Yesterday I finished writing the final episode of the WW1 radio series for the Heritage Lottery Fund. In ten three-minute episodes I try to cover off a good deal of information about what London in 1914 was like through a child’s eyes and how things changed as war encroached into every corner of everyday life. Even though the time frame of six months is short I have to cover a lot of ground. This includes detail on the homes people lived in, clothing, entertainment, schooling, communication, food and celebration – across all the social classes at that time. And I try to make the narrative engaging and moving too, obviously.
It follows the changing life of Edward Hampton, who is 12. He lives with his mother and father in an middle-class part of north London, and enjoys school, the cinematograph theatre, and fishing with his father. His richer Grandmother lives in a very large house with many servants – her main concern about the war is that finding staff will become harder than ever.
Edward is friendly with Sidney, 13, the son of Mrs Parry the housekeeper. The Parry’s live in the poorer enclaves of Clerkenwell. Sidney’s brother John joins up the very first day he can and is soon at the front. Mr Parry follows, and even Edward’s father joins the London Fusiliers, Stockbroker’s Battalion before the year is out.
Mrs Hampton takes a job at the War Office as a censor, and Edward is increasingly left to his school and scouting friends as even Sid starts work as a telegram boy and Mrs Parry moves to better paid factory work. Sidney desperately wants to join up like his brother. The year ends with khaki everywhere on the streets as the “lights go out over Europe”, and the British realise that this terrible War will not remotely be “over by Christmas.”
My favourite line is from Sidney who is trying so hard to join up:
“I acted all angry and said I was twenty one if I was a day and my diminutive stature was because I come from a long line of jockeys. I said my father won the 1899 Derby on a horse with backward leg, and if they put me on any old nag they want and give me a revolver, I’ll gallop right up and shoot the Kaiser myself”
And the Curse of Blackadder (unintentional double-entendre) manifested spectacularly in this line, only spotted after it was off for production:
“I read in the newspaper how they are desperate for large houses to serve as hospitals for the wounded soldiers. Might your mother oil her enormous front gates and open them a crack for our men?”
Oops. I had to research an awful lot of things quite quickly over six weeks, and translate this to a series for children. I was aiming for it to be moving and informative, without slipping into sentimentality. Where we lacked detailed information I have had to creatively fill the gap – something I enjoy although there is always the issue of whether your imagination has diverged too spectacularly from fact.
One of the biggest ahem creative differences I had with my boss along the way was whether to use contractions – you know don’t instead of do not, shan’t instead of shall not.
I do not (ha) know the exact extent of the informal use of contractions in the spoken word in 1914 across all classes; letters from that time seem to include them … and not include them but then the written word is not equivalent to the way people would have spoken. There are not many audio examples of the raw spoken word from that time, far less across the social classes.
My position is that this is a script; it is essentially dialogue which will be heard by listeners, as opposed to being a document, and our ears are used to hearing contractions. Although I include plenty of accents and idiom appropriate to the time, I have included quite a lot of contractions – even for the richer, better educated characters.
Partly because it felt right and well, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, not…..It is a Long Way to Tipperary. Right?
This series has involved much careful thought from myself and the team and I am really excited to hear how it translates to air later in the year.
1914 – Through a London Child’s Eyes, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, will be broadcast on Fun Kids this Summer with a series of accompanying workshops for families.