BBC Radio 4 plans first world war drama to be broadcast over four years

Biggest ever one-off radio drama commission, which has working title Tommies, will mark 100th anniversary of the war

BBC Radio 4 is marking the 100th anniversary of the first world war with a drama to be broadcast over the timespan of the original conflict – four years.

The drama, which has the working title Tommies and is believed to be the UK's biggest ever one-off radio drama commission, will be scripted by a writing team led by Jonathan Ruffle and will tell the story of signals corps soldiers' experiences during the war in real time.

Tommies – the nickname for British soldiers – is still in the planning stages but is expected to begin broadcasting around the summer of 2014 and follow the group as they prepare for the war, which broke out on July 1914.

The as yet uncast drama will follow the trajectory of the conflict in real time and finish broadcasting in the autumn on 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of the conflict, which claimed about 900,000 British lives.

Already two years of the drama have been sketched out. Current plans take the unit up to 1915 and the Battle of Loos, the British offensive which marked the first major example of trench warfare in the conflict and the first time the British used poison gas on the enemy. This will be aired in 2015.

In 2016, the Battle of the Somme is also expected to be marked 100 years after it started on July 1916, and some of the soldiers featured in the drama will inevitably be killed as the war progresses.

Radio 4's heard of drama, Jeremy Howe, said the signals corps was chosen because these units, responsible for communications, were more mobile than most and as a result the drama would be able to give a more varied portrait of the conflict.

"It's the biggest drama because of the length, certainly," added Howe. "When I pitched it I asked [Radio 4 controller] Gwyn[eth] [Williams] what she was doing in Christmas in five years' time and that is the length of the war – the scale is big."

Howe added that Ruffle will lead what he called "the bravest and the best" writing team. He said Ruffle has experience of a similar but smaller project, having written a "real-time" dramatisation of Len Deighton's documentary novel Bomber for Radio 4 in 1995.

Williams said she was "working out how the schedule" the drama but confirmed that "while it was early" in project's development, it had been green lit.

The commission is part of Williams' attempt to give drama a higher profile on her station. Earlier this month Radio 4 broadcast an ambitious five-and-a-half-hour adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses, spread across its Saturday schedule.

Promising a series of new commissions, Williams told a press briefing last month that she wanted Radio 4 to become more of a "playground for artists and writers".

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Ben Dowell

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