It was an interesting start to this BBC 1 series: it’s 1914, a young English nurse stands on board a boat going to France, she drops her wedding ring over the side and it sinks into the sea. Presumably this device signifies the character casting off her past in terms that today’s TV audience (especially younger women) will understand. But is it appropriate or historically accurate? And does it matter (hell yes, in my eyes). I heard a discussion about this very scene on Radio 4’s Front Row last week – would any nurse have gone into this conflict as an act of rebellion? Was it not more likely that women volunteered for overseas duties in the spirit of making a serious contribution to the war effort?
The series focuses on three volunteer nurses who are about to get the shock of their sheltered lives as they try to adapt to working in a field hospital close to the fighting. The ring-dropping episode is our introduction to the posh rebellious Kitty Trevelyan (played by Oona Chaplin), she smokes, stands around looking moody and backchats the Matron; there’s the posh ditzy one Flora Marshall (Alice St Clair) who – horror of horrors, can’t make a hospital bed; and there’s the older, shy, slightly spinsterish one Rosalie Berwick (Marianne Oldham). The senior nurses are stern-but-with-a heart-of-gold Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris); an older overlooked-for-promotion and possible baddie Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox) and a ‘highly qualified, civilian sister’ the no-nonsense Northerner Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones), notably the deliverer of the soppiest lines in the entire hour. What are we to expect of the series? The next few weeks will tell if the first major fiction series of the BBC’s WWI Centenary programme will stick around in the mire of being a clichéd romp through the Great War, or if it will be boldly unsentimental about the most heavily memorialised event of the 20th century.
Questions arising from episode one:
Does the series tell the ‘untold stories’ as author Sarah Phelps claims? Or does Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth still provide the most authentic record of the VAD experience?
Were all senior officers inhumane fools? (No, but let’s see how it pans out here);
Were inexperienced nurses posted abroad?
Statements I would like confirmed one way or another:
Was condensed milk used to simulate syphilitic discharge (the mind boggles!). I want it to be true by the way, even though it forever changes my rosy view of condensed milk.
What date is the setting? One patient dies of complications from a gas attack (gas warfare came in 1915) yet there are loads of empty beds.
To be continued….