Following my frequent bouts of insanity after watching the last series of 'Downton Abbey,' someone suggested that I should watch the fourth series of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' which was set in the Great War, and, apparently, much more detailed and accurate. The thirteen-part series, screened in 1974, followed the trials and tribulations of the Bellamy family and their servants through the entire war. I was a great fan of the series, but as I was in Germany during that period (hatted, caped and 'doing the practical') it passed me by un-noticed.
A thirteen part series is much longer than we're used to today, so it was certainly possible to portray many aspects of the war which need to be omitted in a shorter series. In fact, every possible scenario of the Great War was there - tearful farewells, blood-stained returns, conscription, shell-shock, desertion and courts-martial, rationing, Zeppelin raids, the Silvertown munitions explosion, continuing London gaiety - in fact the episode titles alone spell out the war with 'The Beastly Hun,' 'The Glorious Dead,' 'Missing Believed Killed' and 'Facing Fearful Odds' among them.
And of course, then there were the 'gels.' Those well-heeled and aristocratic young women who 'did their bit' as VADs. I really wish I could watch scenes of hospital life during the war without hiding behind the sofa or taking a couple of aspirin. I really do. But I can't. Some of the portrayals in 'Upstairs, Downstairs' were good - the sensible, the scatterbrained, the soft-hearted - and I particularly liked the VAD who must have been a first cousin of Enid Blyton's 'George' of the Famous Five, frightfully practical at work and most adept at climbing over the hospital gates after hours. However, the usual problems and inaccuracies with dramatising Great War hospital life were already well ingrained in TV history.
Having been instructed by a lady on the tea-stall at a London station (quite correctly) to 'go to VAD Headquarters, Devonshire House, Piccadilly,' to join up, Miss Georgina (no relation to the aforementioned 'George') was, within a day or so, in charge of a ward at Guy's Hospital, and within a week (or so) supervising two more VADs who together seemed to make up the entire staff there except for a rather bad-tempered Irish nurse. Then, in the blink of an eye, Matron (who must now be turning in her grave*) interviewed Miss Georgina, suggesting that she would do very well in a 'field hospital' in France. Whether this was to advance her experience, or get rid of her was not made clear, but another blink and 'George' (I think she now deserves that accolade) was busy at a Casualty Clearing Station housed in a chateau somewhere in Northern France. Of course, as anyone who has spent time reading this blog will know (and I don't really expect anyone to put their hand up at this point) VADs never, ever worked in Casualty Clearing Stations in France - their service was confined exclusively to the base hospitals.
But my real problem is why it's always necessary to have them there? Why can't one of the characters be a 'proper' nurse in her rightful place? Why do the media have so much respect for the untrained VAD that they have to elevate her to the sainthood? VADs did a wonderful job and the medical services couldn't have survived without them, but why not give them their rightful place in history - show them for what they actually did and not just for what fits in to a modern storyline. The nurses who staffed Casualty Clearing Stations were trained nurses. They had all slogged their way through three years of training of the most onerous kind, and many had followed that with years of experience. They were the heart of the military nursing services - its backbone - and they are now relegated to bit parts in film and TV. They float by in the background, noticeable only for their severity, and occasionally barking out a word to one of our heroine VADs but otherwise invisible. Why does the trained nurse in wartime always have to be the bridesmaid and never the bride?
*The real-life Matron at that time was Miss Louisa Victoria Haughton, who retired in 1917 on the grounds of ill-health, but lived a long and productive life until her death in 1954, aged 86 years