Interview with writer and creator Sarah Phelps

Deborah Gilbert | July 17, 2015

If you have been tuning into THIRTEEN on Sunday nights, you know that there are some fantastic new series airing this summer. Some are new seasons of old favorites like Last Tango in Halifax and Vicious, and others are entirely new, like The Crimson Field. In Downton Abbey‘s season 2 we got just a little taste of life during WWI. The Crimson Field takes it farther, and follows the lives of nurses near the front during World War One – putting us in the hands of master storyteller Sarah Phelps.

As I watched the first episode of The Crimson Field I was slowly pulled up the track, into the stories and the lives of these characters. But there was one moment when I became totally hooked: It was the moment at the end of episode 1, when Sister Margaret sat down and opened that tin and we saw Flora’s missing cake. Bang! Chills! Who is she? What’s going on here? What havoc is she going to wreak next? Forget about the Coney Island Cyclone; this is all the summer roller coaster you’re going to need right here!

If you watch EastEnders you are already familiar with Sarah Phelps’ work. She has written some of EastEnders‘ most iconic episodes and storylines, one of which (seen on WLIW21 just recently) won her a BAFTA. But The Crimson Field is different. This series is her own creation.

You can see Sarah’s passion for her work, for the stories and characters, in all the shows she writes. And you can also hear her commitment when she speaks about them. I was lucky enough to be able to interview Sarah last month. She is a great raconteur and a lot of fun to talk with.


Deborah Gilbert: Is this the first time you’ve created a show and produced it as well as written it?

Sarah Phelps: It’s my first series, yes, and I was just writing really hard.

 DG: What made you go from writing scripts to creating a show yourself?

SP: Everybody wants to create their own show! The idea was brought to me, in a way. I was asked if I would read a book called Roses of No Man’s Land by Lyn Macdonald. She’s a very revered historian of the First World War, and Roses of No Man’s Land is a history of the nurses; the volunteer aid detachments, the military nurses, and the civilian nurses. I always thought I knew a lot about the First World War because I’d read quite widely around it, so I knew about injuries, about the terrible cock-ups, about the long struggles at the front, and the Dardanelles. There is such a wealth of literature and poetry about it. And when I was reading it [Roses of No Man’s Land], the thing that struck me was, it had never occurred to me to ask, who were the women who would nurse these men? It seemed like a large untold story, especially with the volunteer nurses.

It seemed to really chart the process of the war and this huge change in England as well.  I was just fascinated reading about it because everybody thought it would be over by Christmas. It was going to be a mere spanking the Huns backside, and then everyone home, back to their families. There were this handful of women nursing at clearing stations and in hospitals a couple of miles back from the front, hospital barges and ships, and hospital trains and back in England. To be a military nurse you were a revered professional: You couldn’t get married, you couldn’t have a family. It was almost like being a nun. Then they suddenly realized that there was no way this was going to be over by Christmas and they were swamped with these injuries, the likes of which they’d never seen before. They’d never seen this industrial warfare with what happens when heavy artillery meets human flesh and bone.  The call went out to the women of Britain to say, come and nurse, “Are you over the age of 23? Are you an unmarried woman? Are you sensible? Have you got common sense? Do you want to do your bit? Come and train to be a nurse.” And they volunteered in droves for all sorts of different reasons. In a lot of the diaries I read you had girls who’d basically done their training by practicing their bandaging on Boy Scouts, and knitting balaclavas*,  and then they were posted. They landed in these tented hospitals in France and Belgium nursing men suffering from the most terrible injuries. They were bathing men and binding shattered wounds, and holding their hands while they were dying. It just blows your mind. The big thing for me as well was there was a big clash initially: The military nurses had all these girls coming over from England, and the civilian nurses came to help as well, and it felt [like] there was this huge culture clash between them. It was just fascinating that this seemed to be a way of looking at the war through the eyes of women.

DG: As you’re saying that, I’m think of Flora who was so proud about how she learned bandaging.

SP: Yes, in all the reading I did I tried to give certain qualities of experience to those characters. For example, Flora, who’s all gung ho, and then realizes that feet and toes come off in bandages, and you have to get rid of them. Also the fact that, for a long time the volunteer nurses weren’t allowed anywhere near the patients. You’ve got to remember that this was a time before antibiotics and you had terrible injuries and gas gangrene, and the only way of treating these awful infections was by rigorous asepsis, which had to be practiced by people who knew what they were doing. This was a situation where a grain of dirt under your fingernail could make the difference between a man’s life or his death. The military nurses didn’t believe that these girls would be able to cut it.

 DG: You mentioned the dairies you read. Where did you find them?

SP: Some of them are published, and there are so many books and interesting anthologies. But some of the greatest stuff I found was unpublished archive material in the Imperial War Museum. I based a lot on the experiences of the women in my family, and named a lot of the characters after the women in my family. A lot of the stuff I made up according to what some of the women in my family had experienced during the First and Second World Wars, and what some of the men in my family experienced during the Second World War, especially. A huge amount was drawn on my own family details.

DG: Did you then make those characters like the family members you named them after?

SP: No. For example, my Mum’s Mum was called Kitty Grace, and my Dad’s Mum was Flora. I have a great aunt called Rosebud who Rosalie is named for, and an amazingly zippy, racy great aunt called Joan. I made up those characters and just gave them the names as a way of tipping the hat to the women and men in my family.

DG: Did you have any historical consultants on set? 

SP: We had many historical consultants on set, and sometimes the historical consultants would argue with each other about particular details.  I’d done a great deal of research and worked really hard and made sure that I listened, but remembered that actually it was about capturing an atmosphere. If you dig around (and I did a lot of digging) you find all sorts of things. I was told categorically by a whole raft of medical experts that there was no way a volunteer nurse would have been allowed to go to a clearing station at the front. I found several who had. I was told categorically that there was no way a volunteer nurse would have been as young as Flora is, which is 18. I found one who was 17, and had lied.

You’ve got to remember that during the First World War everything is happening all at the same time. There were boy soldiers lying to get up to the front, and not just because they were doing their patriotic duty. People were so hungry they were so poor. They wanted excitement; they wanted to be somewhere with their mates, earning money, having a laugh, with a gun. And for all the various reasons that men and boys joined up, either lying about their age because they were too young or too old, you find the same reasons for women lying about their age because they were too young or too old. That really fascinates me.

I found all sorts of interesting documentation from German eyewitness accounts. In a prisoner of war camp, there was a German officer who couldn’t believe how young some of the captured English soldiers were, really young, 13 and 14 years old. He was in such despair at the miserable state of their education that he went through the prisoner of war camp to find educated men and he set up a school. And do you want to hear one of the best stories?

DG: Yes!

SP: This absolutely made me laugh but I think it captures something extraordinary about the First World War, that in-between horror and devastation and butchery, there was this strange humanity and wit. There’s this incredible story of an English officer in a German prisoner of war camp who keeps trying to escape, and he keeps being captured and returned to the camp. He manages to get a message through from Britain saying that his mother is dying, and he goes to the German commander of this prisoner of war camp and says, “Look here old boy, I’ve got this”, and the German commander says, “we will give you leave to go home and say goodbye to your mother on the gentleman’s understanding, on a handshake that you don’t escape and you come back.” The English officer shakes his hand and says, “Absolutely old boy. My word as a gentleman.” He is given special dispensation to go home and sit at his mother’s bedside to say goodbye and bury her. He then returns back to the camp, shakes the commander’s hand and is put back into the camp for prisoners of war where he promptly sets about starting to escape again! It’s incredible.

The stories you hear about the First World War are these awful acts, these terrible betrayals of humanity, this butchery, this violence, this nightmare, this psychosis, this horror, and then incredibly loving, warm, awe-inspiring human stories. I read about a chaplain who would crawl out on his hands and knees, under fire, into No Man’s Land to hold the hands of the men who were dying in the mud, so they didn’t die alone. English or German, it didn’t matter. And German soldiers in English hospitals writing in the nurses books that they didn’t think they would find such friendliness, and English soldiers in German hospitals writing in the German nurses’ books that they didn’t think they would find such friendliness. It really moves you. You hear about awful sacrifices, and about extraordinary acts of bravery and madness. Extraordinary acts like units, when they’re told to march across No Man’s Land, doing it with a football, running with their guns and passing a football, one to the other. Then there are stories about German POWs jumping down into English trenches and putting their hands up to surrender saying “Football! Football!” It leaves you in tears and it blows you away. Incredible. Sorry, I’m really going on.

DG: No, not at all!

SP: In the meantime you’ve got all these incredible stories of these nurses and some of the details are just horrendous. These were, generally, very well brought-up girls, which they’d have to be because they were volunteers. They didn’t get paid. Working class women tended to find work in the factories as munitionettes. So you get these rather delicately brought up women having to bathe men and see a naked man for the first time. It was a different world.

I was reading an incredible story of this nurse doing a night shift in what’s called ‘Heads’, a ward of head injuries, and describing listening to a man who’s dying, and there’s nothing they can do, and the sound of him trying to breathe as his brain matter drips into his throat. You wonder how people did that, and yet they did. And they lived in tents and they were exhausted. They had to scrub their hands with disinfectant, and sometimes there wasn’t enough water to wash or drink but they had to keep their patients clean.

Any kind of socialization between men and women was absolutely frowned upon, though obviously it happened. There’s a fantastic story of a very strict matron who was doing her ward rounds in a hospital and seeing the silhouette of a young officer and volunteer nurse obviously canoodling, and calling all the nurses in and saying, “Hands up, which one of you was it?”, and all of the nurses saying, “It was me.” As horrific as it was, what comes across when you read these diaries and archive material is, there was adventure, there was despair, there was a kind of trauma, but there was this sense that they’d found a life for themselves. They’d found a mission. They’d found youthfulness, and how exciting that was.

 DG: When you were writing this, did you come up with the characters first, or come with the story first and populate it?

SP: The characters came first. Who would these people be? What would they want? As soon as you know what they want, there’s your story.

DG: Flora mentioned that her cook had made that cake she brought, which I assume is a way of establishing that she came from an affluent background.  

SP: Less affluent than Rosalie. Rosalie is an Honorable. She is proper gentry.  But you’ve got to remember, back then if you were relatively middle class you’d have a cook. Flora’s one of these kind of adored darlings of a seaside town, a middle class family, who’s just gone, “I’m going! You won’t stop me!” She just adores everybody and grows up a little bit. And Kitty is the daughter of an adventurer who’s made good by her marriage.

DG: What I think is interesting is, even though it’s set in WWI, it could be contemporary. The stories are timeless.

SP: The universality of it is it is human nature, and we actually don’t change. We might get smartphones but don’t actually change that much.

Here’s an interesting thing about it: All the time I was writing it and thinking about it, and thinking about WWI, I never listened to any music that was contemporary of the First World War. The music I listened to was Vietnam-era rock music, because that told me more about the mood. WWI redefined warfare in the same way the Vietnam war redefined warfare, and in doing so refined a continent, a nation, a whole way of thinking. And we always get sold this idea that life before WWI was this beautiful sun-dappled world where everybody knew where they were and what they were and everything was beautiful, but it’s actually not the case. It was a schizophrenic society, sexually, psychologically.

I found these incredible diaries from really bored Edwardian ladies, and there’s this feeling that they’re all waiting for something to happen. Bored, rich Edwardian ladies would have morphine parties. I read this Edwardian lady’s diary just to give me the feel of this world that all these people had come from, and what would happen is, they’d invite all the other ladies around and everybody would be talking about this and that with a nice cup of Darjeeling and then they’d roll their sleeves up give each other injections of morphine. One lady experiments with chloroform, which she calls ‘dear old chlora, dear old familiar friend’. Drugs, the kind of drugs we all freak out about now were incredibly available over the counter. If you went to the High Street chemist on the corner, and said, “You know what, my wife is a bit fatigued” he’d say,”Give her this to try, sir,” and they’d give you a pill called ‘Forced March’, which was cocaine. Cocaine, morphine, cannabis, all these things could be bought over the counter. We imagine it to be this really innocent endemic time. It wasn’t at all. And it was sexually scandalous. If you were a fallen woman you were an absolute scandal.

DG: Is that what Kitty is?

SP: Yes, she is. I kind of based her on my great-grandmother who divorced her husband after the First World War, remarried and went to live in India. But even when she came back, after her second husband had died and they were living in England, and waiting for evacuees to be billeted to them during WWII, my mum said she can remember my great-grandmother saying to her, “Do not say I am a divorced woman. If they know I’m a divorced woman we won’t be allowed to have evacuees.”

Our attitudes have changed hugely, and not changed very much. Some attitudes are very modern and some feel like they are 500 years ago, but all these people danced that tightrope between the two things; between pulling forward into the raw future, and people who had a vested interest in being in the past. Think of the whole way masculinity was redefined in the First World War. This was when people who had post-traumatic stress disorder were called hysterics, and were called womanish. You were told to guard against excessive womanishness, excessive homosexuality, anything that would derail moral, anything that was not English. Hysteria and womanishness were called alien attributes, so if you were a hysteric, if you had a nervous breakdown or suffered from trauma that meant you were basically, on the side of the enemy.

DG: Like the one character in the first episode who had some kind of post-traumatic stress, or shellshock as they called it back then.

SP: They called it shellshock because they literally had no idea what caused it and they thought it was the reverberations from the shells.

DG: But he was sent back and I guess we’ll see in the future what happens to him but I’m guessing it doesn’t end well.

SP: Well, bear in mind that Margaret didn’t go and get him and just kept the order.

DG: I have to say, that is when I was totally hooked; when I saw that happen, and when Sister Margaret opened the tin and there’s the cake!

SP: She’s a slow one. I really love Margaret. She’s a dangerous human being because she wanted something and she didn’t get it. I love that kind of stuff.

DG: I assume Sister Margaret is going to continue to be a protagonist?

SP: Well, she jockeys herself into a position, and … you’ll see! She’s furious because the world has escaped her. She should be commanding her own troops and instead, as a woman, what has she got? A hospital in the role of Matron. This is what she’s got and so, my god, she absolutely rages. It’s only a mere hundred years ago. It’s the blink of an eye. But what it did was it absolutely set the ground for the world we live in now. The time I’m writing about, which is in 1915, Ghandi is already starting protests against land tax in India. At the front, every single corner of the world comes to this place to defend Empire, and at the same time, back home, in India it’s the end of empire. Everything’s coming to an end and everything’s beginning. It’s just fascinating.

DG: I also have to ask you about EastEnders because recently you went back to write an episode. 

SP: Yes, and I’m writing another even as we speak.

DG: Great! It was fun to see your name pop up. What made you decide to go back?

SP: The thing is, I absolutely bloody love that show. I completely love it and I’ve watched it from the very beginning. I honestly believe it’s in my DNA. I feel a great, great passion and loyalty towards it. So I just really enjoyed Dominic [the Producer, Dominic Treadwell-Collins] saying come on, come and do this. It’s really nice to just get my toe back in there again. It’s all consuming but it’s a real privilege and an honor to be asked to go and write that show. You never leave that place. It’s like the Hotel California.

DG: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave?

SP: Absolutely. And why would you want to? I will always feel incredibly proud to be a part of it, and to keep on watching it. And I’m staggered by the quality of writing and performance. As a writer you know you’ve got to bloody well tell a story, but more than that, you’ve got to make people sit up from what they’re doing and say, “Hang on a minute, what did that character just say?” And we know that when that show hits its mark and hits its note, it sings like absolutely nothing else.

DG: Anything you’d like to say to the audience watching The Crimson Field?

SP: I just want to say thank you very much for watching! I love the fact that between here and America we have this relationship with drama. I just think it’s a really wonderful thing and I feel very proud of it.

DG: Yes, and PBS is the place that opened up the door for British drama in the States.

SP: Yes, it did! It means a great deal to British writers just to think that you’ve done this [program], and then suddenly it goes to PBS. You think, oh there’s a whole new audience! The ability to talk to a whole new audience and to hope they enjoy it, or to have a debate or a conversation, what a privilege! PBS is extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s the life and soul of drama and it created this community between Britain and America for people who love drama and stories.

DG: Yes, and we’re all so lucky it has!

Watch, Rinse, Repeat: The Crimson Field, Sunday nights at 10PM on THIRTEEN

A Bonus for Downtonians: And by the way, if all of this isn’t enough for you Downtonians, there’s Molesley and Sprat! That’s Molesley and Sprat as in actors Kevin Doyle and Jeremy Swift, who play supporting roles in The Crimson Field.

*Say What?: If you are like me, you didn’t know what a ‘balaclava’ was. It’s what we call a ski mask, but from now on, balaclava it is!

Tweet tweet: Sarah Phelps is also a very entertaining tweeter. You can follow her on Twitter at @PhelpsieSarah. And you can follow THIRTEEN at @ThirteenWNET, and me at @E20Launderette.

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