The Crimson Field Episode 6, the finale

The Crimson Field has reached its end.

Did all those storylines get tidied up? No, even more themes are introduced: the brother of one of the orderlies is admitted with a self-inflicted burn. It’s not enough for a ‘Blighty one’ so the orderly breaks the lad’s leg with his bare hands. Nasty.

Who falls for whom? Joan and Anton meet again, he’s arrested, then proposes to her; it can’t work out well. Tom hears the truth about Kitty’s past, he’s not phased. They snog.

Rosalie has become a real nurse.

Who dies? Nice Roland’s soldier son, that’s who.

How many boxes of tissues were needed? None here but forests-full elsewhere no doubt.

Will there be a series two? (Think bears and forest here). Sister Quayle (with her shiny new Red Cross medal)  is going to continue being the bane of Matron’s life in the next series with her scheming and cake stealing; Roland may or may not stay in charge of the hospital; young Flora is starting to grow up. With three years of the war left (it’s October 1915), there is the possibility of several more series.

Pantomime baddie Sister Quayle will continue to cause problems for Matron Carter.

Pantomime baddie Sister Quayle will continue to cause problems for Matron Carter.

The major theme for the final episode is Joan’s crime of ‘consorting with the enemy’. The tagline for this show is ‘The hospital is thrown into disarray’ when an enquiry panel is hastily convened to decide whether she should be court martialled. Actually the ‘disarray’ is quite tame. But there’s a useful sentence or two about the hardships endured by Germans in Britain especially after the Lusitania was sunk in May 1915. I believe it was immensely difficult to speak up for the accused against military law as it stood in these cases. I’ve just read William Broderick’s gripping novel A Whispered Name, which deals with courts martial and seems to me to be a well-considered examination of the ordeal. So I don’t know how realistic this scene is (someone will hopefully enlighten me), but given the previous gaffs in the series, I’d like someone to verify.

I must just re-iterate how quiet it is on the Front! Will I be back for more? Maybe….

Sweet natured Colonel Brett rushes to defend Sister Joan Livesey as she is accused of aiding the enemy.

Sweet natured Colonel Brett rushes to defend Sister Joan Livesey as she is accused of aiding the enemy.


I thought I’d end this blog series with a selection of press reviews of The Crimson Field and a big thank you to everyone who has read each post:

‘It’s hard to conjure a real sense of fear for any of the characters, encased as they are in a world of starched linen and complicated love lives, separated entirely from the squalor and degradation of trench warfare’. Rose Buchanan in The Independent 4th May 2014. Read more at

‘Six million people watched the first episode. It’s possible that if it continues to win high ratings the BBC will be able to claim it as a success, but as one of the marquee productions of the Corporation’s year-long commemoration of the start of the First World War, it feels lacking in realism and gravitas. I expected better’. Chris Harvey in The Telegraph 13th April 2014. Read more at

‘Every now and then a programme reminds why telly is so great and The Crimson Field, as part of the BBC’s World War One centenary programming, has done just that and surprised me in just how good it’s been’. Kate Bellamy Metro Blog, 5th May 2014. Read more

I had been promised an ‘explosive’ episode of The Crimson Field from a couple of correspondents on social media, after I felt that this drama series had been a slow burner so far. This week there was a plethora of story strands to deal with, from the turmoil and uprising in Ireland to self-inflicted wounds of presumed cowards. WG_Sherborne in the Western Gazette, 21 April 2014.

‘There was a little bit of gore, but not enough to deter a mainstream audience. When a patient died, for instance, the camera cut to the nurse’s face as we heard him breathe his last. You need a stronger stomach to watch Call The Midwife, frankly. Realism was missing in another way, too, one that wasn’t obvious at first: it’s too quiet. There were men screaming, and orderlies shouting, and lorries rumbling, but there were no guns. So close to the front, the noise of artillery ought to have been constant. The big howitzers could be heard across the Channel in London when the wind was blowing in our direction’. Christopher Stevens in The Daily Mail, 7 April 2014.
Read more:

And finally…

‘If you are interested in a more warts-and-all view of field hospitals you could do well to look to The Backwash of War by Ellen La Motte. As Ellen herself wrote, ‘there are many people to tell you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I want to tell you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash. They are both true.’ Ellen was an American nurse who volunteered and served in a French field hospital ten miles behind the Belgian lines.  Her series of sketches were published initially in the Atlantic Monthly and later as a collection. They were banned at the time because of the effect they were considered to have on public morale, and they make harrowing reading’. The National Archives’ blog post by Sally Hughes. 28 April 2014. Read the blog at




The Crimson Field Episode 5

‘New woman’ Sister Joan is desperate to know the fate of her fiance. Image: BBC/Nick Wall.

Sister Joan’s (Suranne Jones) dangerous secret was revealed last week by Flora and then ruthlessly exploited by pantomime baddie Sister Quayle. It was announced to an assembly that Joan was engaged (ring spotted on chain round neck) , which forced her to make up a tale about her fiancé being in the British Army, when actually he’s a German. In my programme notes I had written ‘Interesting strand?’ Too hopeful! It sadly descended into an unbelievable plot involving what looked like resistance fighters as Joan desperately tries to make contact with her man. It’s basically a spy theme that might end up in Joan being shot as a traitor. What are the chances in the last episode?

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Joan is arrested and charged with a capital offence.

At last the focus turns to Matron Carter (Hermione Norris); she has been simmering away in the background doing good here and there and putting up with Sister Quayle’s jealousy over the promotion. This week’s incoming wounded introduces Colonel Ballard, an imperious, brusquely spoken officer from the Punjabi Rifles. They have a brief verbal spat, in Punjabi: ‘Well well well, she speaks Punjabi’ he sneers. Another strand, this time it’s the colonials! OK writers and producers give us a treat: please explore the empire line, as it were. It appears that Matron grew up in the Punjab and comes from a well-heeled family. That’s it really.


Matron Carter meets Colonel Ballard from the Punjabi Rifles.

This week we have our first splash of mud! It rains during this episode, quite a lot it seems as muddy puddles finally get their day in the spotlight. Posh, aloof Rosie Barratt is outed as a Rt. Hon. when a package addressed to her is spied on the post trolley. However, for whatever reason, (reader, there must be one, it is a constructed narrative after all) she trips in a muddy puddle and her glowing white apron becomes sullied. Nothing is made of this.

It’s all so QUIET as Bjork might say; there are few sounds of battle, which is odd when you consider that the rumblings of explosions could be heard frequently across the Channel in Kent and mentioned in various diaries, for example the Reverend Andrew Clarke, writing from Essex on July 1 1916: ‘All this morning the Flanders (as it is supposed) guns have been booming forth, making [the] house quiver at times and shaking window sashes. At 10am they made almost an uninterrupted roll of sound, like a long roll of distant thunder’. Now that is terrifying and feels real.

Flora (the prissy one with a gay brother) decides to raise morale by organising a concert party. I wonder if  in reality the YMCA might have done this as they were set up in pretty every location in the various theatres of war. Who can tell me more? But it gave the cast a good excuse to have a singalong, maybe to raise their morale as much as ours. Anyway, the last episode is next week and then I can go back to being a Sunday-night-drama avoider.


Let’s just remind ourselves of the real women involved in nursing behind the lines.

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Nurses at New Zealand Stationary Hospital, Wisques, France,, 1918. Image: New Zealand Archives, Reference: IA76 H905.


The Crimson Field episode 4


So near and yet…. and then her husband turns up. Kitty and Tom getting up close and personal.

Oh Crimson Field! I do so want to like you but you keep fidgeting about like an unformed teenage brain: too many half formed ideas, not enough commitment and a scant regard for accuracy. I’ll be glad when it’s over and I can get off the schmaltzy Sunday TV merry go round.

To start with a quick recap. Episode four was more promising (episode FOUR you say? It’s taken that long?) opening in sombre mood with a mass funeral. We weren’t told who the dead were, which may reflect the frequency of such ceremonies and certainly reflects the massive numbers of dead each day. Did nurses attend these ceremonies? I’d like to know.

There were some plus points: mentions of picking up the clap in the local town; absinthe; superstitions; black humour, hints at empire – all realistic. There’s Oona Chaplin’s beauty, and she can act, although where did that Cockernee accent come from that slipped out when she stormed out of the car heading for town? Kitty had been summonsed to meet a mysterious man in a nearby hotel; she must go rather than go on a date with handsome Captain Gillan. She hitches a lift and appears to have been stood up when in lurks an older man who turns out to be her husband.

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Kitty’s in the hotel waiting for…


…her cruel husband, who is taking his revenge for her infidelity.













There’s a new thread – as if there weren’t enough already – marital cruelty. Kitty’s ‘wronged’ husband (in his eyes only), played by the noble Sam West, plays an intensely cruel trick on her, pretending that their daughter is in the hotel. He’s a nasty bit of work and we instantly understand why she ran away, even at the cost of losing her daughter. Unfortunately, it’s a clichéd story, a wasted opportunity to bring some real depth to the series, maybe by addressing inequality in marriage. Luckily Kitty seems to get over it all  in the blink of an eye, so that’s alright then.

While I was optimistic at the start of this episode, my main criticism remains the quantity of story lines, some of them are important and interesting issues that deserve attention. It would be so much more satisfying if say, Kitty, Matron Carter and one other storyline were at the centre. If each character’s circumstance were explored properly we’d have a gripping, relevant, and timely TV series. It’s an interesting enough time in history to let a few strands of truth speak for themselves. But The Crimson Field is a sound-bite version of World War I; I am disappointed with it. As one of my Twitter friends said: ‘I’m hoping no one thinks it was really like that’.

The Crimson Field episode 3; 20 April 2014.

Rebel with a cause?

Rebel with a cause?

What are the main targets this time? It’s a lot to pack in to one hour.

1. Self inflicted wounds, therefore potential death sentence for cowardice; “Our feelings will do him no good at all – not now”;

2. The ‘Irish problem’. Sergeant complains about “hot heads rebelling against the British crown”; young man seen stoking rebellion at the field hospital – “He’s not the king of my fucking country” – thwack! on the nose;

3. Belgian refugees; this one provides the means for Joan Livesey to write to her German lover; which leads us to…

4. Having a pre-war relationship with the enemy;

5. a) Lust and b) class, not necessarily together but recurring themes in every episode so far;

6. Experimental surgery – the rebellious young doctor of the wrong class trying new techniques;

7. Men being brutalised by war, yukky necklace of chopped off ears worn by one soldier;

8. Homosexuality – men disappearing off into the woods AND *revelation of the week* – the prissy nurse has a gay brother;

9. Shellshock.

Cliche count: off the scale, good thing there isn’t a drinking penalty attached to this.

Irish stand off: one loyal to the crown, the other decidedly not.

Irish stand off: one loyal to the crown, the other decidedly not.


The Crimson Field episode 2. 13 April 2014


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An injured officer is visited by his shocked wife.

Episode two of The Crimson Field takes the characters into darker territory. There’s an assault planned and ‘200 incoming’ expected (couldn’t help thinking of MASH here). Everyone, patients, nurses and family, is tested and their weaknesses exposed. As is usual with Sunday evening dramas, there is a high level of sentimentality, slushy music and cliched dialogue, but I find I am warming more to the story now and I am thinking more about how today’s audience are being considered in the storytelling. One of my friends told me that her two daughters, aged 16 and 17, were completely gripped by the story and had asked lots of questions afterwards. That seems to me to be a good outcome for any TV programme but especially for one that focuses on WWI. This is a good opportunity to think deeply about the memorialisation of the conflict and perhaps to reconsider our preconceptions. However I don’t think this is the motive behind the series, which could (so far anyway) be about one of many catastrophic events in history and is unlikely to be shining any new lights on our thinking about 1914-18.

This week, we learned a little more of why Kitty might have run away from home (whatever she did, she has a child in England and has managed to alienate her mother to the point be being disowned by her). Rosalie can’t get over her disgust of bodies: at home she has helped at a home for fallen women that sounds rather like a Magdalene laundry; Rosalie’s Victorian streak is ripe for exploitation by sly Sister Quayle; this appears to be the baddie element. Flora is a bit ditzy but is clearly going to step up to become a fine upstanding example of British nursing.

The framing of social history is undeniably clunky: a seriously injured officer (Rupert Graves) is visited by his beautifully-presented wife (Jodhi May). As well as struggling to come to terms with his injuries, she can’t understand the deep bond he has built with his only remaining corporal. At the same time she coolly responds to a West Indian father who is visiting his fatally injured son. Both are reasonable reactions  for the time given the extent of her husband’s injuries and her class. However her apparent moving towards an understanding of the grieving father’s situation is unrealistic and is no doubt meant to stand in for the social change that WWI brought about; unfortunately it’s too simplistic to provide genuine insight. It would be a shame if all the interesting changes wrought by the Great War are dealt with with in this vignette style.

Anyway episode three beckons so maybe things will improve. Apologies for the lateness of the post on episode two, I’ve been away at a terrific conference on WWI film.

The Crimson Field BBC 1 episode one 6 April 2014

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?


Three novice VADs as depicted in The Crimson Field. Marianne Oldham, Oona Chaplin and Alice St Clair.

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Review: Half of a yellow sun

A ‘film of the book’ doesn’t have to faithfully reproduce what’s between the pages, so does HALF OF A YELLOW SUN give a fresh perspective on the nightmare of the Nigerian civil war?


Director Biyi Bandele’s first feature HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is an ambitious attempt to dramatise the 2007 Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which explores the complexities of several key relationships played out before and during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War in the late 1960s. The obvious difficulty with adapting a book as complex (and as well-loved) as Half Of A Yellow Sun is what to leave in and what to ditch. Biyi Bandele’s screenplay unfortunately cuts away too much detail and reframes the story into a chronological narrative concerning the loves of two women rather than adopting Adiche’s much richer technique of weaving Nigerian history and politics into the developing relationships between three people – a professional Nigerian woman, an English academic and a 13-year-old village boy. As a result, it’s difficult to identify with the people on screen, to understand their motivations, or how they fit into the national picture, even why we should care about them.


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