A World in Your Ear

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When I started researching and writing Jambusters seven years ago I had no idea that it would lead me on such an exciting adventure which culminated in ITV’s drama series Home Fires. None at all. However, what I knew from fairly early on was that there would be an audio CD.

In 2014, Catriona Oliphant of award-winning ChromeAudio had asked me about recording an abridged version of Jambusters with excerpts from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of Folk Songs of the Four Seasons, commissioned by the WI in 1949. I had worked with her twice in the past with great pleasure on Stranger in the House and The Colonel of Tamarkan, runner-up in Best Audiobook of the Year 2010.  Sadly Catriona developed breast cancer and the project was put on hold.

Meanwhile, many of us (6.2 million every week) watched with great pleasure the goings on in Great Paxford during the first year of the war over twelve episodes of Simon Block’s exceptionally well written drama. As you who follow the story will know, the drama is inspired by Jambusters but not based on the people I wrote about, such as Lady Denman, Edith Jones or Ruth Toosey. We see hints of the real-life, non-fictional characters in Frances Barden, Joyce Cameron, Alison Scotlock and Steph Farrow and the history, as I have said many times, is solid and accurate, both of the WI and the war itself. That was my role in advising on the scripts.

Home Fires

Despite a petition signed by over 30,000 people and endless letters and pots of jam sent to ITV they have resolutely refused to change their mind. The cast and crew were stood down in June and the costumes released to Angels. If there is a future for Home Fires it will be with another broadcaster at an unspecified time in years to come. For now Great Paxford is closed for business.

Fortunately there is a happy ending to the audio CD story. Catriona recovered from surgery and treatment and is now back at work – recently she has been working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on podcasts for the Somme Vigil in Westminster Abbey marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.  The audio abridgement of Jambusters is in its final edit and will be released in September.  The readers are the wonderful Samantha Bond and Fenella Woolgar. For those of you who know Home Fires, Samantha Bond played the fiercely proud, crack-shot WI president, Frances Barden. Fenella Woolgar, as Alison Scotlock, was the book-keeper wrong-footed by a businessman who took advantage of her brilliant brain and vulnerability over a huge vet’s fee to cook his books. Both actors commented during the filming of Home Fires that they had been moved by the incredible sense of community inspired by the WI in the war years. They also both told me that it had been one of the happiest productions they had ever worked on, not least because of the strong female-led cast. ‘We were ridiculously happy.’ Samantha said.

The recording of the audio was an equally happy process. Catriona (executive producer) and Alexa Moore (producer) loved the women in Jambusters and were delighted by the way they came alive when voiced by Samantha and Fenella – who will also help keep the spirit of Home Fires burning for those of us devastated by ITV’s decision not to continue with the drama.

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For me, the audio CD is a wonderful celebration of the WI and, in particular, the important part played by its members in keeping the country going during the Second World War.  The CD is also a very practical way of celebrating the WI.  The WI has charitable status as an educational organisation, but the future of its educational headquarters, Denman College, is in jeopardy because of worries over the cost of maintaining the Grade II listed building. When Catriona heard about the appeal within the WI to raise money for Denman, she immediately proposed donating £1 for every CD sold to the appeal.

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Denman College, the home of the WI’s education programme aimed at empowering and inspiring women

Catriona hopes to raise £10,000 for Denman College.  I am a great fan of Denman and will be spreading the word to help her reach her target.  I very much hope you will too. If each WI group were to buy a copy of the audio CD for its archive that would itself raise nearly £7,000 for Denman, before taking into account sales to family and friends.

If you are interested in purchasing a CD you can find more information here AudioCD. If you would like to get your name or that of a WI printed in the Jambusters CD booklet, please subscribe before 22 July 2016. The CD will be launched at an event at Denman College on 19 August and will be on general release from September.

 

 

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 Two

Home Fires series 2 begins on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is so exciting to be going back to Great Paxford to see what will happen to the characters that we were introduced to in 2015. Many people have asked me over the last few months whether I have had to write another book for series 2. I have not: Jambusters is a non-fiction ‘biography’ of the Women’s Institute covering the entire Second World War. Simon Block, the creator and writer of Home Fires, used and continues to use the book and my research as the inspiration for his drama. Inspiration is the key word here. Home Fires is not based on Jambusters per se but rather set in a fictional version of the same era that I describe in my book. Some of the stories that you will come across in series 2 of Home Fires have evolved directly from Jambusters, others have been the result of research, conversations and other lines of inquiry. From my perspective this is fascinating and exciting. The link to history of the Second World War and life on the Home Front in Jambusters anchors the series in the 1940s but leaves Simon Block free to let his characters grow and develop in Great Paxford.

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I have to be a little careful not to give anything away about series 2 because I might spoil people’s enjoyment of the drama. However, what I can say is that it takes place against the extraordinary summer of 1940. Series 1 set the scene for what happened in rural Britain during the early months of the war in the period known as the Phoney War. The unnatural calm of the winter and spring of 1939-40 was about to be shattered by the Blitzkrieg when Hitler’s army marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Expeditionary Force, who had spent the winter guarding the Maginot Line, was suddenly called into action against a furious, implacable, overwhelming foe. This began on 10 May and by the end of the month over 330,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

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

A month later France fell to the Germans and Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe waiting with baited breath for an invasion. It was a summer of high drama and danger; a summer when thousands of families opted to send their children abroad to the USA, Canada and Australia. It was also a summer of bountiful harvests, glorious weather and prodigious activity by the WI on the food production front. Britain was never invaded, as we all know, but everyone, even Churchill himself, thought it the likeliest outcome at the time. Elaborate emergency plans were laid to and a secret guerilla army was built up throughout the country and trained to carry out acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. It was the moment in the war when Britons realised that it was up to them to fight; to resist whatever threat might be around the corner and it proved the making of many on the Home Front. Far from panicking, people resolved to be calm and brave and it is this extraordinary stoicism which became defined, later, as the Blitz spirit.

But Britons were not entirely alone. Canadian troops had been in the country since December 1939 and immediately after the fall of France Churchill welcomed a large number of battle-hardened troops from the continent. Nearly 5,000 Czechoslovak and 20,000 Polish Forces would turn out to offer immeasurably valuable support during the Battle of Britain when the German Luftwaffe tried, but failed, to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force. This is the backdrop for series 2 of Home Fires.

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WI Members at a market c. 1940 © EPSON MFP

One of the aspects of Home Fires which I found most rewarding was the bonds of friendship that grew up between the actors when they were on set for filming. It mirrored closely the extraordinary bonds that developed during the Second World War when women were thrown together in a wholly unfamiliar situation, put upon by every department in government imaginable and expected to cope. They coped and with humour.

Nothing could have delighted me more when I read Samantha Bond’s reply to a question asking her what it was like to reunite the cast:

‘It was absolutely glorious. I’m afraid we are appallingly happy and we relish each other’s company on set and off. I can’t remember ever having been in a company so happy and so funny and so full of love. All immensely supportive of one another. I adore them. And our men. All brilliantly written by a man. Simon Block has done a fantastic job.’

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.

Erica Campbell (Frances Grey), Frances Barden (Samantha Bond), Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook) Home Fires Series 1 © ITV

I made three visits to set in the autumn and each time I was aware of the great atmosphere on set and the mutual support and respect the actors had for each other’s performances. I watched a wonderful scene filmed in the church when Sarah Collingbourne (Ruth Gemmell), the vicar’s wife, makes an emotional speech about coping at this difficult time. Samantha Bond said of this outstanding performance: ‘It’s just stunning. I was sitting on the front pew trying to be the grown-up big sister, sending your little sister waves of support. And I just kept crying. We were all in pieces.’ So was I.

But a film set is a place of work and one of the striking aspect of set visits from the point of view of someone who spends their working life with her nose in a book or an archive, is that there are so many people involved. I have said this before: there are more people working in the Make-Up truck at the unit base for Home Fires than are involved in the production of one of my books. Well, on the editorial side at least. On set everyone is so professional, clear-headed and confident in what their role is. For me the fun is in the detail. I’m often described as a scratch and sniff historian because I like tiny snippets that tell me something about the minutiae.

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Stockings drying November 2015 © Julie Summers

So this photograph of stockings drying in a trailer is one of my favourites from series 2.The actors wear real stockings, not tights. The wardrobe is authentic to the last inch and I love that. The clothes are hired from Angel Costumes and all date from the 1930s and 1940s, shoes and underwear included according to Melissa Cook, who is in charge of the wardrobe. It is as important for me as making sure the lettering used on the war memorial is of the era (it is) and that the cows are the right breed (they are). The telephone exchange, the cars, the tractor are all minutely observed. Even the ration books look authentic.When details like this are correct but don’t get in the way you can trust the rest of the drama, which I do.

 

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The magnificent Austin – one of only a handful still on the road in this country © Julie Summers

The filming was done in Cheshire, where fictional Great Paxford is set, and it is a stunningly beautiful corner of the North West which is still relatively unknown. Although the phone signal is poor and one Cheshire lane looks very like another – imagine what it was like for incoming drivers when all the signposts were removed – everyone in the cast speaks very fondly of the area around Bunbury. Claire Rushbrook, who plays Pat Simms, said recently: ‘You do have to pinch yourself that you’re working. Because it’s just stunning around there. . . I hope the viewers enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.’

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The non-fiction book that inspired Home Fires

 

Weekly blogs will appear here to introduce each episode. No spoilers, just a little background historical information for anyone interested in knowing a bit more about the war. And of course there’s history, sticky jam and plenty of laughter in Jambusters. You won’t meet Frances Barden or Pat Simms but you will meet their true historical counterparts: Edith Jones, Clara Milburn and Ruth Toosey, whose stories are equally fascinating, although their hair and make-up might not have been quite so beautiful…

Home Fires Episode 3: Love, War and Housecoats

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By the end of the Second World War the British government had such minute control over every aspect of people’s lives that it governed the length of men’s socks and the amount of metal and rubber in women’s corsets. Even trouser turn-ups were banned and only six designs of underwear for women were permitted. Food was equally carefully monitored and rationed. Everything had been streamlined and controlled to help towards the war effort. The novelist Barbara Cartland was heard to lament that love was about the only thing left unrationed by 1945.

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942

Dame Barbara Cartland in ATS uniform, c. 1942 She spent six months of the war in Canada, evacuated with her young family, but after the death of her two brothers at Dunkirk in 1940 she returned to Britain. © Cartland family

In November 1939, however, most things were still available and all rationing, apart from petrol which had been introduced in September, was in the future. With nearly one third of the population entitled to wear uniform of one type or another, manufacturing had to turn its considerable energies to mass-producing tunics, battle-dress, bib-and-braces or nurses’ uniforms. The government recognised that controls would be necessary and not just for food but also civil industry and trade. Some planning had taken place in the Board of Trade, but this was mainly to control the import/export market. The immediate impact on civilian trade was major price rises. Unsurprisingly, the demand for goods such as sandbags, black-out material and torches or flashlights rose suddenly and the prices followed. Profiteering became a major issue and was addressed in November through the Prices of Goods Act 1939, which ‘limited the profit earned per unit of a commodity to the amount received at the end of August 1939’. The Act had only limited success, which meant that profiteering continued and inflation, much feared by the government, was an ever present concern. Clothes were particularly susceptible to substantial price rises. A woman told a journalist early in the war that she had gone into a shop to buy gloves and said to the assistant that she wanted to get them now because she feared the new stock would be dearer. To which the assistant replied: ‘Bless you!  You’re too late. We’ve put up the prices of the old stock already.’

The editors of women’s magazines tried to encourage practical solutions such as the wearing of housecoats to protect skirts and blouses. Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook), for example, and Erica Campbell (Frances Grey), wear housecoats or aprons over their dresses. We might look at these garments today and smile at the memory of own grandmothers or aunts wearing them, but even the high-end fashion magazine Vogue considered them important enough to include designs for housecoats in the winter pattern book of 1939.

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.

Eria, Frances and Pat collecting blackberries copyright ITV

Controls of all sorts were introduced in the early months of the war. Market stalls were carefully monitored and once sugar rationing was introduced in January 1940 the Women’s Institute was no longer able to sell cakes and biscuits at their country markets. The WI found the bureaucracy of the Second World War a severe trial and one of the reasons my book was titled Jambusters in the UK was because the WI expended a great deal of energy busting bureaucratic log-jams in order to keep the countryside going. One irritated member wrote in her diary: ‘We went to Coventry this morning and I spent 20 minutes in the Food Controller’s Office getting a permit for butter and sugar for the Women’s Institute teas.’

The WI was nothing if not resourceful and positive. The government recognised the value of a huge voluntary body of women who could be marshalled with just one telephone call to their General Secretary, Miss Farrer, and it made sure that the WI was involved in the outset on food production. WI members were invited to sit on county agricultural committees and to encourage their villages to put aside as much land as possible to grow fruit and vegetables. In episode 2 of Home Fires some of the drama hinges on the determination of Mrs Barden (Samantha Bond), the WI president, to plough up the cricket pitch for vegetables. As seen, this was not popular with the men. This is something that happened throughout Britain. My own grandfather returned from the war to see that his beloved tennis court had been dug up for growing potatoes.

The autumn of 1939 brought great change and a strange sense of a new normality. As you watch episode three you will sense the heightened state of tension and emotion that the war rendered within the families in Great Paxford. It affected everyone in different ways: fear, anger, love, danger, separation but the Great Paxford WI offers its members a solid backbone as the country finds its way during the so-called Phoney War of 1939-40. One of the most successful schemes run by the WI during the war was the ‘Letter Friendship’ scheme. It was conceived in June 1939 at the meeting in London of the ACWW, Associated Country Women Worldwide, at which representatives from women’s movements from all over the world were present. Over 200 Canadian friendships were established and resulted in an exchange of letters so each could understand the other’s situation better. One correspondent wrote: ‘I listen a great deal to the radio but radio doesn’t tell me what the women do at home.’

Women needed each other as never before. The travel writer Rosita Forbes wrote in the magazine Women’s Own: ‘In these hard times, when the utmost is required of everyone, the most important virtues are courage and kindliness. Women’s courage is the valour of endurance, of standing up to endless small difficulties, of putting up with things and making things do. When you are sick and tired and frightened of the future as well, and you go on working without making a fuss, then you are quite as brave as the first person who flew across the Atlantic.’

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Home Fires by Julie Summers, published by Penguin USA, tells the true story of the wartime WI which inspired the drama series HOME FIRES: Fashion on the Ration by Julie Summers was published in March 2015.