A Touch of Class

imagesPart of my work as an author is to give lectures. I do two six week seasons in the autumn and spring all over the country, speaking about the social history of the Second World War among other topics. The ITV drama series HOME FIRES, inspired by my book Jambusters, is a favourite theme at the end of my talk about women and war. Everywhere I have been since May 2016 I have been harangued by people who are desperate for answers, confused why the series ended on such a dramatic cliff-hanger and who would love nothing more than to see HOME FIRES return to their screens. I politely explain the ITV line that the broadcaster is seeking constantly to refresh their offering. That explanation is not always well received and often produces sarcastic laughter.

Last week I was lecturing in Exeter and among the audience was the mother of a senior crew member from the drama. She told me that she had learned from her son that the reason it had been cancelled was because it was too white and middle class. I had guessed that might have been one of the reasons it was not re-commissioned but I had not heard the remark from a reliable source. I cannot let that go. This is my response, tempered after a week of editing my thoughts and controlling my indignation.

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Wartime clothes modelled outside Imperial War Museum, London, March 2015

Rural Britain in 1939 was predominantly white. That cannot be denied. But it was far from middle-class. Mass Observation, that brilliant window on everyday life, presented the most valuable of vignettes in its myriad reports, diaries, questionnaires and observations during the early years of the war. Set up in 1937 by three young men, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet and journalist Charles Madge, and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, its aim was to document and record everyday life in Britain through the eyes of ordinary people. They listed four classes in Britain in the late nineteen thirties: upper class, middle class, artisan class and unskilled working class. They estimated that the working class accounted for sixty-five per cent of the population as opposed to roughly fourteen per cent in 2015. The upper class, or aristocracy, represented five per cent and the remainder (thirty per cent) was split between the burgeoning middle class of the nineteen thirties and the artisan class, which included skilled workers on low incomes. This is reflected in all the research I have done for my books on the social history of the Second World War and was picked up by the writer Simon Block for HOME FIRES.

Bunbury - the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

Bunbury – the ancient Cheshire village that became Great Paxford

A typical village in the early twentieth century would have a manor house, inhabited by the squire and his family, who might be resident full time or who might only come down for the hunting. Then there would be the farmers, some owning their own farms, others as tenant farmers but many of very long standing. These families, headed by the men, might have been working the land for many decades, if not centuries. Resistance to change, and in particular to book learning, was strong among this group. The main body of the village would comprise farm labourers and their families, who again might have been living in the village and serving the big house for generations. Some villages had a doctor and he, as a man of learning with knowledge of science, was held in high regard. The vicar or priest was accorded equal respect. A few villages could boast an artist or two but they were generally on the periphery of village life and not part of the hierarchy.

HOME FIRES echoes this picture of English rural life at the outbreak of the Second World War. Joyce Cameron is the wife of the wealthiest man in the village, even though we barely get to see Douglas Cameron in the series. I have always imagined him as owning farms and land in the in the area around Great Paxford. Joyce could best be described as old school middle-class in that she was born into the privilege rather than earning her way into it as the other middle class character, Frances Barden, would have to have done. Frances and Peter, a wealthy factory owner, are both university educated and belong to the new middle class that, frankly, appalled Douglas and Joyce Cameron. Their household, with Cookie and Thumbs – the cook and gardener – and Claire Hillman, the housemaid, represents a fairly typical well-to-do family of the era. Had the Bardens had children, there would have been a nanny and quite possibly a nursery nurse. That is the sum total of the middle-class characters in Home Fires and they dominate the drama in the early episodes, in keeping with the mores of the time.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCESCA ANNIS as Joyce Cameron. 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.

Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis) Photographer: STUART WOOD 
copyright ITV

For the women in Great Paxford the arrival of the Women’s Institute, probably in the early nineteen twenties, did more for their social mobility and education than anything else. It gave them a reason to meet up and discuss any number of topics regardless of their social background. When the WI was set up in Wales 1915 it was modelled on the Canadian model of a safe meeting place for women to expand their horizons, share experiences, learn and try new things and, above all, it was meant for every woman, whatever her personal circumstance. From the word go there was to be no bar for anyone joining the WI. Church and Chapel, Conservative and Labour, upper and working class, gay and straight – everyone was welcome. This did not always succeed, especially if a village were hide-bound by ancient traditions and divisions. But the first two episodes of HOME FIRES shows how that could be and was broken with a change of leadership. Under the guidance of Frances Barden the Great Paxford Women’s Institute opens its doors to a wider spread of women from the village and welcomes incomers.

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Little Stan (Brian Fletcher), Steph Farrow (Clare Calbraith), Stan (Chris Coghill) doing the ‘Farrow Frown’ © Julie Summers 2015

Their first recruit from the village is Steph Farrow, a tenant farmer who runs her herd of a dozen cows with her son Little Stan. It is possible that her farm is owned by Douglas Cameron, although that has never been mentioned. Certainly it does not belong to the Farrows. Her husband, Stan, goes off to war leaving Steph in charge and she soon gets into difficulty with the Ministry of Agriculture when she finds it impossible to keep up with her paperwork. We realise that she can neither read nor write. Illiteracy among women born before the First World War was high and it was something that the Women’s Institute was keen to address. Education was, and remains, the keystone of the movement and it gives the WI its present charitable status. Thus it is entirely in character that Steph is taught to read and write by a fellow WI member, Teresa Fenchurch, the teacher from Liverpool.

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.

Teresa Fenchurch (Leanne Best)
copyright ITV

Teresa is a breath of fresh air in Great Paxford. Coming straight from a poor area of the city she has experience of all types of families and children. She is no doubt the first in her family to be educated to teacher level and the passion with which she encourages the children to learn to read and write is something new in the village. She understands how education can change lives and open doors for children who, in the past, would have had to follow their parents into farming or service. Her past liaison with Connie, a fellow teacher from Liverpool, is the key reason she had to leave the city and she hopes to put it behind her. She is typical of the kind of woman who came from the city to the countryside during the war, though many of the teachers who ended up in village schools were there because of the evacuation of school children rather than by choice. This chimed with many viewers who remember their parents talking about the quality of teachers coming from the cities into the countryside during the war and raising the standard and ambition of local teaching.

Teresa’s landlady, Alison Scotlock, has her own secret that she is keen to hide. Although ostensibly a respectable working woman trained as a book-keeper, she is not legitimately Mrs Scotlock. She and George were not married as he was unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife. Had this become widely know in Great Paxford she might have found it difficult to stay. She therefore lives dangerously close to the edge of society and her entanglement with the world of crime is born out of necessity. Her friendship with Teresa is understandable: They each learn the other’s secret and agree, in an unspoken understanding, to keep it.

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The Revd Adam Collingbourne (Mark Bonnar) and Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) copyright ITV

Dr Will Campbell, as a professional, is held in high regard as is Adam Collingbourne, the vicar and their wives enjoy status because of their husbands’ professional roles. Erica and Sarah soon evolve as powerful characters in their own right and we see the world through their eyes rather than that of their husbands. The novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, the daughter of a vicar, wrote that the dilemma for vicars was they had to live a middle-class lifestyle on a working-class salary. That is hinted at in Home Fires because Sarah has no help in the vicarage and is happy to take in a lodger at the outbreak of war. Erica Campbell helps to bolster the family’s income working as the practice pharmacist, something that is especially helpful during series two when the family fortunes are affected by Laura’s affair with her boss.

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.

Bryn Brindsley (Daniel Ryan) Miriam (Claire Price) and David (Will Attenborough)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bryn the Butcher is from North Wales, probably the son of a butcher or a farmer, and his wife, Miriam, hails from the same sort of background. The butcher’s place in the village, like that of the greengrocer, garage owner and postman, was such that they would have addressed most of their customers as Mr or Mrs so-and-so. They belong to the artisan class as defined by Mass Observation. Bryn probably encouraged Miriam to join the WI in order to make friends with other women in the village and to help to break through the class barriers.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and MARK BAZELEY as Bob Simms. 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.

Bob Simms (Mark Bazeley) and Pat (Claire Rushrbook)
Photographer: Stuart Wood
copyright ITV

Bob Simms and his long-suffering wife, Pat, represent the dark side of village life in the nineteen thirties. Bob is a frustrated writer. His first novel was a runaway success but he has failed to match that with any subsequent writing. Pat lives to service Bob’s writing life. The domestic abuse she suffers at Bob’s hands is not unusual for that era – nor sadly for today – and the secrecy that surrounds it plays to the conspiracy of silence that is prevalent in abusive households. Whether she and Bob were ever able to consider themselves middle-class is a moot point. From the perspective of where we first meet them in Home Fires they have definitely slipped down the ladder to surviving on a working class income with Bob getting jobs where he can. He is too proud to admit that Pat could help out by working but eventually she prevails and we celebrate her tiny bit of freedom from the tyranny of their domestic life.

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Wing Commander Lucas (Mark Umbers) photographed in September 2015

Other characters who are introduced into the drama in uniform join that mysterious ‘class’ that was, by its nature, classless. Some 15 million men and women were entitled to wear uniform over the course of the Second World War. Some were in the armed services but others were in organisations such as Air Raid Precautions, Home Guard, Women’s Voluntary Service or the Women’s Land Army. Women were called in to take over roles that were traditionally the preserve of men. They worked as tram and bus conductors, they stripped engines of all sizes, from locomotives to lorries; they worked in factories making uniform, parachutes, helmets or munitions, camouflage nets and vehicles. All these people belonged to a special caste that changed with their clothes. Zelma Katin was a tram conductor in Sheffield during the day and a housewife by night. She wrote: ‘The Englishman’s inhibitions vanish before the sight of a uniform and he speaks far more readily to conductresses than to fellow-passengers. I suppose he feels that as we are public servants he has a stake in our personal lives.’ Jenny Hillman, the village gossip, takes on a whole new persona when she joins the WAAF in series two while our admiration for Wing Commander Nick Lucas cutting a dashing figure in his blue uniform is such that we never even question what his background might be.

The young people in the drama – Will and Erica’s girls Kate and Laura; David Brindsley, the butcher’s son; Claire Hillman and Spencer Wilson, housemaid to the Bardens and postman respectively are all less inhibited by their backgrounds and point forward to the social mobility and class upheaval that grew out of the Second World War.

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.

Captain Marek Novotny of the Czech Army (Alexandre Willaume)
copyright ITV

And then we have the foreigners who appear in the second series. There is Mrs Esposito, an Italian who has lived in the village for twenty years. She is rounded up and arrested as an enemy alien along with 19,000 of her fellow countrymen on Churchill’s orders but not before we witness the shocking verbal abuse of her by the local children. They run behind her shouting ‘Wop Wop’. Meanwhile, 4,000 Czechoslovak soldiers arrive in Cholmondeley Castle in June 1940 and as Great Paxford is just down the road from there we get to see them in the second series. The Czechs fought with great distinction alongside the Allies in the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Arnhem and many other battles besides. They, along with the Poles, who were at this stage not in Cheshire (though they turned up later in the war) were among the huge number of servicemen from all over who fought alongside the Allies.

Had we been allowed to continue with Home Fires the face of Great Paxford would have changed, as did the face of rural Britain, as wave upon wave of incomers changed life in the countryside forever. This culminated in 3 million American GIs which included 130,000 black soldiers, a battalion of whom were housed in Tattenhall, just a few miles down the road from Great Paxford. Sadly that honour has been denied us and I deeply regret that we were never able to tell the whole story.

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Paxford is mentioned in this magnificent tapestry from 1596 hanging today in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is part of our history…

I think one of the reasons why HOME FIRES resonates so strongly with its audience is precisely because it is not a one dimensional middle-class drama. The history is so interwoven with the stories that it represents a snap shot of real-life seventy five years ago. The men and women whose lives we see created on screen in the brilliant scripts by Simon Block are in our DNA. Their lives and experiences have echoes in our own past. Their joy and pain, their losses and gains, are universal and familiar. They are in our parents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles. The world is one we can recognize and I am only sorry that the powers that be could not see how relevant and important that was, and remains, to many people who love the series.

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 Series 2 Episode 4 Sex and Love in Times of War

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Steph and Stan Farrow © ITV

‘If you put men and women together in close proximity in a danger shared, a mutual attraction is not only the inevitable result, it is what we should expect, and we should be very surprised and perturbed from a national point of view if it wasn’t.’ Thus wrote novelist, Barbara Cartland in 1945. As a welfare officer for the women’s services during the Second World War she was warm, generous and young people responded to her: ‘No one has ever minded when I have talked to them, and I’ve been both personal and intrusive. Being a novelist helps. I don’t know why, but people always want to confide in novelists, and the other thing which I believe makes everything alright is the fact that I am sincere. I do believe what I say.’ There were those in society who judged young people who got into trouble and condemned them but Cartland thought that was unfair and wrong. They were young, in love, in danger and in a hurry.

imagesFrom today’s perspective it is difficult to imagine or understand the stigma caused by extramarital affairs or illegitimate children. For both men and women during the war there was a sense that living for today was fine because tomorrow you might die and this spilled over into behaviour which to some seemed reprehensible but which to others was inevitable and not even particularly surprising. ‘War Aphrodisia’ was traditionally ascribed to men in battle and was a well-recognised condition. In total war, as the Second World War undoubtedly was for Britain and mainland Europe, a hedonistic impulse reached many other segments of society.

The emancipation of women in Britain after the First World War had led, briefly, to a more liberated attitude towards fashion and behaviour. One commentator wrote: ‘Women bobbed their hair, donned short skirts, smoked in public and wore the heavy makeup which had formerly been the attribute of the harlot.’ The seeds of emancipation had been sown and the flame was fanned hardest in the USA where the combination of a buoyant stock market, bootleg gin and the racy novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald fuelled the frenetic pace of the social revolution. Hollywood played its part, producing erotic films for a mass audience and elevating the leading stars to almost legendary status. Audiences flocked to films such as Alimony (1917), which promised ‘brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrifying climax that makes you gasp.’

The circumstances of total war changed both attitudes and opportunities: ‘We were not really immoral, there was a war on,’ explained one British housewife. The ‘what the heck I could be dead tomorrow’ attitude of some of the fighter pilots, for example, brought many couples together and hastily arranged marriages, with often only forty-eight hours to spend together, were not uncommon. Few couples could consider what would happen after the war, when life might return to normal. They lived for that day and perhaps the next. ‘They were loved and beloved, and by this stage in the war love was about the only thing left unrationed.’

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : DAISY BADGER as Claire Hillman and MIKE NOBLE as Spencer Bradley. 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.

Clare Hillman and Spencer Wilson in series 1 © ITV

As we dig deeper into the fourth episode of HOME FIRES, war aphrodisia has reached Great Paxford. Electric tensions spark and shock around the village in the ferment of high drama. Pat’s nascent relationship with Marek has caused gasps and quickening heartbeats not just for careful observers like Erica, but for the rest of us watching on, agonising over her every move, desperate for her to duck and dive to avoid the eagle eye of Bob. How can she be so brave as to carry on her relationship with Marek while her deeply troubled husband is trying to exert his influence over her? A contemporary description from a Manchester housewife in 1944 might throw some light on this: ‘There was nothing cheap about our affair, and if Rick had my body, my heart was with my husband and somehow I didn’t feel that I was doing anything wrong.’

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Marek and Pat dancing at the Czech Camp party © ITV

Other relationships stop and start. Emotions that would normally have been ignored or suppressed, rise to the surface with a juvenile and intoxicating urgency. Some women find themselves almost out of their depth and exert a rigorous check on their emotions. Thanks to an intervention by Joyce Cameron in the last episode, Sarah Collingbourne is brought to an abrupt halt in her dalliance with the delightful, handsome and oh-so-eligible Wing Commander from RAF Tabley Wood. But what of Miss Fenchurch? She might have danced with him at the Czech Camp but is there a chance of something in the future? Is Laura Campbell’s reputation going to blot out the early signs of love with Tom, the handsome young pilot who nobly stands up to the prissy but not-above-buying-black market-butter, Mrs Talbot? This fetid atmosphere of possibility belongs, of course, in a 9pm drama in 2016, but it accurately reflects the intoxicating atmosphere of the summer of 1940 when no-one knew what might happen next. The Second World War had entered a phase of unprecedented high stakes and it is not surprising that people reacted to it by questioning their tomorrow.

I am constantly excited and delighted by Simon Block’s brilliantly observed scripts. He has succeeded in chiming with the changing times. The pace of this series increases as the pace of the war did too. We never quite know what turn is to come next but when it comes it is both thrilling and fitting. Robert Quinn’s outstanding directing never lets us rest for a minute, yet it is not hurried. We are on the edge of our seats, as the country was in 1940. Home Fires is an all-round production with an exceptional cast, a superb production team and an energetic editorial and post-production set up that weaves the magic together as Samuel Sims’ music sprinkles the icing on the cake. Enjoy Sunday 23 April. It is a mesmerising episode.

The first section of this blog appeared in the USA in October 2015 and is an abridged version of a chapter in Stranger in the House, entitled Sex and Love in Times of War.

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HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 3 the Grey Areas

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.

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. © ITV

As episode 3 opens we find ourselves in mid-July 1940. The Channel Islands have fallen into German hands and Hitler has told his generals to plan for an invasion of the United Kingdom, codenamed Operation Sea Lion. In Great Paxford Stanley Farrow firmly believes the operation will succeed. He has increased his determination to safe-guard the farm. With the help of Isobel he lays barbed wire and farm machinery across the fields.

Meantime, Little Stan has other ideas about how to prepare for the Germans. All over the country people were anxious, trying to work out who might be a spy or an enemy, and some ridiculous misunderstandings arose, as we shall see. All foreign nationals were picked up and imprisoned either in jails or in camps on the Isle of Man. Many of the men were later freed, as they were considered no serious threat to the country, and were enlisted in the Pioneer Corps. But for the time-being the atmosphere was febrile.

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Porlock WI Country Market in wartime © NFWI Archives

The summer of 1940 saw an increase in the number of foods on the ration. In March all meat was included and in July tea and margarine were added. Tea rationing was particularly unpopular but there were ways to increase the quantities of food available. Gardens were turned over to vegetable growing and the Women’s Institutes were very active in growing onions and tomatoes for their local country markets. Yet some things were very hard to come by in quantity and this is where people became resourceful and traded illegally. Much has been written about the Black Market, most of it speculative, because few records were kept and although some dealers were caught by the police, many were not. What I have always found more interesting and believable is the Grey Market. That was not even an official title, so vague were the lines that people were prepared to cross. People in the countryside had greater access to fresh food during the war and were happy to exchange honey for home-made lard, or eggs for butter. It was not illegal but some frowned upon it. Mainly, I suspect, if they had nothing to exchange or barter.

In Jambusters I wrote about a WI member called Sibyl Norcott whose father, Mr Shacklady, sailed close to the wind. He had added pigs to the farm for the duration of the war. This way the family could have meat and lard from the pigs, cream and butter from the cows, eggs from hens and ducks, flesh from turkeys, vegetables from the garden and fruit from the orchard. Sybil’s father once swapped a ham for a hundredweight bag of sugar and both parties were delighted. She quickly made the point that Mr Shacklady did not keep all the sugar for himself but distributed it among the neighbours in their Cheshire hamlet. He then bought Sibyl a canning machine so that she could make a few bob on the side helping WIs and other local farmers’ wives to can their vegetables, beans and fruit for the winter. It was a good little business for both of them.

pigs_mainThe rules for killing and butchering pigs during the war were extremely strict. A licence was required to kill a pig but if it was a gilt (a young female swine under 12 months) there was leeway in the licence and the farmer had five days to do the deed. Mr Shacklady took advantage of this loophole and killed one gilt for every day of the licence period. On this occasion a Ministry of Food official came round to call. Sibyl and her father had less than 15 minutes warning and had to hide six large hams hanging up in the house in pillowcases. Sybil’s father had to think on his feet. He told her to keep the inspector talking downstairs for a few minutes while he hid the evidence. When the inspector finally met Mr Shacklady he learned that his wife was lying ill in bed upstairs so he had been delayed attending to her. In fact she was perfectly well but was tucked up under her large eiderdown with the hams stuffed down either side of her.

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

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: DANIEL RYAN as Bryn © ITV

People in official positions, such as the butcher in Home Fires, had to be scrupulous with their returns. The paperwork was a headache with forms to be filled in six copies and submitted to the local Food Office along with the surrendered food coupons. Although Bryn Brindsley is, I am sure, above suspicion, a lady I know of discovered that her greengrocer would sell ‘special’ potatoes to certain customers. One day she got up the courage to ask him if she could have two pounds of his ‘special’ potatoes (these were not rationed) and when she got home she was delighted to discover she had one pound of potatoes and a one pound ingot of sugar.

imagesWith so much bureaucracy there was plenty of opportunity to exploit the systems that the government put in place. In reality people understood that rationing had been introduced so everyone had fair shares and in terms of overall percentage Black Market goods were a drop in the ocean in comparison with the food bought and sold on the ration. The grey market persisted in the countryside and the impact it had on the economy will probably never be known. However, a dozen fresh eggs or a pat of fresh butter was always a welcome addition to the larder.

Meanwhile, the war has begun to take a serious turn and the final quarter of episode 3 is tense and dramatic. The juxtaposition of everyday concerns with situations that could spell life or death is where Simon Block’s drama sparkles. Enjoy Sunday evening!

Jambusters is the true story of the WI in the Second World War and was the inspiration for ITV’s drama Home Fires

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HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 2 Hearts Aflame

Episode 2 of Home Fires is packed full of love, loss, hope and pain but I do not intend to write anything in this blog that would give away the plot. Instead I thought it would be fun to explore two of the themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It was considered a disgrace to be cited in a divorce at almost every level of society. The stigma attached to any part in the unravelling of a marriage is today hard to imagine. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces in 1940. That was to rise dramatically to over 60,000 in 1947 as couples found they were incompatible in the sober light of post-war Britain. Those figures compared with 241,000 marriages and 120,000 divorces in 2011 show just how rare divorce was in the era of Home Fires.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured :FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell and ED STOPPARD as Will Campbell. 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.

Whole families were affected by the disgrace of an extra marital affair. Will and Erica Campbell (Ed Stoppard and Frances Grey) know there will be fall out from Laura’s relationship with Wing Commander Richard Bowers © ITV Studios

Laura Campbell’s naming as the co-respondent in the formal break up of Richard and Charlotte Bowers’ marriage is therefore deeply humiliating and people’s attitudes towards her reflect the intolerance of 1940’s society. The fact that Wing Commander Richard Bowers was a predatory man has nothing to do with the way she is treated in Great Paxford. In reality, a disgraced woman would have brought shame not only on herself, damaging her chances of making a ‘suitable’ marriage, but also on her entire family. I recall as a child in the 1960s being told in a very hush hush way that one of my relations was getting something beginning with ‘D’. I immediately assume this meant death, but in reality she was leaving her abusive husband and filing for divorce. It was the first time I had ever hear the word. Laura is contending with a very difficult situation and we will soon learn whether there are people in the village who have sympathy with her.

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The beautiful Cheshire countryside was under threat as never before in the summer of 1940

As I have written before, it is so very difficult from this perspective to imagine what a perilous position Britain believed herself to be in during June 1940. An article in the New York Times of that summer gives perhaps just some hint of how dangerous the situation was as seen from the other side of the Atlantic:

… the wisest prophet in Christendom cannot say what is to come. The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned.
Words falter. There are no phrases for the obscene ambition that attacks, for the magnificent mobilization of a people that defends, unshaken and unafraid. We can only pray that soon the time will come when the vultures no long defile the British skies, and the cry goes out from John o’Groats to Land’s End –
‘Twelve o’clock and all’s well!’

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Signposts were removed from all over the country in 1940 ‘to confuse the enemy’

It was not the case that Britain was wholly unprepared. All during the 1930s the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) and various government departments, including the War Office and Civil Defence had been planning how to keep the country safe in the event of war. Now, with their backs to the wall, SIS decided there should be a Home Defence Organisation known as D/Y which would be a sabotage and spying body. A team under Major Lawrence Grand drew up plans for a behind-enemy-lines stay-behind terrorist and intelligence gathering network. The thing that was new about this organisation was that although it would be overseen and supervised by army and professional SIS officers, the work on the ground would be undertaken entirely by civilian volunteers. Key here was that if a man fought in uniform he had the right, under the Hague conventions, to lay down his arms and claim prisoner of war status. A civilian, on the other hand, had no claim to POW status. The hope was that they could carry out their sabotage and blend into the background but if he or she was caught they would almost certainly be executed. In the end about 3,000 men and women from all walks of life, peers and poachers, policemen and priests, volunteered to undertake training in sabotage to be ready to hinder the invaders once they came. They were known as Churchill’s hidden army and the name they were given was designed to be as vanilla and inconspicuous as possible: Auxiliary Units.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 3 Pictured: CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow.. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

Steph Farrow (Clare Calbraith), defiant as ever © ITV Studios

All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by placing farm machinery and old junk from their buildings onto fields that might be used as a landing strip. Some villages protected themselves by rolling huge tree trunks across the entrance roads. They were often on wheels so they could be rolled back to allow legitimate vehicles through. Signposts were removed from roads. Railway and bus stop signs were taken down in an effort to confuse the enemy when they landed and tried to make headway inland. Whether any of this would have worked in the face of the Wehrmacht is something that we shall never know as fortunately it was never tested. But make no mistake, even Churchill believed it unlikely that Britain would not soon be under the jackboots of an implacable foe.

Enjoy Episode 2. It is magnificent. Simon Block and Glen Laker’s writing sparkles through the words and actions of the outstanding cast. The mood in Great Paxford is tense, tempers are short and surprises come thick and fast. Roll on Sunday evening!

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Jambusters is the real story of the WI in the Second World War

HOME FIRES Series 2 Episode 1 Life on the Edge of Europe

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.

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

 

When we left Great Paxford at the end of series 1 the villagers all stood on the street, spell-bound by the sight of hundreds of aircraft flying south. The Phoney War had come to an end and the real war was about to begin.

In fact, by the time those planes were flying south, Hitler’s troops had already invaded Denmark and Norway. The British Expeditionary Force had been guarding the Maginot Line for the last nine months but was woefully unprepared for what was to come. On 10th May 1940 two things happened that changed the course of the Second World War: Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and neutral Holland, and in Britain Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. For two weeks the BEF and its Allies fought to hold out against the German onslaught but towards the end of May it was obvious that they had suffered a humiliating defeat and Churchill ordered a retreat. The familiar story of Dunkirk now unfolded.

DunkirkHundreds of boats, ships, barges and tugs were sent to the rescue and over 330,000 British and Allied soldiers were picked up from the beaches of Dunkirk over a period of several days. My grandfather was pulled out of the water by a Thames barge pilot on 2nd June and brought back to Southampton by ship. ‘The sailors who dried our clothes pinched all our buttons and insignia but we were so relieved to be safe we didn’t bother about it.’ The following night he was reunited with his wife, Alex: ‘It was one of the strangest contrasts of the war. One night I was standing up to my neck in water with very little chance of rescue and the next I was eating dinner with my wife in the Midland Hotel in Manchester.’

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

Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovak forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czech soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechs sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle. The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.

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

DANIEL RYAN as Bryn © ITV

The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult. There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the protection of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.

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

CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat ©ITV

So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. Meanwhile Jenny is busy in the telephone exchange taking the government’s message to ‘trust no-one’ very much to heart.This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…

Home Fires airs on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Jambusters which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.

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Curves and Corsets


stockings compressedWhenever I give a talk about wartime fashion I get a host of memories from audience members who recall parachute silk dresses, Make-Do-And-Mend shirts, thrice darned stockings and coats made from blankets. Some people remember the era with pleasure and tell me about how they loved their Liberty bodice or their Land Army uniform. Others recall patched jumpers and empty department stores. But almost everyone has something to say about underwear. I suppose it is the most intimate detail and it is endlessly fascinating but if someone were to ask me what kind of undies I wore when I was growing up in the 1970s I would be pushed to know. There is something that is very ingrained in the collective memory about wartime knickers, bras and, above all, corsets.

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A 1939 advertisement for a corset in Vogue

There is almost a whole chapter devoted to corsets in Fashion on the Ration because it was a topic that exercised not only women who wore them but the civil servants in the Board of Trade who had to guarantee their supply. And it was no easy job. Over 18 million women wore corsets in the late 1930s but wartime production dropped to just 9 million a year and this was the cause of much heartache, not to say irritation. The reason is simple: corsets were made up of three important constituent parts, all of which were necessary for the war industry. Metal was needed for aircraft production so the stays were replaced with compressed cardboard, with disastrous results. Cotton supplies dropped during the war as world cotton prices rose and the number employed in the cotton spinning and weaving industry fell by thirty percent. Rubber became a rare and precious commodity after the fall of Singapore in spring 1942 as the Japanese held the majority of the world’s rubber supplies in the Far East. Finally, the expert corset makers, with their highly skilled workforce of machine operators, often switched to making parachutes, to which their expertise and equipment was ideally suited. As a result, corsets

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Corsets designed for the Forces by Berlei

were in short supply and what was available was often very poor quality.One young mother, who had just given birth in the summer of 1944, wrote a furious letter which was published in Time magazine in which she took the Board of Trade to task, even naming Hugh Dalton, the then president, in her diatribe: ‘There should be no false modesty about this very essential article … After the birth of my second child the sight of my figure enclosed in a utility corset nearly paralysed me. True, it caused a certain amusement to my family, but I didn’t feel funny, only ill and unhappy … I found that the boning at the front consisted of three pieces of compressed cardboard. I defy even the most pugnacious cardboard to do anything but follow the shape of the figure it encloses … A band of infuriated housewives should force Mr Dalton into a utility corset and a pair of the best fitting utility stockings he can buy. I would add a saucy black felt hat for which he had to pay four guineas and a pair of those ghastly wooden-soled shoes. He should be made to walk one mile, then stand in a fish queue for an hour. By the end of this time his utility stockings would [droop] from knee to instep in snakelike coils and twists. His corset would have wilted into an uncomfortable, revolting mass of cotton and cardboard. He would find himself supporting the corset, instead of the corset supporting him. May I suggest this would be a very speedy remedy?’

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Ladies queuing at a produce stall, some of them almost certainly wearing corsets.

This glorious image may raise a smile but it was a serious matter and many women, who had been used to the support of their pre-war Berlei or Spirella corset felt uncomfortable and very aggrieved. And queuing was something that women had to do on a daily basis, often for hours on end while they waited for food to appear in the shops or on a market stall. The women’s fashion magazines did their best to advise women on ways of keeping their corsets in good order and they encouraged young women to learn to do without by practising core body exercises.

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Designed for Export is the caption for this beautiful Molyneux dress designed for the 1941 Fashion show in South America

But Fashion on the Ration was not just a story of utility corsets, grey Forces bloomers and austerity designs for skirts and coats. There was another side to the story which I had not expected to find and this was the significant role played by the haute couture houses in designing fashion for the export market. Export sales brought in much-needed currency and over the period of 1938 to 1946 fashion exports rose from £98,000 to £507,000. Paris, as the centre of the fashion world, was out of the picture from 1940 until the liberation of France in 1944 and London was quick to take its place. Shows were organised for South America, South Africa and the USA with designs by Molyneux, Hardy Amies, Digby Morton, Norman Hartnell and Bianca Mosca rising ‘phoenix-like…from our dustsheeted London life.’
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Fashion on the Ration came out in paperback on 25 March and the exhibition which it accompanied at the Imperial War Museum in London last year will be reopening, slightly enlarged, at IWM/North at the end of May 2016.

 

Setting the Scene for HOME FIRES Episode 1

Front Cover JB croppedThe drama series, Home Fires, written and created by Simon Block, was inspired by my non-fiction book Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA) which looked at the activity of the Women’s Institutes on the British Home Front in the Second World War. Born in Canada in 1897, the Women’s Institute movement gave a voice to country women living in often isolated communities. By the middle of the twentieth century it had matured in both Britain and Canada into an important women’s organisation which had the power and authority to lobby government and strive for better conditions for country women, while maintaining a strictly non-sectarian, non-political stance.

The idea of a group of independently-minded women working within a rural village in Britain appealed to the creative mind of the script writer and executive producers of the show. Their belief in the project has given birth to a powerful women-led drama that draws on history for its backdrop, but with a light touch, and on the imagination of Simon Block for the characters and the development of the drama.

 

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Members of Muskham WI preparing vegetables for a produce market. Just one WI initiative to help keep the countryside fed during the war © WI Markets

We open the first episode of the first series in August 1939 when Britain waited breathlessly, as other allied countries, to see what Hitler’s next move would be. It was vital from the outset of the drama to emphasise the mood in the country at that time. We all now know how the Second World War ended but in August 1939 there was no certainty that there would actually be a war – just a very great fear that there might be. And it was the fear of the unknown that was so pervasive. The late summer weather was particularly beautiful that year and people could hardly match the dark rumblings from the continent with the glorious warm sunshine and rich harvest of fruits and vegetables that followed the announcement on 3rd September that Britain had declared war on Germany.

1930s rural Britain was characterised by tradition, much of it hide-bound and generations old. The village centred around the church, the various shops, the doctor’s surgery, the village pub (for the men) and, if there was one, the women’s institute. Most larger villages, such as the fictional Great Paxford, had a school and a regular bus service but contact with the world beyond the ‘big city’, in this case Chester, was limited for the majority of villagers. Yet they would have been aware of the wider world of yesteryear as a result of the devastating slaughter of the First World War. Many of the characters you meet in the first episode would have had fathers, brothers, cousins, sisters who had been involved in that dreadful conflict either in the Forces or working as nurses, in munitions or indeed on the land to keep the country fed.

Sybil's wonderful stories from her childhood in rural Cheshire brought colour and humour to Jambusters

Sybil was a farmer’s daughter and lifelong WI member. She joined Dunham Massey WI in Cheshire aged 14 © Norcott Family

Not every woman in the village would have joined the Women’s Institute. Some would have been simply too busy, others would have felt it was ‘not for them’ and in some villages little factions arose in the early years that meant not all were as welcome as the movement would have liked. Britain’s countryside was still uncomfortably traditional: those who went to church did not mix with the others who went to chapel. Political leanings also affected how people mixed and the social hierarchy was in some cases hopelessly entrenched. The Second World War shook rural Britain to its roots. The influx of over two million evacuees from the towns to the countryside at the outbreak of war brought the glaring differences between town and country living to the fore. Over the course of the so-called Phoney War, which ended with the Blitzkrieg in May 1940, some fourteen million changes of address were recorded by the Post Office. People were on the move and life began to change.

This is the backdrop to the first series of HOME FIRES. The historical events you see were very much part of life in the early months of the war. Although Simon Block’s characters are entirely fictitious, they share many characteristics with the real women of 1940s Britain and as such mirror rural life as it was then.

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The farmyard scene with cows and vegetables © Julie Summers

I would just like to add one little personal story to this introduction to HOME FIRES. When the drama was being filmed I made a visit to the set in Cheshire. Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill of seeing the black and white world that I have known for the last fifteen years through pictures, words, diaries and books come alive. The scene the team were filming was the opening sequence to the series. So no spoiler alert. Steph Farrow and her son, Little Stan, were driving a herd of shorthorn cattle into a Cheshire farmyard. Simple as that. But for me it was an emotional explosion. There were smells, so familiar from my childhood but now linked with Simon’s drama. There was noise, colour, movement, heat and energy. It was overwhelming and I admit I had tears in my eyes when I saw Steph, played by Claire Calbraith, encouraging the cows into the yard. ‘Slow as you like, Stan’, she says to her son. Slow as you like indeed. I didn’t want it to stop. And because this is television, it did not stop. There were several takes so I was happy. Everything about the set was perfect as far as I was concerned. The vegetables planted in the middle of the farmyard, the hen coop, the old car in front of the stables and lovely brown and white cows munching grass along the hedgerows and mooing as if indignant at having to do the same thing more than once.

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UK Edition published by Simon & Schuster

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US edition published by Penguin USA

 

A Grand Prize

I do not often have the opportunity to speak to someone who wants to make a serious difference to writers’ lives. Earlier this month, however, I had that opportunity and I wrote an article which I am reproducing here because I think the man behind the story is exceptional.

440-CarolSachs-OldParsonage-5D3_1464-LoResJeremy Mogford is a passionate man: passionate about life, passionate about his work and equally so about the annual prize he set up in 2013 to encourage short story writing on the subject of food and drink. The prize money is generous by any measure: £7,500 to the winning entry of a short story of 2,500 words. Last year saw over 450 short stories submitted and he hopes that this will be surpassed in 2016. But why this prize and why this subject matter?

The answer lies in Mogford’s career. After leaving university he set up Browns Restaurant and Bar in Brighton in 1973. Browns expanded into other cities including Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and London. He and his partner, John Mayhew, went on to acquire Rules in London, which Mayhew now runs solo. Mogford moved to Oxford in 1976 and has used the city as his base ever since. He was inspired, he explained, by the idea of good, simple food in convivial surroundings. During the early years of Browns he would regularly visit La Coupole, a vast brasserie dating from the 1920s, on the boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris. He recalls an elderly man using a stick, wandering around the tables talking to the diners. ‘Who is that?’ he enquired of a waiter, ‘ah, that is Monsieur le Patron’ came the reply. Le Patron had been a presence in the restaurant over many years and then on one visit he was not there. Mogford enquired where he was and received the answer that the old man had fallen to the floor and died in the restaurant a few months earlier, at the venerable age of 94. Le Coupole had been le Patron’s life and the secret of his longevity is that he never lost his passion for the restaurant and the clientele who enjoyed its unique atmosphere. Longevity is a word that resonates with Jeremy Mogford and one that he hopes will be associated not only with his hotels and restaurants in Oxford, which include The Old Parsonage,the-old-parsonage-hotel-oxford_030320091348294620 The Old Bank Hotel, Gees and Quod, but with his prize for food and drink writing. When we met in the beautiful new library upstairs in the Old Parsonage I was struck by the comfortable combination of books, art, conversation and excellent coffee. It is easy to see why Mogford’s passion for these has coalesced into a literary prize for food and drink in his adopted city.

Food and drink features in literature from the earliest days, from the wedding feast at Cana to Oliver Twist’s bowl of gruel; Alice in Wonderland gatecrashes the Mad Hatter’s tea party; Proust experiences a moment of exquisite pleasure and is transported to the past when he dips a Madeleine into his tea. Heidi enjoys a Swiss raclette while Moby-Dick celebrates clam and cod chowder. The examples go on and on so that it becomes almost impossible to recall a work of literature that does not contain a salient reference to food and drink.

Why_we_re_excited_His_Dark_Materials_is_coming_to_TVPhilip Pullman’s His Dark Materials opening chapter is entitled ‘The Decanter of Tokay’, which contains a lethal dose of poison. It is certainly not the only drink to be laced with an invisible, odourless substance. However it was a whiff of wee that crystallised the idea in Mogford’s mind for the short story prize. His son Thomas, author of crime novels set in the Mediterranean, wrote a short story published in The Field about asparagus, with its extraordinary quality that means its scent is detected in urine within ten minutes of eating a single spear. ‘Why not a prize for food and drink writing, launched in Oxford? I have lived here since 1976, the city has been very good to me and my family and I wanted to give something back. Something with longevity and which celebrates excellence.’ Mogford has already been a generous donor to Oxford’s literary scene: it was his financial support that helped to revive the Oxford Literary Festival in 1995 and his support for the festival continued for two decades.

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Rick Stein

The Mogford Prize is now in its fourth year and is one of the top 25 literary prizes in the country. At a time when average writers’ incomes are so low they make headlines, it is a welcome fillip to see a prize that is intended to reward great work and to go on doing so annually. The Mogford Prize is here to stay and its founder is determined to see it grow both in terms of its recognition and reach. In affirming his desire to underline his serious commitment, Mogford has succeeded in recruiting Rick Stein and Lawrence Norfolk author of John Saturnall’s Feast, as the guest judges for 2016. He says: ‘I want to encourage and attract the very best writers to take part in the prize. It is about celebrating and using food as the inspiration for a story which can also include other elements, such as crime for example.’ Food and drink are components but they can be used like a twist of lime in a gin and tonic, to add flavour and fragrance but not necessarily to dominate.
‘Above all, it should be fun,’ Mogford concludes. The short-listed authors will be invited to the annual Quod party at the Old Bank Hotel on Thursday 7th April 2016 during the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. The authors will be put up in Oxford and well looked after during their stay. But there is more: a cheque to the winner of £7,500 and the winning short story will be published in a slim volume, copies of which are placed in the bedrooms of both The Old Parsonage and the Old Bank where they are enjoyed, and often taken away, by overnight guests. In creating and supporting this award, Jeremy Mogford has added a rich jewel to the literary prize crown for now and for the future.

The Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing is open to any writer, published or unpublished, from anywhere in the world. It must be in English and up to 2,500 words long. The closing date for entries is midnight on 6 March 2016. Entries should be submitted by email as a Word document to shortstoryprize@mogford.co.uk.
Full details can be found at http://www.oxford-hotels-restaurants.co.uk/the-mogford-literary-prize/

 

How to Make a Drama out of a Crisis: HOME FIRES Episode 6

Front Cover JB croppedWhen 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:

WI Display in For Home & Country‘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.

Sybil's wonderful stories from her childhood in rural Cheshire brought colour and humour to Jambusters

Sybil Norcott grew up in rural Cheshire and was WI to the core

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.

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Julie standing by a Home Fires signpost pointing to Great Paxford

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.

cover Home Fires full 6.24.15

Home Fires is published by Penguin USA and is the history of the WI which inspired the TV drama series of the same name.