WWI mini-series gets personal with drama and romance as well as action.

There is no shortage of films or television specials that have been made to help commemorate, dissect, and educate us about World War I, but to help mark the 100th anniversary, TV One is launching its specially commissioned drama mini-series When We Go To War (WWGTW) this weekend

Made with a $6 million grant from the NZ On Air Platinum Fund, it tackles stories from home and from the front, following members of the fictional Smith family.

The series is directed by Peter Burger, who was also behind recent World War I drama Field Punishment No.1. Having learned a great deal about WWI for Field Punishment Burger found it easy to say yes to another chance to delve into the subject again, not least because WWGTW offered a whole new angle to explore.

"Field Punishment was pretty heavy to watch" he admits. "It really hit you over the head, and I'm super-pleased with it, of course but while you can watch one and half hours of that, you probably wouldn't come back next week. WWGTW rides a line between acknowledging that WWI was a horrible experience, but the show itself is entertainment. We've got characters who love each other, we've got family relationships, there's soapy stuff and there's romance and there's more fun being had in this show I guess, which for me was a relief."


Part of the idea of focusing on the personal and family lives of a small group of people, as well as exploring the Gallipoli landing and what goes on in the trenches, was the make the story connect with a new generation.

"That's the challenge with doing historical stuff, that idea that 'oh it's about old people, so it's for old people', and of course that's not the case at all. What I'd really like to come out of this project is that if people got a sense of what it would be like if we were all just called to war tomorrow. Because these were just young people who had their own lives going on, they're thinking about careers, and love, and what their friends and family are doing, and they're just thrown into this crazy situation."

A scene from the TV show When We Go to War.
A scene from the TV show When We Go to War.

Burger explains that the emphasis on the melodrama helps to give viewers greater empathy when it comes to relating to the experience of going to war.

"One thing that can really easily happen with historical TV is that it can all feel like it's about facts and figures. It can be all 'On this date in this place, this military event happened, and this many troops were lost', but the problem with that is it's not how we live our daily lives. Really we're going 'Man she's a bitch!', or 'Oh God, I can't believe he's hurt, is he going to be okay?'

"So even watching a war unfold on screen, it can be hard to put yourself in the place of a man who's leaping out of the trenches and running across a field of bullets with a bayonet in your hand, unless you can become close to the character. So knowing he has a brother with ADHD, and that he's got a limp from that time when he had an argument with his friend, and that he's really thinking about the letter he's just written to his fiancee, that all helps you draw close to this person. Then when he runs up over the trench, you have a much stronger sense of what that experience might be like."

A scene from the TV show When We Go to War.
A scene from the TV show When We Go to War.

Over six one-hour episodes, it follows the trials of modern-thinking doctor-in-training Bea Smith, played by Esther Stephens, her golden boy brother Charles, played by Ido Drent, who is both a lawyer and a captain in the army, as well as a fluent te reo speaker, plus their two brothers Richard and Harry - conservative and wayward respectively, and daydreaming romantic young sister, Cissy.

Then there are their parents, various fiancees and lovers, and mysterious Maori siblings, Awa Kokiri, a rising film star played by Shavaughn Ruakere, and determinedly pious pacifist Manaaki, played by Alexander Tarrant.

"I'm really proud of it - I really like that it's entertainment as well as history," Burger says. "We're not asking our audience to be beaten over the head, and saying you must watch this because it's your duty, to be a good New Zealander. Hopefully we've made a series that's good entertainment, too."

What: When We Go To War
Where and when: Sunday, TV One, 8.30pm



The channel is dedicating its entire Saturday programming to Anzac Day.

It starts at 5.50am with coverage of the dawn service at Auckland War Memorial Museum and will finish near midnight with the commemorative service from Chunuk Bair on the Gallipoli Peninsula, having crossed to the Anzac Cove dawn service at 2.30pm. In between the live coverage and studio chats are a run of documentaries and special shows.

Come evening, The Anzac Concert (9.30pm) will feature the voices of Annie Crummer, Julia Deans, Maisey Rika and Moana Maniapoto among others.


The state broadcaster starts its coverage at 5.30am with live coverage from Wellington, followed by a run of Gallipoli-related docos and crossing back to the capital at 11am for coverage of the National Commemorative Service.

One News will also be carrying coverage, fronted by Wendy Petrie, from the Gallipoli dawn service from Anzac Cove mid- afternoon.

The rest of the day will feature Descent From Disaster: A Gallipoli Special (5pm) presented by former All Black Zinzan Brooke as he follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Martin, who fought at Gallipoli. There's also a special Anzac Day edition of Country Calendar (7pm).


3News anchor Mike McRoberts and crew have already invaded Gallipoli for live coverage leading up to the big day. At 6am The Nation - 3News Anzac Special will present coverage of the morning's events, studio discussions and the opening of Memorial Park in Wellington.

TV3 will cross to the Anzac Cove Memorial dawn service from 2.30pm, while the rest of the afternoon will be filled out by docos including Gaylene Preston's War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us (midday) and The Time of Our Lives (3.30pm).


The History Channel has featured much Australian-oriented Gallipoli related programming already and that continues on Saturday. Meanwhile, Prime's evening viewing includes Bomber Boys in which film star Ewan McGregor and his brother Colin look at the history of the RAF's Bomber Command during World War I.

- TimeOut