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from The Guardian Monday 25 June 2001


Chance to relive trench lifeBBC offers fortnight in the trenches
Horror of life on western front latest challenge for reality TV

by Tania Branigan

Wanted: 25 young men for a fortnight’s trip to the continent. Must be willing to wade through mud, live with rats and maggots, and be gassed, deprived of sleep and subjected to simulated shelling.

If that sounds like hell, the programme-makers have almost got it right. The BBC is trying to simulate life In a first world war trench for the most ambitious "reality TV" show yet produced: a recreation of life on the western front in November 1916.

Volunteers will spend two weeks in a trench dug along the old French lines and will be exposed to tear gas, woken at all hours, and will have to wear heavy tin helmets night and day. Each will play a real-life soldier and will have no idea when he is going to "die" — until producers remove him.

"It is conceived as a serious documentary with a serious message and educational purpose, rather than as reality TV," a BBC spokesman said yesterday.

The aim was to bring home the horrors of the war to a generation that knew little of the conflict. "It is being meticulously researched ... There will be interviews with people who were directly involved."

But some historians argue that the show will offer little insight into the war. "If it reminds people of how bloody horrible it was, fine. The majority of my students probably wouldn’t know the difference between Hitler and the kaiser," said Julian Putkowski, who lectures at King’s College London, and has written extensively on the first world war.

"But it doesn’t do much more than reinforce the existing stereotype that the war was about lads volunteering for the trenches. "It’s a male, Eurocentric view. We had nearly 100,000 Chinese soldiers on the western front."

People tended not to consider the "many Asian, African and West Indian men who took part, the soldiers who were not on the front line or the role of women.

"It becomes theatre ... If viewers come away thinking 'God, that was horrible’, they are getting 0.5% of the horror.

"In purely physical terms, these people will be taller and stronger — really you would have to take people who were prone to disease. They should be traumatised, having seen a third of their schoolfriends killed in the previous six months. And I hope they include a 16 or 17-year-old; by their own estimate, 15% of the British army was under age.

"You would need at least one person with venereal disease, and another would need to get the news that his wife had run off with someone else. They would have no sleep for three or four days on end. They would suffer hypothermia, ice and lice-borne infections."

Kevin Smith, who has tried life in the trenches as a member of the Association of Military Remembrance, also expressed doubts about the project. "We don’t attempt to recreate battle," he said. "It borders on bad taste, and you cannot simulate that fear or danger."

Life in the trenches was "90% tedium, and the authenticity will suffer because they will have to provide entertainment or people won’t watch it".

The programme-makers say they are keen to reproduce the experience as wholly as possible, health and safety guidelines permitting. David Colthurst, the executive producer told the Sunday Telegraph: "We will be recreating every detail of the whole miserable experience. It will seem pretty damn real."

The BBC’s factual programmes department has had dozens of calls from people keen to take part. "They will have their work cut out," said Mr Smith, describing his attempt to recreate the Christmas truce of 1914 in Flanders by redigging the original trench two years ago.

During the seven days "it flooded, and one chap went down with hypothermia, You are never clean, never comfortable, always tired. You put things down and they disappear in the mud. The hardest thing was the cold. You were out there with no prospect of getting dry, but at least we knew that at the end of the week we were going home"

Fewer than 200 first world war soldiers survive, all aged between 100 and 107. Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans Association, said: "The show will give people some idea of what it was like, because a lot of young kids today don’t have a clue."

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