The BBC has commissioned more than 2,500 hours of programming that will span four years to mark the centenary of World War I. The season started in early 2014 and will run through to 2018 on BBC TV, radio and online across international, national and local services. The BBC’s programming offers a unique way to understand a war that changed our world, reflecting the centenary from every perspective.
One of the original dramas to launch the centenary programming schedule is The Crimson Field by Sarah Phelps that will be screened on BBC1 at 9pm from Sunday 6 April 2014. It tells the story of women of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VADs) and military nurses in war time France from 1915 in a tented hospital off the coast of France. Here we bring you an interview with Sarah Phelps.
The Crimson Field stars Oona Chaplin (The Hour, Quantum Of Solace), Hermione Norris (Spooks, Cold Feet), Suranne Jones (Scott And Bailey, The Secret Of Crickley Hall), Kevin Doyle (Downton Abbey, Scott And Bailey), Kerry Fox (Shallow Grave, An Angel At My Table) and Marianne Oldham (WPC 56).
Catherine Goodier: How does it feel that The Crimson Field will launch the BBC centenary programming?
Sarah Phelps: It feels absolutely terrifying. You just really, really hope that as a writer you’ve done it right. You’ve done it justice. And you’ve created a world which is alive now so that the people in it aren’t living history, they’re living the moment as it happens. They don’t know that we’re in 2014 looking back nearly 100 years. All they know is that they are in 1915 and they’re responding to it as it happens. The world is at this stage and they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. They don’t know what’s going to happen in a week’s time. They don’t know how long the war is going to last. They don’t know the radical changes that will happen. They’re just falling in and out of love and making friends and making enemies and trying to establish their own lives within this world of the war.
Catherine Goodier: What was the origin for The Crimson Field?
Sarah Phelps: We were filming [the 2011 BBC adaptation of] Great Expectations and we were coming to the end of the shoot. The people I’d been working with asked me to read The Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald, who is a historian. It was a history of the nurses, both military and volunteers [VADs] during WWI. I read it and found it captivating. It was part of a World War One that I didn’t know about, one I’d never really heard about. I started reading a lot of histories about the First World War coming at it from loads of different directions.
The BBC was very keen to have a drama that launched the centenary of the Great War. I perhaps came at it from a slightly different angle. The vision of the war is of the trenches and young men in the trenches and we wanted to have something that gave a different experience – one that gave a women’s experience, one that would get those women and men to tell a story of what England was, what Britain was then and the changes everyone was going through. It became really exciting.
I didn’t know about the Voluntary Aid Detachment. I know that sounds fearfully ignorant, but I had no idea that women in Britain had volunteered in absolute droves to go all over the world nursing men with just a few months training under their belts. They were catapulted into this extraordinary situation where the whole idea of what a man is and what a man should be and what a woman is and what a woman should be was absolutely flipped on its head by what the war did to them.
“We begin in 1915 when the first wave of VADs went to France. Up until that point there had been a handful of military nurses who were struggling to cope. Then this influx of civilian nurses and civilian girls of voluntary nurses came in and it was a huge culture clash as well, which is really fascinating.
“Obviously it changed as the war went on. In the first instance as I understand it from my research the guidelines to be a VAD was that she had to be over the age of 23 and she had to be unmarried. That meant that for a lot of these women their only experience of men may well have been fathers, or brothers, or the odd beau, the odd sweetheart. Certainly not men in absolute desperate dire straits of anguish, of unbelievable pain, of terror and of general nakedness. They had to look after some of those men as though they were babies. They were catapulted into this and the guts, and the spine and the passion it took to do this and what really comes across in a lot of my reading is there were a few who weren’t able to cope with the reality of nursing, but the majority of young women, my God they stayed.
They lived in tents in the most extraordinary weather conditions in the depths of winter. And they really stepped up and nursed men in absolute extremisms. It’s extraordinary. One of the things that comes across is that sometimes you read descriptions of some of the VADs who very clearly edited their letters home and their journals. And there was a sort of sense that they were meant to be published or that they were giving a view of the war that was palatable for the people at home. They weren’t really telling the full truth as it was happening in front of them. They’d say things like ‘the Tommies are such dears and they never swear ‘. Well men straight in from the battlefield with bits of bone sticking out of their leg in absolute agony will tend to swear, but you get the sense that actually they’re protecting the men with their words. They’re so protective towards them.
And it astonishes me as well about the extremes they witnessed. They gave descriptions of terrible head injuries for which they could do absolutely nothing of course. And terrible gas injuries, which lead to men drowning in their own lungs. And these young women and the military nurses sat by their beds and kept them company. And were there. It just astonishes me. There were a couple of sisters whose diaries I read when I did my research and their training seemed to basically consist of knitting balaclavas and learning how to roll bandages. Then they were suddenly thrust right into the eye of the storm as it were, probably looking at each other wide eyed before they rolled up their sleeves and blooming well got on with it. I absolutely love them for it. I truly do.
Catherine Goodier: From your research what were the powerful images that stayed with you?
Sarah Phelps: There was the most incredible image, which I’ve built into the second episode, which is the sound that a fork made on the edge of a bowl as a young VAD whisks up egg white in a dark ward to do the two hourly feeding of a young man with absolutely the most appalling facial and head injuries possible. You know egg flip, which they gave men who’d had jaws shot away and it’s just a beautiful description of the tsk, tsk, tsk of the fork on the edge of the bowl as this young woman stands there in this dark ward as she tries to spoon just enough protein down a young man’s throat in a desperate hope of keeping him alive.
Through my research it really came across that in August 1914 these hospitals would probably have been a couple of tents, a surgical tent a couple of ward tents and a handful of nurses and orderlies. Within a couple of months they have exploded in size to cope with the men coming down from the Front. And what came across very strongly to me was that these hospitals were constantly evolving. They’re just growing and growing and growing and growing in order to cope with the influx of wounded men.
I read incredible descriptions of the need for structures on the floor in between the beds and nurses hoiking their skirts up to clamber over the men so their skirts wouldn’t get caught on the bits of bones that were coming out of legs.
Catherine Goodier: Did the characters come to life quickly?
Sarah Phelps: The characters did kind of spring to life immediately. I wanted to tell a story about England as well. A lot of the young VADs were from well to do backgrounds which they had to be as it was voluntary and they didn’t have an income. I wanted to create variety in the characters so that you could tell different kinds of stories about their lives so they weren’t all just upper middle class and a bit posh as a way to put variety into their lives about where they have come from and what their lives would have been.
So one is very young and has lied about her age so that she can go and be a VAD and do her bit for the brave boys. One is that bit older and is already considered on the shelf and a failure as a women because she has failed to get married and to have children, which is what she’s been trained for. And one of them comes from quite a dark background and the big story is being told through her eyes as it were.
There’s an orderly who’s quite a rough lad and surgeons who come from different backgrounds and different places. And there is my civilian nurse and her story is a big part of the first series and my two military nurses, both of whom are utterly professional and utterly wedded to the job, which of course they had to be. Military nurses weren’t allowed to marry at this point. They were as dedicated as a nun. They made a promise, they made a pledge. You didn’t marry. You gave your life to the service of nursing. We have those two women a senior nurse and a Matron who has just been given the job as Matron to run the hospital.
Catherine Goodier: Did you feel protective of your characters as you put them in hell?
Sarah Phelps: One of the things is that yes they are in hell but at the same time it is almost the moment in these dark four years, this dark crucible when so many other things crack open and the 20th century begins. Medicine and surgery make an incredible leap forward. When you read about what was available to the surgeons and the doctors and the nurses in 1914 it’s stunning that actually anybody survived the onslaught of heavy industrial warfare. You don’t have blood transfusions; there is no way of storing blood. They’d only really just discovered blood typing. They could do person to person transfusion but that was really rare. Pain relief was pretty blunt, just Morphine or variants of morphine. In terms of using anaesthesia there’s awful descriptions of men having to be held down when they’re being given chloroform because they hated going under so much and sometimes operations would be performed while patients were awake with a kind of local anaesthetic.
By the end of the war plastic surgery has begun. By the end of the war they’ve found a way to store blood for blood transfusion by using citrate and it makes this huge leap during those four years. It’s also a time when something has re-evaluated in the way that men would be understood and women would be understood. They would be different forever after these four years. Yes they’d go through a process where after the war everybody would go home and go hang on a minute that’s not my job — you can stop being a munitioness and earning your own money and get back into the kitchen. But something really radical changed and also an understanding of what happened to the mind under extreme duress. That happened as well because where we’re writing now, now when they’re talking about shell shock they didn’t know what shell shock was. They didn’t really understand what was happening to men when their bodies appeared to change because of the pressure their minds had been put under. They really didn’t understand it. But by the end of it they do.
It was hell and it was terror. In a lot of my reading there would be terrible, terrible shocking things like barbarity and terror and cruelty and yet at the same time you hear the most extraordinary descriptions of singular acts of courage and bravery and shining humanity which absolutely takes your breath away, which reminds you what this war is about. It is the very, very worst that we are capable of and the most beautiful, shining and extraordinary best, sometimes at the same time, at the same moment, in the same few feet of trench.
I love all of the characters. Even though they come for various reasons. Some of them have come to escape the past. Or some of them have come to escape that horror of being viewed as a failure as a women, as a spinster, as life being over. But the war gives them that opportunity to actually be something else, to be something different to be bigger than their own small world. It’s extraordinary really. It really is.
Catherine Goodier: What was it like selecting the actors?
Sarah Phelps: Sometimes people would walk in and they’d open their mouth and you’d go ‘oh there they are’. Suranne Jones came in to read for my character Joan Livsey, a civilian nurse from Liverpool who is a reservist and is a very frank and funny and open modern women, but with this story behind her. And before Suranne opened her mouth I went ‘there she is.’ You know the minute they’re there. It was the same for the actors for my young surgeons, both of whom in The Crimson Field come from completely different worlds and yet they’re the most unlikely of friends. The actors walked in and there would be a look in their eye or a way they stood. And there they are again. You always get that little thrill that goes through your blood. When we knew we had the girls that was really exciting, when we knew we had Kitty, and Rosalie and Flora there in front of us. You put them together as a threesome and say ‘there they are’. Very, very different people all with their own prickles and their own uncertainties, but here in France for a reason.
When they were filming I was writing and I watched the rushes at home and there would be times I’d watch it and I’d just be totally blown away and I’d think ‘look at that that’s lovely.’ I would have liked to be on set everyday but you do have to let it go. It’s a bit like dropping your kid off at the school gates for the first day at school. You have a little cry but if you brought the kid up right it’s going to be fine, it’s going to play in the sandpit, scrape its knee, have a few bumps and grazes and then make friends and be independent. That’s what you hope for.
Catherine Goodier: Did you have family members who were involved in WWI?
Some of the stories that have gone into The Crimson Field are stories from my own family background. My great uncle Hubie was gassed when he was in The Artist’s Rifles. He was trained by Henry Tonks who went on to develop the tin noses shop. I had my great uncle’s experiences at Dunkirk. My grandfather’s experience going from Normandy pretty much to the gates of Belsen during the Second World War. I’ve drawn on aspects of their characters for some of the men. And I’ve drawn on my grandmother and great aunt’s for aspects of the characters and the back stories of the VADs and nurses.
Catherine Goodier: Is there part of you in any of the characters?
Sarah Phelps: They’re all a little bit me to be honest. Even if they’re male or female or middle aged or very young, or bad tempered and prickly and very difficult, or rather insouciant and charming.
I have one character who at 6 o’clock says I will have a cocktail. That got to look like an act of courage to me. I don’t care what’s being chucked at us. I don’t care what’s happening I will have a cocktail and it will have an olive in it and I will stay smiling and I will stay happy because I refuse to be cast down. I think because they’re my people they all have a certain quality of me in them, but in the main I’ve just made them all up.
I just really hope I’ve done it and them justice and begun a process by which you can tell a really epic story because it is an epic story. It’s got such an epic scope and while the war is going on and while these poor men are flooding down from the front with terrible injuries or terrible mental and emotional and psychological anguish, but at the same time people are grabbing at life to live every minute that they can.
What comes across very strongly in all of my reading is that you live very, very intensely during a time of war. It would seem rude and churlish to not live intensely while all around you people are suffering and dying. I wanted to show the cheek and the optimism because what comes across is that Tommy irreverence and that cheek and that optimism and a kind of wisdom and generosity. And that incredible thing about the very best that humanity can offer each other like great bravery, great personal sacrifice and then people shrugging it off and going ‘oh well it’s nothing.’
The Crimson Field by Sarah Phelps will be screened on BBC1 at 9pm from Sunday 4 April 2014. And yes Sarah has done everyone justice, as having watched the first episode this is an epic story that is brilliantly told. I would like to thank Sarah Phelps for speaking with me and for being brilliant and Ruth Neugebauer of the BBC drama team for arranging this interview.
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