Home Fires Women Don’t Go Quietly

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It is almost three weeks since Home Fires was dropped by ITV but the noise on social media shows no signs of quietening. There is an impressive cross-section of people who comment on Facebook and Twitter. The majority of supporters are women but there is a strong male presence which, when I assessed it, almost matches the drama in terms of representation. I was once again reminded of Mark Umbers (Wing Commander Lucas) wise words when he wrote how the Home Fires story is told from the female perspective in a way that does not diminish its male characters. That’s exactly right and is one of the reasons why it has a strong male following as well as the perhaps-to-be-expected female audience.

St Boniface Church, Bunbury. Today’s view has hardly changed in 75 years.

This got me thinking about the profile of wartime villages in Britain. It was not the same as in the towns and cities, where factory workers were split almost 50/50 but the men were a great deal older, about 11 years on average, than they had been in the 1930s. The young men had in the main been conscripted. Women stepped up to the plate and took on roles that were hitherto the domain of men. They drove buses, became tram conductors, they made machines and munitions. In the countryside it was different. Women’s roles had changed in the Great War and with the birth of the WI they had a stronger sense of community than their urban counterparts. By 1916 women in the countryside made up a significant proportion of the labour force on farms. It is estimated that over 600,000 women worked in agriculture in the First World War, of which just 1/10th were members of the Women’s Land Army. The rest were wives, mothers, daughters of farmers and farm labourers who worked more often than not for no pay. It was simply expected that they would pick up where their young men had left off.

Rolling forward two decades these women, now a generation older, knew that they would have to do the same as they had done in the previous war. This time they were better organised. The Women’s Institute, formed in 1915, was a huge help in that it offered a ready-made structure to get things done: to bust the government’s bureaucratic logjams and keep the countryside ticking. They also knew that this time they would be more directly involved. The editor of Home & Country wrote in 1940:

‘Women who were grown up in the last war remember, as hardest to bear, the thought that young lives were being paid for their safety. Young men are defending us now, in a manner beyond praise. But this time we have the honour of sharing a little of the danger.’

Mrs Dunne, county chairman of Herefordshire wrote to her eighty-five presidents: ‘We must remember that “The main purpose of WIs is to improve and develop conditions in rural life.” To do this we must not neglect the education and social side of our movement. The war threatens civilisation, and we must do our best through the stress and turmoil to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’

There is something so stoical in these remarks. They are not headline grabbing or startling in their insight. They are not even particularly passionate but they are solid, determined and focused. Nothing, not even a war, was going to put the countrywoman off her stride. Throughout my research for Jambusters I found countless references to women who would carry on meetings or jam-making in an air-raid ‘because it had to be done’. A Kent member would shout and wave a clenched fist at the German planes flying overhead, not out of rage but out of frustration that it meant she had to abandon her fruit picking or gardening while they fought overhead. Other women sprang to help evacuees from the Blitz on Coventry and Plymouth, offering them practical help, such as a bath and a bed for the night. If there was anything they could do to help they would do it.

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Farrow Farm, Great Paxford

Simon Block has managed to capture this sense of community in his glorious fictional Great Paxford. I think one of the reasons why so many viewers react passionately towards Home Fires is that they recognise this as something they knew or or learned of through parents, grandparents or older siblings. It is living history in the most visceral way. Yet, as I have said before, Home Fires wears its history lightly. So it speaks to our sense of community, to our understanding of the role played by women in the war and, frankly, to our debt to them that they did so bravely and with humour. Looking at Frances Barden, can you not see how similar she is to Mrs Dunne of Herefordshire? Not speaking the same words but understanding the same sentiment: ‘to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’ In her own way, Joyce Cameron wants the same, but in the first series she is too stuck in her old ways to see that preserving something can mean allowing it to change with the times. By series two she is a changed woman and we find ourselves warming to her more and more. When Malcolm shows her the picture of her baby granddaughter I had hot tears in my eyes as I watched the brilliant, regal Francesca Annis do what every proud grandmother would do, which is to beam with joy. But Home Fires also speaks with a modern tongue to issues that cross generations: domestic abuse, loneliness, prejudice, racism and love. I think that Simon’s characters, in the hands of the outstandingly gifted cast and the superb camera crews, sound engineers, make-up artists, directors and producers, give us something that we really get. These are people who are real to us every Sunday evening, so that they have become like friends who we talk about all the next week. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Home Fires has such a strong and passionate following.

I am going to end with a quote from the Chairman of the Women’s Institute, Lady Denman, from October 1939. If you want to change the words and see what I’m getting at slightly tongue in cheek, you are most welcome to try.

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The Hon. Lady Gertrude Denman, Chairman of the NFWI, was an inspiring woman and a wonderful example to her membership

‘Germany is said to count on breaking our nerve. Every person who spreads an atmosphere of cheerfulness and quiet resolution at this time is helping to win the war. We are proud of the cause for which Britain is fighting, and those of us who are not called upon to endure the hardship of actual fighting, will be glad to feel that we have comforts to go without, difficulties to contend with in daily life, and that by meeting such troubles cheerfully and helping our neighbours to do so, we are taking our small share in winning the victory which we believe will come, but which will come only if the whole nation is ready to make willing sacrifice.’

#savehomefires

SAVE HOME FIRES!

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It is a week since my last blog about Home Fires and things have moved on dramatically. Since that phone call at 12:08 on Wednesday 11 May 2016 telling me that ITV had decided against commissioning a third series I have witnessed more activity on social media in a fortnight than I have ever experienced before. The energy and enthusiasm of fans for Home Fires is matched only by their frustration, sadness and at times barely concealed fury at ITV’s decision to drop the show after just two series. That it ended on a spectacular cliff-hanger has been one of the biggest points of discussion but the other is more subtle and interesting. Why cut a strong, women-led drama which had such a great following? Especially when the networks are all trying to prove how egalitarian they are with a view to showing women on television.

When I first talked to script writer, Simon Block, about why writing about the WI in wartime appealed to him, he said: ‘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.’

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He went on to describe how he was impressed by the support and friendship the Women’s Institute 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.”

That resonated with the audience who have been writing movingly about how much they love the characters and how they feel connection with the drama. One lady posted on the Jambusters public Facebook page (so it can be verified that I’m not making it up) “I always admired the women who live and struggled through World War Two, I think because my 81 year old mother has memories of it. Jambusters added to my knowledge and Home Fires brought it all alive for me.”

Mark Umbers, who plays Wing Commander Nick Lucas in the drama, wrote a beautiful open letter in which he said: ‘Home Fires assembled a large ensemble cast but told its stories from the female perspective — in a way that didn’t diminish its male characters. What it proved beyond doubt was that a female-driven narrative, across a broad range of characters and ages, could routinely draw in consolidated audiences of around six million in the UK alone — despite a negligible publicity.’

He is right of course and what a viewer pointed out is that the message coming across is that women-led dramas scare TV executives who can’t believe they can be popular. When Home Fires first came out in Britain it got poor reviews from TV critics who thought it was clever to poke fun at what they thought was a weak and whimsical drama. How wrong they were. My friend Andy said: ‘I think some critics would only be happy if a Panzer division drove down the middle of Great Paxford High Street followed by storm troopers raping and pillaging.’ But actually the portrayal of women’s lives behind the scenes of the most devastating conflict in history did interest and captivate people. Six million week in week out for all twelve episodes across two series. And the drama ‘won’ the 9pm slot 11 times out of 12, meaning it got a higher percentage of the viewers than the BBC offering on the other side.

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WI Market 1944 © Women’s Institute

 

‘One does have to ask if sexism was involved. Would the same decision have been made if it was a men’s organisation that was at the centre of the drama?’ asked someone on Facebook. I can’t provide her with a definitive answer but I wonder whether the decision to cancel the show was taken by men in suits who didn’t understand that a drama about ordinary women’s lives could catch on. It wasn’t sexy enough and there was a lack of death on screen perhaps. Maybe Andy was right and they would have been happier with tanks rumbling down the high street and Hugo Boss uniform-clad German officers.

What I do not understand is how ITV so grossly underestimated the Home Fires audience. The drama touched people at a very deep level and made an impact on men and women alike, people who are now invested in the drama and at a loss as to why it has been pulled. That it has produced such a violent and wonderful outpouring of emotion is heartwarming for the writers, producers and wonderful cast and crew who so loved working on the show.

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St Boniface Church, Bunbury (Great Paxford)

As Simon Block said in a Radio Times interview on 13th May: ‘What people like me forget at our peril is that without the audience a show like Home Fires doesn’t really exist, except on a shelf somewhere in an unlit room. It only truly bursts into life when it ignites an audience’s imagination, as they develop a relationship with the characters – empathising with some, identifying with others, reviling Bob! In that sense it’s the audience’s show as much as ours, and that’s what I think they want to voice at the moment. And I support that 100%. For a writer who stares out of the window for 90% of his working life the reaction has been very affirming.’

The protest must be getting under ITV’s skin. According to the press there are hundreds of pots of Jam flying like Harry Potter owls into the press office at ITV. The petition is ever growing and both Facebook and Twitter are alive. WI and other audience members are displaying posters, writing letters and generally protesting in a very British and Home Fires-like way. I shall continue to fight for Home Fires because, like Simon, I believe the show belongs to everyone who is invested in it emotionally as well as financially. Let’s continue to fight to #savehomefires.

Home Fires Last Word

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. © ITV

I know that I am opening myself up to criticism by writing a blog about ITV’s decision to axe Home Fires after two series. However, I am determined to have my say. First I want to express my immense thanks to everyone who has shown support for the show on Twitter, Facebook and to me personally by email and phone. ITV’s decision came out of the blue to me and I was very sad.

The reason given yesterday was expressed by Janice Troup, head of publicity at ITV. She said: ‘We are incredibly proud of what Home Fires has achieved, but the ITV commissioning team continues to refresh the channel’s drama portfolio, hence the decision not to commission a further new series.’

Home FiresThat is obviously a bitter disappointment to everyone who loves the show but it does at least give us a reason. There are wild rumours flying around the internet and most of them make me smile. However, there is one I want to stamp on with the biggest pair of jackboots that I can find: History. I have read this morning that the reason ITV has axed the show is because the history is inaccurate. That is categorically not true. I cannot emphasise that enough. The history is the skeleton on which the drama is constructed. I’m talking about the dates, storylines and facts. There are two historical consultants, Terry Charman, and me. Terry worked at the Imperial War Museum for decades and is the leading expert in the country on the wartime Home Front. He was a consultant on Foyle’s War and his eye for detail is second to none. But he, like me, only advises on scripts. My background is also steeped in the history of the Second World War. I’ve been working in the field for 15 years and my specialist interest is in the Home Front from the women’s perspective. Believe me, the historical backbone to the scripts is solid.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: ALEXANDRE WILLAUME as Marek. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

ALEXANDRE WILLAUME as Marek Novotny ©ITV

The story of Miriam Brindsley leaving her son’s name off the National Registration form in September 1939 is based on fact. The Office for National Statistics confirmed with me that some 60,000 women left their sons names off the list in order to avoid them being conscripted. Not out of cowardice but out of fear for the slaughter they had witnessed in the last war. The Czechs in series 2 are completely authentic. In the summer of 1940 Churchill welcomed nearly 5,000 Czech and over 20,000 Polish forces into Britain as battle-hardened fighters with far more experience than the BEF. And deliciously for us, the Czechs landed in Liverpool, were sent by train to Bunbury and marched to Cholmondeley Castle in Cheshire where they spent the summer. As followers of Home Fires will know, Bunbury is the village where the fictional Great Paxford is set.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENT HOME FIRES EPISODE 5 Pictured: LEANNE BEST as Teresa. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

LEANNE BEST as Teresa looking stunning as ever ©ITV

I will concede that there is a question to be answered about the use of language. It would be impossibly faux to make the actors use words and speak like my grandmother did in 1940. She had clipped consonants and very odd vowels. Really was pronounced ‘rarely’ and country sounded as if it had a deep sounding ‘unt’ in the middle followed by ‘tree’. I am not going to try and spell that out using a ‘c’ at the beginning. The script writer has to have the freedom to use dialogue which will not jarr with a twenty-first century audience but which will sound sufficiently accurate to match the period. It is a juggling act and I think by and large it works well.

The production team do a marvellous job at creating a wartime feel and I particularly want to single out Lucinda Wright who was the costume wizard for the first series. I think she created an outstanding wardrobe. The hair and make-up teams are also excellent, even though they did put me in a grey wig when I made my one and only cameo appearance. Bunbury dressed up in its wartime garb looks magnificent. So much so that when my eighty-seven year old father drove through the village  one day after filming he could not tell what had been altered to take it back in time. There are people in the audience who point out little inconsistencies, such as maize in Cheshire in 1940 or the D-Day markings on a Spitfire but sometimes there is no other possibility. The Spitfire question is one that gets some people hot under the collar but let me say that there are less than 50 Spitfires still in one piece. I know, I saw them at Goodwood last year and they are breathtakingly impressive, still. It is nearly 80 years since the Battle of Britain and given how many sorties the RAF was involved in between then and 1945 it is not surprising that there is such a small pool of planes to choose from. Unfortunately for us, no one in 1940 thought of tucking one away in a hangar for 75 years so we could film in 2015. And the maize. Well, there was maize grown in Britain in 1940 but not in Cheshire. However, when it came to filming there was no other crop available to be picked. Sometimes you just have to go with what is there.

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Farrow Farm in its wartime garb. I photographed this on my first set visit and was moved to tears by its authenticity © Julie Summers

Everyone on the series does their very best to get things right and historical inaccuracy is definitely not the reason for the show going. ITV is a commercial broadcaster and they will have probably made their decision for commercial reasons.

I would like to celebrate Home Fires. It has been the most thrilling experience of my career being involved in this wonderful series. And although I am sad that there will not be a third series on ITV, I would like to think that the show will live on in people’s memories as a great example of period drama. The cast have loved being involved and are as sad as the audience are. They were the first to spring onto Twitter and thank their six million loyal fans for their support. It has been heart warming and uplifting to hear so much passionate praise for them and Home Fires.

When I spoke to the Executive Producer, Catherine Oldfield, yesterday, she told me how sad she was and she apologised to me. Why apologise? I can’t thank her and her team enough for taking my book Jambusters and creating something of such sparkling brilliance. When I asked her whether she thought there was any future for Home Fires she said. ‘It is unlikely. But this is television. Never say never.’ So we can but hope.

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For now I want to end by saying thank you to everyone. To my friend Simon Block, the brilliant scriptwriter who conceived Home Fires, and his fellow writers. To Sophie Bicknell, the script editor, with whom I have exchanged over 1,000 emails. To the oh-so talented actors and to the extras who created such a glorious sense of community. To the production team who turned out day in day out despite the appalling weather of autumn 2015, and to the directors who made Home Fires burn so brightly. Finally thank you to all of you who have followed the series with such enthusiasm.

Aurevoir? I hope so…

HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 6 The True Cost of War

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce, CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph,RUTH GEMMELL as Sarah,FENELLA WOOLGAR as Alison, CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam, LEANNE BEST as Teresa.SAMANTHA BOND as Frances,FRANCES GREY as Erica and CLAIRE RUSBROOK as Pat. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

The magnificent Women of Great Paxford © ITV

As the second season of Home Fires draws to its dramatic close I thought I would concentrate on a question I have spent a great deal of time working on: the true cost of war. I do not mean in the sense of how much it cost the government to prosecute the Second World War – that figure is recorded as somewhere in the region of £10,000,000 a day. No, I’m interested in the cost of the war in human terms. Not numbers of killed or wounded but the impact it had on their families.

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A view of Etaples Military Cemetery from the Cross of Sacrifice. 10,816 men and women are buried here © Julie Summers

Last week I visited Etaples Military Cemetery and was reminded that 10,816 men and women are buried here, of which just 35 are unidentified. It was the cemetery for nearly 20 First World War hospitals. Each of those buried would have had parents and possibly siblings. Some would have been married with children, so the number of people mourning the dead buried at Etaples would be in the tens of thousands. Next year the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be 100 years old. This remarkable organisation commemorates over 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. It was set up in May 1917 in response to the outpouring of grief over the slaughter on the battlefields of France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli and in Palestine and Greece. Bodies could not be repatriated. That only started in the late 1960s, so men had to be buried where they fell and the Commission’s job over the next decades was oversee the construction of cemeteries and memorials for two world wars. It now has a presence in 154 countries worldwide. It is through their remarkable determination to remember the war dead and to commemorate them in perpetuity, that has shaped our remembrance services of today. But for the men and women whose sons, daughters, lovers, husbands, brothers, uncles were sucked up into the Forces in 1939 commemoration was the last thing anybody wanted to be thinking about. Every hope was for the safe return of a loved family member or friend.

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Clara Milburn, wartime diarist from Balsall Common © Harrap, London

One of the worst notifications a family could receive, short of killed, was Missing in Action. This was the fate of the Brindsley family in Home Fires. Miriam refused to believe that David was dead and held onto that hope against all the odds. In Jambusters I told the story of diarist Clara Milburn whose son, Alan, was posted as ‘missing’ after Dunkirk. Her diary entries over the summer of 1940 make haunting reading. In June she wrote: ‘How curious this life is. A sort of deep stillness comes over everything from time to time. There is not much traffic on the roads during the week and the village seems empty in the evenings. One misses the young life everywhere, particularly Alan coming in in the early evening.’ A month later there was still no news of her son: ‘Always one is thinking of him, wondering whether he still lives and if so, whether he is well, where he is, what he does all day, what discomforts he is suffering. If… if… And so the days go by.’ At the end of July she heard that he was a prisoner of war and hugged her husband ‘for sheer joy at the good news’. It was not until October that she received a letter from him, a full nine months after she had last spoken to him over the phone. Alan Milburn returned safely but a very changed man.

For Barbara Cartland the news from France was the same as for Clara Milburn. Both her brothers, Ronald and Tony, were fighting with the British Expeditionary Force. Ronald wrote to his mother just before he went into action: ‘This is just to send you my love and bless you always. Don’t be anxious if there is a long silence from me – the fog of war is pretty impenetrable. We shall win in the end, but there’s horror and tribulation ahead of all of us. We can’t avoid it. What a waste it all is, but after months of desolation we shall gain and retain what you and I have always understood the meaning of – freedom.’ Barbara’s mother, Polly, had lost her husband in 1918 and knew full well the horror of the telegram. It came twice over that hot, dry summer of 1940. Both her sons were ‘missing’. In January 1941 came the terrible news that Ronald had been killed in action on 30 May 1940, hit in the head by a German bullet.

Barbara wrote: ‘We had gradually been losing hope of hearing that he was alive – now we knew the truth. My mother was wonderful. “Missing” is the cruellest uncertainty of all, as she well knew, for my father had been missing in 1918; and that ghastly waiting, watching, hoping and praying was hers all over again – not twice, but three times, for Tony was still “missing”.’ Tony Cartland had been killed the day before his brother, hit by a shell. For Polly and Barbara Cartland there was no happy ending to their story.

HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured: CLAIRE PRICE as Miriam Brindsley, DANIEL RYAN as Bryn Brindsley and WILL ATTENBOROUGH as David Brindsley. Photographer: STUART WOOD This image is the copyright of ITV and must be credited. The images are for one use only and to be used in relation to Home Firs, any further charge could incur a fee.

The Brindsley family in Great Paxford © ITV

In Home Fires there are men caught up in the same drama as the Cartland brothers and Alan Milburn. Sarah Collingbourne’s husband, Adam, is missing in France while David Brindsley has miraculously returned from an horrific accident at sea and Bob Simms, wounded at Dunkirk, was sent back to Great Paxford in an ambulance. It is easy to understand why Miriam clung so desperately to her belief that David was still alive and remarkable that he was able to come home. Of the vicar’s fate we know little. Ronald Cartland described ‘the fog of war’ meaning there was confusion and chaos as indeed there was. And the pressure on families was immense.

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My grandmother, Alex Toosey, was the inspiration for JAMBUSTERS which in turn was the inspiration for Home Fires © Toosey family

My grandfather was taken prisoner on Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the first official notice my grandmother received that her husband was alive but a POW was on Christmas Eve of that year, almost 11 months after he had been captured. For her the fog of war was exceptionally thick. And for her there was the added problem that as he was ‘missing’ he was neither dead, in which case she would have received a war widow’s pension, or alive, in which case he would have received army pay. So for nearly a year she and tens of thousands of other wives received no money.How did they cope? Sometimes firms would make hardship payments to wives of men who had worked with them pre-war but more often than not they had to rely on family support or charities. The oldest military charity in Britain was SSAFA – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It was founded in 1885 to provide lifelong support to serving men, women and veterans from the British Armed Forces and their families or dependents. In the Second World War SSAFA helped hundreds of thousands of families and their support was invaluable then, as it is still today.

So as this second season of Home Fires gives us a powerful finale, it is worth reflecting that there are very real parallels between the experiences of the fictional characters and their historic counterparts. We are going to be left with more questions than answers but then that reflects the true cost of war. Let’s just hope we get a third season to give us some answers.

Home Fires