Thoughts on the Birdsong BBC TV Series

So there we have it, the highly anticipated TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Let’s not mess around; I loved it, and here’s why…

First things first, in my opinion the casting was spot on. For those of you who haven’t read the book, Stephen is not your stereotypical protagonist. He’s a bit strange, and not all that likeable. Indeed, I believe the reader is only supposed to get along with him enough that they keep reading.  Now I was worried that, in an effort to appeal to a wider audience, the BBC might cast as Stephen some sort of smile-happy, hunky fool. A real Brad Pitt / George Clooney nightmare, brandishing a gun in each hand and screaming, “Where’s the Hun, let me at em!” Imagine my delight, therefore, when I saw Eddie Redmayne pouting intensely at me from my TV screen. And the other characters were equally well cast. Clémence Poésy cut an attractive but frustrating Isabelle, and Marie-Josée Croze, who played her sister, Jeanne, was not too young (which would have been a fatal mistake) but just about young enough. Richard Madden, who played Captain Weir, starred in Game Of Thrones, so all is good there and Joseph Mawle was a legend as Firebrace. Yes, very well done all round.

Second things second, it was shot beautifully, although it must be admitted that I don’t know anything about that sort of thing. Much as I enjoyed the visuals, however, I could not overlook the fact that the depiction of the trench systems at the Somme wasn’t quite right. For one thing, that area of France would not have been so arid. The place was made to look as though it were somewhere in North Africa. Indeed, one fully expected to skip forward one World War and witness Monty flying in his Grant tank in pursuit of the fleeing Rommel. I can’t for the life of me think why it was decided to go for such a dry set-up, seeing as it had been raining in the run up to the BEF’s offensive.

There’s no point harping on about this any more. So third things third, I found the amended timeline much more engaging than the timeline in the book. Birdsong is split into three different periods – quite simply before, during and after the war. I must confess I actually found the book rather boring when it wasn’t following Stephen at war. I think it was an inspired idea to make 1916-18 ‘the present’ and deal with other events by means of flashback. It gave centre stage to the war in a way in which the book did not.

Fourth things fourth (and last things last) the crucial ‘over the top’ scene was done well. Faulks’ account of the first day of the Somme is second in my mind only to Erich Maria Remarque’s peerless All Quiet On The Western Front as a depiction of men at war. No other piece of writing has brought me closer to the action. It is a long time since I’ve read Birdsong, but I felt as though nothing was missing from the BBC’s adaptation. The preliminary exposition, where Stephen tells his Colonel (and the audience) about the difficulties the BEF has in store (up hill, in plain sight of German machine-guns etc.), only for his quiet common-sense to be drowned out by the Colonel’s ignorant calls of cowardice, was perfect. The behaviour of the men on the eve of battle seemed authentic to my eyes, and from Stephen’s commanding officer, Captain Gray (played by Matthew Goode) there came that awful sense of playing one’s part, whatever the consequences. The comment, ‘my boys, my poor boys’ – made by somebody I took to be an army chaplain (but it could well have been one of the diggers, or someone else entirely) – summed up the whole terrible business brilliantly.

It is difficult to do justice to the scale of the disaster that was the first day of the Somme. It is the worst day in the history of the British Army. The facts and figures – 60,000 casualties on July 1st – scarcely scratch the surface. As the event recedes further into history, a great deal of historical effort has gone into showing how the Somme, for all its obvious failures, was an overall success. After all, the German Field Army was ruined, and it made a hasty withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line. But even if the offensive itself can be shown in a positive light, the horrors faced by the men who took part in it must never be forgotten. Such accounts of the war as Birdsong – which last night completed an untroubled transfer from book to TV – help to ensure that the memories of their sacrifice endure. It was a thoughtful and honest adaptation, and I encourage all who didn’t watch it to give it a go. You must also read it, of course…


Filed under Rants, Raves & Reviews, Reviews

4 responses to “Thoughts on the Birdsong BBC TV Series

  1. Pingback: Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed « Daly History Blog

  2. Thank you Edward for coming along on the ride…your subscription to, is greatly appreciated. I do hope you enjoy at least some, of what I throw against the wall..Thanks again,

  3. Pingback: Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield « Daly History Blog

  4. Pingback: Bird song « RJB Weblog

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