The making of The World at War, inside tidbits from Jeremy Isaacs and David Elstein

Renowned producer Jeremy Isaacs and director David Elstein reveals the challenges they have to face in the making of a World War II chronicle.

Jeremy Isaacs: Revelation about the WWII chronicle

Jeremy Isaacs shared what one of their best researchers had to go through to get information from Nazis. Sue McConachy related how she had nightmares from what Nazis told her during her interviews. She was the “sort of stock SS men liked to breed from” – blond, blue-eyed and speaks fluent German. She gained the trust as well as the inconvenient attention of an SS commander. The said commander even made advances on McConachy placing his hand on her knee.

The researcher did wonders on getting the much needed interviews that the film needs. She even managed to get an interview of Hitler’s secretary. But, the producer shared that it took about a year to persuade the Nazis to give out information relating to the Second World War.

“Giving some of the Nazis a voice was quite hard to stomach: at least one SS soldier we found was completely unrepentant,” shares Isaacs.

Isaacs also asked the director of the Imperial War Museum, Noble Frankland, for some resources for the film. Frankland was requested to name 15 military campaigns during the Second World War that had an impact on the civilians.

“I wanted to hear not just the voices of people who dropped the bombs, but also those they targeted,” the producer further related.

Isaacs proceeded to commend the other renowned people in the film industry who played crucial roles to making the remarkable chronicle. Carl Davis composed the score of the film. Isaacs said that David first thought of making the usual military march on the piano. However, Isaacs decided to critic the music to make it convey “above all, human endurance”. Davis, Isaac said, did not fail to deliver.

Laurence Olivier also played the part of doing the narration of the film. Isaacs shared a dramatic twist to the role.

“He was unhappy with the first film we showed him – the fall of France. He found our clipped, matter-of-fact script uninteresting and wanted out.”

Isaacs further said that Olivier’s agent promised them that the contract would be honoured.

The film also needed fresh film. They hired two “excellent researchers” who had to fish for new footages from archives to use for the chronicle. Some of the available films, the producer relates, alone such as Newsreel were no good. Newsreel has “already been edited and is propagandistic in tone” as Isaacs would describe.

The footages on the Dunkirk beaches filmed by a BBC cameraman were also said to contain nothing but an “army in defeat”.

The producer thought of making good use footages from the German archives. One raw footage showed “a handful of German soldiers with the population of a Russian village assembled on one side of a bridge, divided into men and women. They were sent off in different directions in tears – they knew they’d never see each other again,” Isaacs shared.

A still from the first episode of The World at War

David Elstein’s disclosure as director of the epic WWII chronicle

David Elstein disclosed that producer Isaacs approached him to direct three episodes of the World War II chronicle because of his expertise in world history particularly in the Battle of Britain. And he encountered many challenges and discovered many astonishing facts during the making of the film.

“Despite my knowledge, it was fascinating to discover from a Luftwaffe commander that the Battle of Britain, regarded by the Allies as a turning point in the war, was of little significance to the Germans,” Elstein said.

He revealed that the Germans “saw it [Battle of Britain] as a rehearsal for an attack on the Soviet Union.” In fact, the Luftwaffe commander was said to have recalled that during the battle, German pilots were assembled for another offensive. But he claimed that Hitler called them off “to target the Soviets”.

Elstein shares that his biggest challenge was to chronicle the war and squeeze it into 26 one-hour episodes. The focus of the film was more on the war raging in Western Europe and less on the conflicts that occurred in Eastern Europe and the Far East.

“We had to tell a complex story as clearly as possible, in a way that would appeal to a mass audience. Previous documentaries had been along the lines of General So and So takes you through his great battles. It was generally a hierarchical, over-didactic view,” said Elstein.

The film tried to avoid a cliché of showing merely the chronological account of military action. Elstein said Isaacs made it clear that he wanted the film to send a message to the next generation on the impact of the war on the lives of civilians.

The renowned director also employed the expertise of researcher Isobel Hinshelwood who was “a persuasive, canny Scot who went drinking in the pubs of London’s East End to recruit people who remembered the Blitz.”

Elstein shared that they have to gather these potential references into one pub and listen to their tales – the collective experience that defined the Blitz.

Elstein also related how they strived to make the chronicle as authentic as possible recalling the uneventful criticisms that BBC’s series, The Great War, had received a decade earlier. Elstein had to hire an expert on archived films to ensure the authenticity of the footages they use as references to their chronicle.


“One of the funniest moments came when he watched a rough cut of our Battle of Kursk episode. He [archive expert] said it didn’t look right and, sure enough, we found that, because little of the original action had been filmed, the Russians had restaged it for their archives, in better weather,” Elstein said.

He further humored on the participation of Olivier as narrator of the series. He said that they had to persuade Olivier not to call Stalin “Staleen”. But beyond the humor of the situation, Elstein was all praises for Olivier.

“Having Olivier as narrator gave the series great credibility. He was very professional and dispatched his part in double quick time, in order to get out of the tiny recording studio,” said Elstein.

Elstein also relates that on one occasion, he was showing a rough cut to Isaacs. It showed an interviewee, an MP and army major, who related the military campaign in Norway. The interviewee shared that the army did an improvisation of the campaign “with the wrong equipment and in too much haste”.

“Jeremy stopped the machine and asked why I had considered this important enough to leave in – because what was so bad about improvisation? I had to explain that improvisation can work well in television, but in military operations it is not a good idea,” Elstein finally said.

The Guardian reports that the film, “The World at War 40th Anniversary”, is available on DVD and Blu-ray under Fremantle Media International.


Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE