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.’

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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 5 Fur, Fashion and Friction

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Visitors dressed in 1940s clothes at the opening of Fashion on the Ration exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, March 2015 © IWM

When I am asked what it is about the Second World War that fascinates me so much I reply that it is not war but people who excite my interest: how individuals cope in a time of emergency and how such events impact upon their later lives. One of the practical aspects that had to be considered was clothing and it is something I am regularly asked about in regard to Home Fires. Just to be clear, I am not involved in the production of the drama – my involvement stops with the scripts – but I did have the great good fortune to talk to the series costume designer, Lucinda Wright, in the lead up to filming series 1 and she took me round the fabulous collections of clothes at Angels Costumes. Their website claims they have over one million items and eight miles of hanging costume. Well, I didn’t see them all but Lucinda and I did discuss colour and fabrics in some detail.

I have been involved in researching the Second World War for the best part of fifteen years and fashion and clothing are a fascinating aspect of the social history of that era. It was a time of uniformity on the one hand and individual expression on the other. What people wore and how they felt about it – whether smart in battle dress or tatty in patched and darned clothes – said much about the spirit of the time. What people wore in the countryside was no less expressive than outfits seen in the towns and cities.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES SERIES 2 Pictured: CLARE CALBRAITH as Steph Farrow This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation to HOME FIRES SERIES 2.

Steph Farrow, changed out of her farm clothes to meet Stanley from the bus © ITV

Everyone in Home Fires is dressed to their status. Steph Farrow wears dungarees in the fields but once she arrives at a WI meeting she is scrubbed clean and wearing a patterned dress, as would have been the case in the 1940s. Edith Jones, the wonderful diarist whose jottings form the golden thread through Jambusters, would always change into a frock in the evening for supper, even if it was just her and Jack eating supper together. She is similar to Steph in many ways. At the other end of the spectrum is Joyce Cameron. b7f9d1f0aaf0c9c9566f2ef041ace918Always meticulously turned out and often wearing fur. Until the 1970s when there was a huge animal rights’ movement against fur coats, women of a certain standing would have one, two or even three fur coats in their wardrobe: a mink for the evening, a pine-marten for day use and a fox stole to wear over a tweed coat. The Board of Trade slapped a 100% purchase tax on luxuries such as fur coats during the war but they were still popular and widely worn.  Hats were de rigeur for church, shopping and most social outings, though as the war progressed a certain degree of informality crept in and some women went bare-headed. Although they were never rationed, hats were not always easy to find in the shops after 1941 but for the summer of 1940 there would still have been plenty in evidence.

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.

Immaculately dressed Joyce Cameron © ITV

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 in her city dress and coat © ITV

Teresa Fenchurch comes from Liverpool and stands out from the rest of the women in the village on account of her wonderful Liverpudlian accent and her city wardrobe. She wears wool, not tweed, and her clothes are often bright and single coloured rather than patterned. As a teacher she is an outsider in that she has a profession and a secret. It is apt that she lives with the other outsider in the village, Alison Scotlock, who also has a profession and a secret. Women teachers made up a large proportion of the profession in the war as many young men left their posts to fight. Pre-war when a teacher married she would have to give up work but this changed in the early years of the war as the government could not afford to lose qualified teachers, especially in villages where there was often only one teacher for the whole school.

One major change in Britain during 1940 was the proportion of people wearing uniform. You might not have noticed the change between series 1 and series 2 but it is striking and absolutely reflects what was happening in the country. About a third of the population of Britain were entitled to wear uniform during the Second World War. This would give a figure of somewhere in the region of 15 million people, a large number of whom were women. So we have in Great Paxford a mixture of RAF, Army and women’s service uniforms – that much is obvious. But then there are the women working in the Barden’s factory who all wear pinafores over their own clothes to protect them. Clare wears a uniform when she is working for Frances Barden as a maid, though not on her days off with Spencer. House coats, such as those worn by Pat, were popular and a sensible way to keep the wear and tear of ordinary clothes to a minimum.

ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS HOME FIRES EPISODE 1 Pictured : FRANCES GREY as Erica Campbell, CLAIRE RUSHBROOK as Pat Simms and SAMANTHA BOND as Frances Barden. 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.

Housecoats to the ready for blackberry picking! ©ITV

With so many people wearing them, it is unsurprising that the general public knew how to ‘read’ uniforms across a street or at the scene of an incident, and could identify at a glance a man or woman’s job, rank and status. And it was very important to know and trust the person who was issuing an instruction, especially during the Blitz, when people needed to know who to listen to or appeal to in a crisis. Aside from emergencies, uniforms had a hierarchy with implications on many levels, some of them more personal than official.

WW2 Christmas card, Escort! A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm. 1941

A Chelsea Pensioner looks in admiration at an RAF airman with an elegant woman on each arm. WW2 Christmas card © IWM

Some uniforms, such as the Royal Air Force blue, gave men real status in women’s eyes. This was partly because it comprised a smaller body of men than the army, and their jobs, especially the pilots, were considered heroic and extremely dangerous. They were known as ‘Our Glamour Boys’. The PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) suffered in their khaki uniforms from being the least admired of the three services by the general public. Members of the women’s services (just over 100,000 in June 1941) were said to grade potential boyfriends in an order of eligibility in which ‘RAF officers rated tops, being classified in turn by rank and number of decorations; naval officers came second and brown jobs a long way behind’.

Unit stills photographyITV STUIDOS PRESENT HOME FIRES EPISODE 5 Pictured: LEANNE BEST as Teresa Fenchurch, MARK UMBERS as Nick Lucas and JODIE HAMBLET as Jenny. This image is the copyright of ITV and must only be used in relation the HOME FIRES on ITV.

Wing Commander Nick and Teresa meet Jenny on Great Paxford High Street © ITV

So as you are watching Episode 5 of Home Fires, it is worth looking out for the distinctions of dress and the way different people react to it. That is, if you have time to notice that level of detail when there is so much drama going on around you. This is another breathtaking hour where I lurched from near tears of enchantment to gasping with horror. Enjoy Sunday evening!

FASHION ON THE RATIO#FBD103 (2) compressed

In the autumn of 2014, while the first series of Home Fires was being filmed, I was writing a book for the Imperial War Museum about wartime clothing and fashion. It was a lovely project to work on and I greatly enjoyed delving into the Board of Trade’s archive. This department was responsible for the length of men’s socks and the width of the gusset in women’s knickers.

Fashion on the Ration was published by Profile Books in paperback in February 2016 and is the subject of a major exhibition at IWM North starting next month and running until spring 2017. Warning: this book contains Forces bloomers and corsets!