War Stories

Tom Grattan’s War, a World War One drama made in the late 1960s is a classic children’s serial says John Connors.

Drama aimed at a younger audience is something of a different proposition to what would broadly be described as `children’s’ programmes`. The very best of the former can still be watched today and some of it is certainly well enough written and made to transcend it’s intended audience and simply be called `good television drama`. On TWU in the past we have discovered the exceptionally high quality of series like The Ghosts of Motley Hall, The Feathered Serpent and Children of the Stones but these date from the 1970s, the so called golden age of drama aimed at younger viewers. Finding a gem of similar distinction in the late 1960s is indeed a surprise but Tom Grattan’s War is certainly the equal of those classic 1970s and 80s series often mentioned.

It was made between 1968 and 1970, more than forty years ago and set during World War One, getting on for a hundred years back. Could a series of such vintage really play well in this modern era? The indefatigable answer is yes. Tom Grattan’s War, like the shows mentioned above and several others, is not just a good series, it is a masterpiece. For its time and even out of its time it is daring, innovative and captivating with a narrative that never reaches the conflict itself yet defines it’s  affects on ordinary people and the country as a whole as if we are in the trenches
Wrapped up in a total of 26 episodes is some definitively exciting early work of well known directors, an astoundingly good central performance and direction that is ahead of its time. It’s amazing that very little has been said about the series- even when it was released on DVD in 2009. It is a treasure waiting to be found.
Set in 1915-16, the series features Tom Grattan, a 15 year old from London, being sent to live and work on a Yorkshire farm owned by the Kirby family. Tom’s father is away at the front, while it seems his mother has died. The family he stays with consists of Mrs Kirby, her 17 year old daughter Julie who shares Tom’s sense of adventure and the older helper and farm worker Sam. Mr Kirby’s husband and son are also away at the war. The first episode is set in March 1915 and by the second series we are in the Spring of 1916.
What the series has to balance is the fact that for Tom the idea of joining his father fighting in the war is an aspiration he longs to fulfil – in one episode he even tries to join up- yet the reality of war is nasty and dangerous. Most of the plots in the first series parallel war story situations with scenarios like a top secret new tank being tested or escaped prisoners of war, and by solving these Tom- and by implication the juvenile audience- learn more about the horror of war. Few punches are pulled as people are attacked and shot and while the worst of the violence is implied or cut away from, the results are there to be seen and integral to the plot.

Some episodes of the series were novelised.
 Where the plots don’t directly involve the ramifications of the war, they are about Tom’s development and growth in meeting the adult world. To those familiar with more varied modern day fiction, these types of stories may seem rather old fashioned. Yet they play into universal themes and provide the bedrock of action that a show like this needs to avoid being dull. The second series varies what might have become a repetitive template, introducing more mature dilemmas for Tom, broadening his character so he is not simply the chipper good guy all the time. He has to deal with unexpected scenarios that challenge more than just his bravery (though he remains an energetic hero) and put his brain cells to work. There are themes of cowardice, revenge and even terrorism for him to deal with.

Most of the stories are stand alone but will spread across two or three episodes with suitably melodramatic cliff hangers in between. The themes are well woven into the narrative so that, unlike some kid’s shows, you don’t feel as if the moral is being forced too much. And the tone is never as grim as you might expect given the isolated setting and backdrop of conflict. The focus is always on adventure but nothing really happens that is beyond the bounds of possibility. The writers manage to maintain a consistency with the main characters while also developing them as well.
One of the more surprising aspects is just how pacy it is- even the multi episode plots race along with a maximum of action sequences most of which are thrilling.  In one of the earlier episodes, Tom refuses to let a German agent get away with stealing the tank and leaps on top of it, staying put as the former tries to dislodge him. Like most of the action, this is clearly Michael Howe doing the stunts.

He really is a revelation in the role; no doubt helped by the skills of the directors. Unlike many child actors of the past he is convincing in period with a range of facial expressions that are almost cartoon like in conveying the short hand needed. We always know what Tom is thinking. His ability to perform most of his stunts and the sheer energy he brings to the production would no doubt have been inspirational to young viewers at the time. Today, he must be pleased that, unlike many former child actors, he can watch his formative acting with pride.

The look of the series is superb. The series looks quite expensive in some respects though was obviously able to use real locations for houses and farms. There are a large enough number of extras at key moments so show off the budget. Whoever the director, there is a uniformly wild, rugged feel, perhaps as a way of underscoring the harsh war taking place in Europe? For once, the slightly degraded and occasionally grainy film only adds to this effect to the point where you can almost feel the wind. Yorkshire looks amazing and the location’s remoteness enables confident long shots that historical productions can rarely dare lest they capture anything modern. The result is something cinematic, a feel supported by the dramatic incidental music. Anyone who thinks it’s only been this century that incidental music has been a loud part of television will be taken aback by the stirring score deployed here. Vibrant and orchestral with hints – appropriately- of military clamour, the music swirls about at moments of danger or excitement. So many old kids’ series seem dull because they lack this sort of swell, but this one is in its style as confident and bold as its eponymous hero.

One unusual element is the presence of a narrator; in vision for an opening sequence then deployed as a voice over from time to time. The identity of this man (played by Richard Warner), who has the appearance and tone of a rather dapper farmer in his sixties, remains unclear. Is he meant to be one of the characters in later years? In the first episode he does suggest he remembers Tom’s arrival. He often refers to “we” as if he was there yet sometimes his narration is describing what Tom or another character is thinking. At first this seems quite intrusive but it acts as a useful reminder of what happens and it’s used more sparingly as the series progresses.
One of the series’ key architects was David C Rea who was enticed to work on Yorkshire Television from the BBC’s documentary department. He developed the concept and also wrote; co- wrote and directed a number of episodes. Curiously his TV career, at least according to IMDB, contained only two other programmes- a 1976 documentary on Mussolini and a 1973 film called She’ll Follow You Anywhere. The synopsis for the latter sounds like a spoof film rather than a real one.  If this is the sum total of his writing and direction career, it’s a shame as this series shows him to be very talented. In fact, his direction is every bit as good as Stephen Frears, who does some of his earliest work in the show, and his scripts for the show are a big factor in its success.

More than anything, Tom Grattan’s War is such heroic fun. It may embody a simpler time twice over- the 60s when it was made and 1915-16 when it was set – but there is nothing that couldn’t be applied or be relevant now. A hero such as Tom Grattan remains inspirational and the series is never less than entertaining. It is a shame this show is not spoken of in the same light as some well known series that came a few years later.

The Tom Grattan's War Cast

Michael Howe’s career has continued to this day with extensive work in theatre. He has appeared in various cities in versions of The Drowsy Chaperone, Fatal Encounter, My Fair Lady, The Lion in Winter, Footloose, The Rat Pack, Oh What A Night, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fly, High Society and A Chorus Line. TV series he has guested in include;  New Tricks, Casualty, Hollyoaks, These Foolish Things, The Upper Hand and Solo. Film roles include appearances in Wedding without Love, Full Circle, The Hunger and Bless This House. He also writes music. More info on his website www.michaelhoweuk.com/html/home.htm

Teen idol- Michael Howe interviewed about the show

Sally Adcock was born in May 1949 and would later become a regular in Crossroads in the 1970s playing Jane Smith. 

Connie Merigold was born in Preston in 1927 and had a long career starting in rep in Northwich and studied drama at PARADA. Apparently RADA rejected her because of her Northern accent. She continued in rep in Ashton Under Lyme and Southport She then became an understudy at the Garrick Theatre in London before making her television debut in 1950 in the BBC play Lonesome Nights. From here she became a character actress appearing in West End productions such as The Paper Hat, The Seagull, The Bed Before Breakfast and Saturday Night At The Crown. She also appeared in a variety of TV shows over the years including a stint in Coronation Street in 1974 as Gertie Robson and in Emmerdale in 1980 as Mrs Abiniery as well as in Clayhangar and film roles included Young Winston and the The Family Way. She continued a parallel theatre career until her retirement in the early 1980s.

George Malpas was born in 1926 and appeared in dozens of films including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mountains of the Moon, Young Sherlock Holmes, as well as a variety of TV series including Rumpole of the Bailey, Lovejoy, All Creatures Great and Small and Coronation Street.

Coming soon: Full series Episode Notes

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