Celebrating Home Fires Season 2 on PBS

SignpostSeason 2 of Home Fires, the British drama series about life on the Home Front during the Second World War, is about to air again on PBS starting Sunday 2nd April. As the drama moves forward in time I thought it would be useful to give a little background to the historical period against which it is set. The summer of 1940 was the most dramatic of the Second World War for the British population. It was the moment when the country believed it would be invaded by the Germans. It was a full eighteen months before the USA would enter the war and the feeling of vulnerability was profound. Families flocked to send their children to safety in the USA and Canada, believing they would be safer there, despite the risk of U-Boat attack in the Atlantic. The country was on edge. Everyone held their collective breath.

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It is key to understanding series 2 of Home Fires that although we know the outcome of the war, the villagers in Great Paxford do not. They believe, as even Churchill did, that invasion was imminent. 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 so-called 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. Hundreds 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.

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My grandfather was pulled out of the water by a Thames barge 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.’

Three weeks later France fell and Britain stood alone. A brilliant piece in the New York Times from July 1940 summed up the situation in Britain seen from the other side of the great Atlantic Ocean:

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…
From our own shores we cannot see the shadow over ancient gardens, over houses hoary with age, over the graves of poets and philosophers, and the tombs of the martyrs. We know only that one of the green and lovely oases of civilisation in the wilderness of man’s time on earth, is foully threatened and that the whole world for evermore will be the poorer if it falls.

I will write a blog each week to introduce the coming episode. No spoilers, I promise, but I hope some background detail can add to the enjoyment of the series.

Home Fires is written by Simon Block and inspired by my book of the same name. My book is non-fiction so you won’t find the stories of Frances Barden, Joyce Cameron or Alison Scotlock in the book but you will be able to see the true story of the women who inspired Simon Block’s compelling characters.

See the much-anticipated final season of this beloved series on Sundays, April 2nd – May 7th, 2017 at 9/8c on MASTERPIECE.

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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 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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