Doug Coutts: When We Go to War

TV Preview: When We Go To War | TV1, 8.30 Sunday


By Doug Coutts

When We Go To War would seem to be TVNZ’s sop to the WWI centenary, unless you count sending half the newsroom on a junket to Gallipoli, and you can bet that will be more soppy than sop.

It’s a drama series set back when New Zealand was still a suburb on the outskirts of London, and follows the fortunes of an extended family with a wide range of outlooks, expectations and acting ability. It’s a sort of Family At War (link here for anyone born post-1970: but without Hitler, rationing (so far) or buzzbombs.

Each episode, of which there are several — the first two being conjoined for a longer premiere — is based on a letter home from the front, which allows the writers to play around with time, space and the continuity staff’s heads.

It’s a device that was first tried here with The Governor (young people look here and is a good way to cover the five years of conflict, senseless slaughter and wholesale destruction, and then there’s the war.

Sets are well-done, lighting and art-direction are better and the computer-generated exteriors are relatively seamless.

Where it does start to come apart though is in the uneven performances. There aren’t as many of the usual suspects playing major roles as you might expect – in fact, one of the country’s most experienced is reduced to a cop cameo – and the inexperience shows.

With Shortland Street originator Gavin Strawhan in charge of the writing, there’s no way the script is going to be a dud – so the issue must be down at the sharp end. Someone needed to take more time to coax convincing deliveries from the entire cast.

And someone needs to be taken to task for allowing the army cadet to say “Sir, yes sir!”  No one in the entire history of the armed forces has ever said it – it’s a steal from PlatoonA Few Good Men or quite possibly McHale’s Navy. In a single ad lib, hours of making sure the uniform buttons were the right way up were rendered a waste of time.

Put that hyperbole out, soldier. What We Do In The Trenches – sorry, that’s the Taika Wiatiti one – When We Go To War hits more than it misses and presents a much more realistic view of war and all its horrors than Weta’s giants at Te Papa or PJ’s plane collection at the other museum.

If you’re going to watch just one war drama this centenary, make it WWGTW.

Doug Coutts has had a career in and around television for close to 40 years. He spent 13 years as a floor manager at Avalon Studios before going freelance and never earning as much again. His writing has spanned TV genres — from Shortland Street dialoguery and quiz shows to documentaries and comedy — while a lengthy stint as TV reviewer in the Auckland Star earned him two mentions in Metro magazine’s Hot List and an angry letter from Jon Gadsby. You can read more of Doug (the satirist) at: Weakly Whirled News.
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