oscar or Bafta-nominated make-up.

The discipline looks painfully accurate as well. When one of the squaddies fails to shave, he receives Field Punishment Number 2, which involves running around a square. Lincoln's voice-over sadistically invokes Field Punishment Number 1, which apparently means "being tied to a wheel in the crucifixion position and fed on bread and water". In another moral complication of the project, you can feel the producer willing his recruits on towards this premier offence, the demands of TV and of decency frequently being opposed.

The tensions and friendships between the recruits are clearly real and the nickname culture - in which a Christian called John becomes known as John The Baptist - echoes the camaraderie of battle. And Private Nolan, the soldier they all hate, clearly is genuinely loathed, rather than a contemporary from RADA who happens to be playing the baddie.

Another gain is that details distantly familiar from history books and battle fiction - such as curry being part of trench cuisine because of the British Army's Indian experience - have a bigger educational kick when you watch real people experiencing the diet. Male viewers may also now have a greater understanding of the painful tedium of shaving in cold water every day. And yet the crucial difference between the 1916 conscripts and the 2002 TV volunteers is that the former knew, as they scraped at their stubble, that they were probably only polishing their smiles for the coffin. It's this near-certainty of early death which no reconstruction can ever reproduce. Asked to write their wills on the last page of their pay-books, as their real-life predecessors did, the re-enactors comment that it makes you think about what it was like to do that for real. Such comments reveal the weakness of the series. How much closer to reality does that scene take us than a sentence in a history book reading "Soldiers were told to write brief wills on the last page of their pay-books"?

Interviews with actual first-world-war survivors punctuate the game show reconstructions. I hope that the nature of the programme they were underwriting was fully explained to these brave men - and that they are not being used by the producers as sandbags against possible detractors - but their presence means that the series has a double emphasis on the lucky ones: the men who escaped the worst of war then and now. Ultimately, the objection is not to bad taste but to a gimmicky treatment of history. Knowing that these men only entered the trench after a producer filled in a BBC Risk Assessment Form, we see no more of the reality of war than when Tom Hanks puts on his tin hat. The Trench certainly isn't Camp but it's rather camper than war stories should be.
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