Historical documentaries always tend to have some kind of defensive streak, spending a great deal of time justifying their relevance to modern viewers. In the BBC’s Long Shadow those questions are front and centre, with three hour-long episodes promising to show how the first world war affects more or less every aspect of Europe to this day.
If the aim is to justify these shows’ existence, it makes sense that the driving force behind it would be David Reynolds. Known for more than a dozen BBC documentaries on the 20th century (and its wars in particular), he more than anyone should feel the need to show why these projects matter and has the knowledge to do so.
When sharing that extensive, specific knowledge, he makes his point perfectly. One of Reynolds’ key themes is that the Great War has been “caricatured” as a pointless conflict, lions led to the slaughter by lambs in the form of foolish generals. While Long Shadow’s overtly war-focused sections never manage to completely refute this idea, the specificity of the stories David Reynolds tells are enough to bring some much needed shading to the inaccurately broad sketch he argues the war has become for later generations.
That flair for the right small story to unlock a larger, complex picture of Europe remains as the programme shifts from the war itself to the long shadow of the title. It doesn’t take long to get to the (irresistible for war historians) 1930s and 40s, but over its three episodes various other times and locations get the deep dive treatment, some of them surprising. The amount of time spent recounting the birth of fascist Italy pays off when followed up with a long examination of the Troubles in Ireland, connecting the conflicts there to those of the post-war European mainland.
Ultimately this leads up to an awkwardly timed section on the European Union, which Reynolds memorably describes as a labyrinthine structure in which the great monster of nationalism is being tamed.
That quirk of timing – the series was released with a wording that made sense prior to the EU referendum, so is instantly dated on DVD – is not the only time when a Long Shadow loses its focus in modern politics. Much play is made of nationalism within the UK, but the current complexities of Scotland’s civic national movement would drown the narrative, so the programme restricts itself to a couple of mentions and dramatic shots which seem unnecessarily foreboding in context. History is relevant to today’s politics, but trying to bring the fast-moving events of the last few years tidily into a story of the 20th century may be beyond any historian.
Reynolds also strays too far from his comfort zone in some of his work as a host. He has an awkwardness on camera that is common and often endearing in the academics who present this type of documentary, but his attempts to storm past those limitations through overly dramatic delivery never quite work.
On the occasions where he feels the need to do an impression of one of the larger than life figures in his story, the effect is sometimes funny but rarely charming. His hopeless American accent for Woodrow Wilson is distracting enough, but his attempt to recreate the fervour of a Hitler speech in the first episode is downright off-putting. It is only effective in showing what a naturally charismatic speaker Hitler was by comparison.
There is a genuinely useful and interesting story to Long Shadow, its conceit makes sense, and when Reynolds sticks to his strengths – thorough examinations of carefully chosen minutiae which bring the larger themes into focus – the show more than justifies its existence. This far into his career, the question is whether he can work out how to use his persona in a less forced way to produce truly exceptional documentary television.
Dir: Russell Barnes
Writer and Presenter: David Reynolds
Prd: James Evans
Running Time: 180 mins
Long Shadow is released on DVD on 4th July