Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Women at War

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: Women at War

Article excerpt

Credit: Lara Prendergast

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. …

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