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Trench, The (2002)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Trench, The (2002)
BBC2, tx. 15 - 29/3/2002
3 x 58 min parts, colour
DirectorDominic Ozanne
Production CompanyBBC
Series ProducerDick Colthurst
NarratorAndrew Lincoln

Twenty-four volunteers endure the recreated wartime experience of the 10th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment on the Western Front in 1916.

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Although The Trench was part of the post-millennial trend of 'historical reality' programming (most obviously Channel 4's The 1900 House, 1999, and its successor The 1940 House, 2001), it adopted a different approach to its contemporaries by placing its participants not in a domestic environment but in a warfare scenario in northern France. The diaries of WWI soldiers from the 10th Hull Pals Battalion were used as a basis for the experiment, with 24 men recruited from Hull to represent their forebears. For two weeks the participants endured life in the trench with every detail meticulously recreated from latrines to uniforms. The series followed their progress as the men inhabited their roles, gave each other nicknames and went 'up the line'.

Footage from the recreated trench was interspersed with clips from films of the period, and the involvement of the Imperial War Museum (a trench exhibition was opened as the programme was broadcast) added another layer of authenticity. WWI veterans, including Harry Patch, also gave first-hand accounts of their experiences for the series and these overlaid scenes from the experiment. While many of the personal recollections supported the experiences of the volunteers, this occasionally had the unfortunate effect of making the trench participants appear to be taking part in a dramatic reconstruction. Moreover, while the producers went to every effort to ensure accuracy, the one element they could not recreate was the real danger of warfare. When participants were told that the soldier they were representing had been killed and that their part in the experiment was over all they could do was express regret that they would not see the project through to the end.

Prior to broadcast the programme was hit with accusations of poor taste and the series was defended with assurances that The Trench was not reality television. The addition of interviews, voiceover and archive footage combined with the daily life of the trench to create a style that did indeed distance the series from reality TV conventions, but was not entirely successful as a hybrid of 'historical reality' and documentary. All the same, while enduring field punishments was no substitute for actually serving in a battalion, the experiences inspired in the men a genuine camaraderie, and thereby achieved the series' main aim, to provide an insight into daily life as it was lived in the trenches.

Lisa Kerrigan

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Video Clips
1. Has anyone seen Gadd? (1:33)
2. Contraband (1:51)
3. Field punishment No.2 (1:11)
4. Malingering (1:16)
Complete episode (58:06)
Social Experiment TV