Greg Dixon 's Opinion

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Greg Dixon: Going over the top

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TV coverage of the WWI centennary has been patchy so far, but TV3's daily short war stories have been informative, such as the tale of a soldier's bitter letter home after the Battle of Passchendaele.
TV coverage of the WWI centennary has been patchy so far, but TV3's daily short war stories have been informative, such as the tale of a soldier's bitter letter home after the Battle of Passchendaele.

Get your tin hat out, the bombardment has begun. In case you missed it -- and if you did I have no idea how you did it -- this week marked the 100th centenary of the beginning of World War I. And, rather predictably, it was marked with an enormous barrage of news stories, features and documentaries about the so-called war to end war.

Given this newspaper published my own piece of World War I memorabilia last weekend, I'm in a position to criticise. Still, I could have done without the-stupid-person's-guide-to-how-it-all-started on TV One's One News on Monday night. This involved Simon Dallow standing in front of a giant world map, which at one point had little flags showing where New Zealand and Australia were at the outbreak of war because, I presume, almost none of its audience knew where New Zealand and Australia were on a map 100 years ago.

Sigh. And this was only day one of the first week. I suspect we're in for a long war.

This may be no bad thing of course. Unlike the second war, the first has largely been ignored (apart from on Anzac Days and the Gallipoli saga) by TV here and if people know anything about it, it is usually the lions-led-by-lambs narrative characterised by the likes of Blackadder Goes Forth.

So I thought perhaps that the History Channel's six-part The World Wars (8.30pm, Mondays), which started this week too, might be just the sort of thing that put things in perspective for those who don't know a great deal about World War I, such as where New Zealand was on a map when the war started.

The programme's conceit is to make World War I easier to digest by conflating both world conflicts in one long narrative. Which is to say it takes the view that there weren't two separate wars but actually a long 30-year one with a bit of break for a depression in between. As well, the programme builds its story around key figures who weren't, like the Kaiser or Lloyd George say, major players of World War I but became the leaders and generals in World War II. I'm not sure this helps really. In any case the makers have certainly roped in, along with a bunch of historians, a good number of modern leaders and generals to help tell the story, including retired generals Stanley McCrystal and Colin Powell, former British Prime Minister John Major and Senator John McCain.

Unfortunately, the first episode of The World Wars was only marginally better than Simon Dallow standing in front of a giant world map and the little flags. The talking heads (mostly) made statements of the bleeding obvious, while the programme's clearly big-budget recreations were nothing more than slick wallpaper. A disappointment.

TV3, with help from New Zealand On Air, has done better work with much less money and in tiny parcels.

This week 3News has featured short war stories around the 6.30pm mark of their flagship news show. Using information, footage and photographs from the Alexander Turnbull Library and Archives New Zealand, these little slice-of-life war stories have told me more in a few minutes than The World Wars told me in an hour. These are stories I didn't know either: our then Governor's wife, Lady Liverpool, getting the nation's women knitting for victory, the New Zealand air ace who paid £100 for his own training at the Kohimarama Flying School before leaving for England; a soldier's bitter letter home after Passchendaele; the appalling treatment of conscientious objectors; the sad story of our war horses.

All good stuff and an object lesson in how a tiny part can speak for the whole.

- TimeOut

Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

It has been said the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are a rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability. Despite having none of these things, Canvas deputy editor Greg Dixon has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for the New Zealand Herald and North & South and Metro magazines. Although it has been rumoured that he embarked on his journalism career as the result of a lost bet, the truth is that although he was obsessed by the boy reporter Tintin as a child, he originally intended to be an accountant. Instead, after a long but at times spectacularly bad stint at university involving two different institutions, a year as a studio radio programme director and a still uncompleted degree, he fell into journalism, a decision his mother has only recently come to terms with. A graduate of the Auckland Institute of Technology (now AUT) journalism school, he was hired by the Herald on graduation in 1992 and spent the next eight years demonstrating little talent for daily news, some for television reviewing and a passable aptitude for long-form feature writing. Before returning to the Herald in 2008 to take up his present role, he spent three years as a freelance, three as a senior feature writer at Metro and one as a staff writer at North & South. As deputy editor of Canvas, his main responsibility is applauding the decisions of the editor, Michele Crawshaw. However he prefers to spend his time interviewing interesting people -- a career highlight was a confusing 15-minute phone interview with a stoned Anna Nicole Smith -- and pretending to understand what they're going on about. He has won awards for his writing and editing, but would have preferred a pay rise.

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