Sunday nights. What are they for? Eggs. Tea. Toast. Nerves about the week ahead. Something comforting on TV. But comfort comes in many forms. For some, it’s twee life at Downton Abbey. For others, it’s the thrill of Homeland. With the BBC’s latest Sunday-night offering, comfort takes on a new guise: one that includes gas gangrene, shell shock, flinty women and war-damaged men. It won’t rock you to sleep.
The Crimson Field, BBC1’s latest six-part drama, took us to the support system that existed behind the front line during the first world war. It’s 1915, and young women from Britain’s upper and middle classes have been drafted in as VADs — Voluntary Aid Detachments — to nurse casualties from the trenches. There is period costume — starched powder-blue dresses, khaki uniforms — and a restrained set. So far, so comforting. We meet three young women who have journeyed to a field hospital near Étaples on the northern French coast, and who are promptly given a dressing-down by the glacial Matron Grace Carter, played by Hermione Norris. There’s to be no flirting with the men. No scent. No fancy stockings. We suspect there may be a love story rumbling underneath, but if so there wasn’t much on show in the opening episode.
Instead, love was usurped by the visceral nature of trench warfare. Front-line fighting wasn’t shown; in its place, we saw the rickety mechanisms that were used to mend casualties from those muddy furrows. Large canvas tents packed out with amputees; a clay oven to incinerate the ‘bits’ from surgery; volunteer nurses with the best of intentions, but limited skills. Some of the men couldn’t be mended: ‘When you write to their parents, tell them they died peacefully and without pain. Even if they didn’t,’ said Matron Carter. Television and film have done the Great War to death, but the focus on the women’s pragmatism ensured that this was refreshing to watch.
As a foil to the weak, damaged men, we were offered a set of predominantly headstrong women. There were few sisterly ties, though; there’s no time for that. Instead, the three VADs had to adjust swiftly to the grim reality of battlefield casualties. Of the English roses, Oona Chaplin has the meatiest role — as Kitty Trevelyan, an opinionated, recalcitrant young woman happy to answer back to her seniors. Rosalie Berwick (Marianne Oldham) and Flora Marshall (Alice St Clair) make up the trio, but neither is much cop. Berwick is forgettable, while St Clair’s performance is hammy, gushy. It’s a shame, as her buffoonery jars with the stoic characters that surround her. Here’s hoping she’s offered a place on the next truck back to Blighty.
Is there a plot lurking somewhere? If there is, it’s sketchy so far, structured around marches to the front line and the inevitable return of mutilated bodies. More storylines will no doubt be sliced in, but this initial episode cut to the chase, introduced us to the characters and zipped along. Wartime doesn’t leave much occasion for dilly-dallying. There were some moments of commotion, such as when a disturbed patient attacked Kitty with a pair of surgical scissors. But the real drama came from the officer class’s refusal to acknowledge psychological damage to their men. The term ‘shell shock’ had yet to be coined, and the most harrowing part was pegged to this historical truth. To the modern eye, Lance Corporal Prentiss was clearly suffering from a neurological disorder — so Lt Col. Roland Brett (Kevin Doyle) dismissed him, and suggested he return to Blighty. I breathed a sigh of relief.
But before he could go, Prentiss’s fragile form was dragged in front of the camp’s colonel, to be interrogated about his reason for dismissal. Could he walk in a straight line? Yes. Could he keep his hands still? Yes. Was he a homosexual? No. Was he a coward? No, he mumbled, tears welling in his eyes. And so, painfully, Prentiss’s dismissal was revoked. He could return to the front line. He was ‘uninjured’. Here was a man whose life had been destroyed by his experience in the trenches. It was traumatic to watch. Afterwards, I was interested to know whether this was an accurate depiction of contemporary attitudes to psychological distress. It was. It would be years before Prentiss’s condition would come to be seen not as a lack of ‘moral fibre’, but as a psychiatric illness. It’s difficult to find comfort in the first world war. Watching the effects of cold, mechanised warfare is hardly a Sunday-night soother. The Crimson Field’s main subject matter may be the savagery of No Man’s Land but, in fact, the focus fell on two different battlefields: mental health and gender equality. A hundred years after the Great War began, it’s comforting to be reminded how far we’ve come on these fronts.