sun 14/07/2024

The Crimson Field, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The Crimson Field, BBC One

The Crimson Field, BBC One

Mental as well as physical wounds in Sarah Phelps's haunting Great War field hospital drama

A rare moment of calm and order at field hospital 25-A

The BBC is going to reap a rich harvest from The Crimson Field. Sarah Phelps’s drama impresses for a whole number of reasons that will score with viewers: there's the closed community and class elements we know so well from the likes of Downton, as well as rather more room for fermentation of youthful hormones, male and female alike, among a shapely cast.

Most of all though it has the sheer emotionally powerful drama of war, with its stories of life and death that will be resounding throughout this “commemorative” year. The timeline of this opening episode was June 1915, the casualties of conflict already all too evident, its setting a field hospital outside Boulogne, where a trio of Voluntary Aid nurses were arriving to face realities any training they may have received back home certainly hadn't prepared them for.

They were Rosalie, Kitty and Flora, all warbling away in rarified accents, and they received their first baptism of fire before they even encountered a wounded man. Because they were entering the strict command structure of the professional military nursing service, women who were literally wedded to the work (they were forbidden from marrying). Matron Carter (Hermione Norris) and Sister Quayle (Kerry Fox) have been nursing since at least the Boer War, old colleagues (not so sure that they're friends) whose acquaintance has been disrupted by the former’s unexpected promotion. With this level of strictness they could as well be running the likes of the Irish Magdalene laundries, and washing bloodied bandages is as much part of the job as tending to the wounded (what does a nice Home Counties girl do when severed toes turn up in the laundry basket?). (Pictured above right, from left, Marianne Oldham, Oona Chaplin and Alice St Clair)

But you can be ejected from this community, as Chaplin’s character very nearly was, before she coped with an emergency that elicited sympathy even from her severe matron senior. Yes, even these battle-hardened veterans will get to show their human sides – Phelps has written a very tight script, and such lapses of discipline never become sentimental. The conflicts between by-the-rules strictness and allowing a level of humanity were there in the military command too, never more affectingly than with the trauma of Lance Corp Prentiss (Karl Davies), whose nerves had been shot in a way that more than merited a ticket back to Blighty (mental casualties being every bit as bad as physical ones). His return home was countermanded by a senior officer whose only priority was to get the troops back up line. We'll be hearing more on that score. As for the baggage brought by the nurses, it turned out to be much more than just what was in their suitcases. A fourth nurse played by Suranne Jones appeared before the episode was out, emancipated and on her own motorcycle no less.

The rotating cast of male characters may be a potential issue – there’s no lingering in this hospital: it’s either straight back to the front, back home, or six feet under. The most promising room for flirtation has come in the form of personable officer surgeons Miles and Thomas (pictured above left, Alex Wyndham and Richard Rankin), who haven’t lost their sense of humour despite the gruesome nature of their duties.

Phelps brings it all together outstandingly, the production values look every bit as good as could be expected, while the score holds back on emphasising elements of tragic drama in order to explore more angular nuance. There are only six episodes in this series, but The Crimson Field looks so good so far that a second instalment must surely already be in the bag.


What does a nice Home Counties girl do when severed toes turn up in the laundry basket?


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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On the basis of the first three episodes, four stars seems generous. I agree about the high production values and the strong performances, but they're at the service of annoyingly thin characterisation and lazy structure. Each of the leads is a collection of socio-economic characteristics with A Fatal Flaw or A Dark Secret, and poor Kerry Fox could do with a moustache to twirl to match her pantomime, cake-stealing villainy. Similarly, the plot points often feel like they're ticking off a list of WW1 "issues". I'll stick with it for the aforementioned acting and because I'm far enough in for the narrative to hook me — hopefully a little more depth will become apparent. But I'm sure there's a better drama to be made about the subject.

Brilliant drama, cant believe that was the last episode.Please please say there will be more. Sunday nights will not be the same. Congratulations to all involved.

Brilliant series. There MUST be a second series.

Good Drama, awesome acting! there must be a second serie so we know more about the WW1. To the bad critics: this serie shows only the first few months of WW1 in which most of people thought it will end soon. As the years go by there are more to be told: Ypres battle in 1915, use of German poison gas in the trenches, Somme battle in 1916 and so on. Sarah Phelps has done extensive research for that project, and I truly believe that more stories, vibrant and dramatic will be told. She just planted the seeds to captivate the audience in Serie1. Renew asap. Veterans, nurses, doctors that fought for freedom need to be remembered. It's BBC duty to do so for the Centenary.

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