When I set out to write a history of the wartime activities of the Women’s Institute of England and Wales in 2009 I had no inkling that it would lead to a full-blown television drama series. None at all. So you can imagine that it has been a journey of many exciting twists and turns: to create a drama out of the greatest crisis to hit the lives of those living in the middle of the twentieth century.
First things first. I am a historian, not a script-writer, so the suggestion that a village women’s institute might be a potential seed of an idea for a drama came not from me but from the brilliant mind of Home Fires’ creator and writer, Simon Block. He and I met on a course in the beautiful English county of Devon in 2012. Simon was one of two tutors on a TV script writing course. If I am not script writer, what was I doing on this course? It is a good question and one I asked myself several times during the week. I had written ten books and fancied that writing in a different format might offer a new challenge.
At the end of the course Simon and I discussed the fact that I did not want to become a script writer but that storytelling was my great passion. I told him about my book on the WI, which I had just submitted to the editor in its final draft, and to my surprise he was very interested. I think even back then he could see the potential for a women-led drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War. He wrote to me earlier this year with his thoughts:
‘Like most people I think, I had no idea of the extent and importance of the role played by the WI during the Second World War. Not only in regard to its activities aimed at supporting the home front but also in terms of the support and friendship it offered to often isolated women who needed the companionship of other women like never before – even if for a few hours a month. The book opened my eyes to the great extent WI women mobilised to make such a huge contribution, generating a fantastic spirit of ‘community’. The fact that this was largely unknown (as is often the case with women’s history) left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised. Plus, it offered a fantastic opportunity to write about a lot of women in their own right, and not merely as adjuncts to – or victims of – various men, which is so often how women are portrayed in television drama.’
Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and we were introduced. Within an hour of meeting Catherine I knew that I could trust her with my work and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book, Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA). That meant ITV Studios would be able to work up a first script and submit it to the television networks in due course. But how to translate historical non-fiction, the voices of real women, and the goings on in the Second World War on the Home Front, into a television drama that would pack a punch but remain true to the history? Francis Hopkinson explained to me that in the normal course of events an author is not involved in drama development. However this appeared to be a slightly unorthodox situation as my book was to be the source for inspiration rather than adaptation. Simon Block describes it as the DNA of the series.
So I am retained as the historical consultant to the scripts, which means that I have the immense good fortune to be involved in the meetings when story lines are discussed. My role is to produce the history, when required, of both the progress of the war and the situation at any given point in time of the WI. I was able to offer a sense of background for the first series, emphasising the mood in Britain during that strange period called the Phoney War: the country was at war, the British Expeditionary Force was guarding the Maginot Line in France, but nothing was actually happening. It produced a kind of paralysis in the country, which changed into anxious boredom and then the acceptance of the calm before the storm.
All the characterisation was developed by Simon Block and he knows each of the men and women in his drama intimately. In a fascinating three day meeting ‘in conclave’ in April 2014 five of us sat down, with tea, coffee and cakes (WI style), and discussed the back-stories to all the main characters.
My involvement stops with the scripts. The production is a whole different game and I find it both fascinating and bewildering. When I write a book there are perhaps half a dozen people involved – editor, copy-editor, proof reader, publicist and so on. That is about the same number of people working in the make-up truck on the set of Home Fires. On my first visit to set in September 2014 I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise. There are hundreds of people on set and they all know exactly what their role is and where they should be at any given moment. I visit infrequently because to me it is still magical and I do not want to lose that sense of wonder.
To be involved in Home Fires, if only peripherally, has been one of the most exciting and thrilling experiences in my career to date. I am delighted with the drama series and I can only say that if you have enjoyed Series 1 then watch out for Series 2. It is fabulous. The final episode of the current series will give a flavour of what is to come. The Phoney War is over. And the crisis is about to produce yet more amazing drama.
Home Fires is published by Penguin USA and is the history of the WI which inspired the TV drama series of the same name.