Sunday 6 April 2014

The Crimson Field

2014, as the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, was obviously going to mean our screens were full of men in khaki and puttees, with women dressed as nurses amid a backdrop of mud, blood and stumpy trees.  The documentaries have always been compelling, the dramas less so.  This one has female leads - a sort of 'Call the Midwife' but without the babies or the NHS, and added bi-planes.

We follow a small group of new volunteers arriving at a field hospital in France, where we meet an escapee from 'Downton Abbey'.  It's quite apt, since this could well be 'Downton Abbey - the Missing Years' depicting Matthew and the other Downton menfolk at the front.  We feel qualified to say this, having read an account of a nurse's life at a field hospital in recent weeks.  Presumably the writers have read many similar accounts, and have taken the unvarnished truth and varnished it up with a coat of 'Tenko' (all women together in a "perfectly ghastly" war), another coat of the aforementioned 'Downton' and for good measure a finishing wax of just about any WWI depiction to date ('Upstairs Downstairs', 'Aces High', 'When the Boat Comes In', 'Wings'....).  This opener dealt with suspected cowardice, nascent understanding of shell shock, professional rivalries, class distinctions and the extreme youth of those involved - though the doctors' youth is unlikely to be an accurate portrayal: romantic potential in the absence of able-bodied soldiers perhaps?  Each of the characters comes replete with a backstory, of-course, so the tensions are all about whether Nurse Kitty (Oona Chaplin) is a suffragette or some other freakish sort of female; whether ridiculously naive, perfume-wearing Flora is under-age; and whether Rosalie really is an old maid who only joined the war effort to escape a dull life.  Oh and not forgetting whether Sister Livesey (Suranne Jones) is in fact a time-travelling flapper from the 1920s, with bobbed hair and a motorbike.

Confusingly, the original title for this was 'The Ark', which other than having a rather laboured relationship to a tale of a field hospital, presumably led viewers to think this was a televisual version of 'Noah', currently in cinemas.  The episode ended with patients returning to war, rebel Kitty accepted into the fold and one patient dead in anything but a peaceful manner.  Accounts of real nurses in the First World War tend to be understated, but have all the more impact for it.  This is a drama, so we expect a certain amount of conflation, but would volunteer nurses really arrive at a field hospital in France without even knowing how to make a bed?  We're not sure something so earnestly soapy does justice to their experiences.

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