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 more fun to explore themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It 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 inconceivable. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces.
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.
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.
Another theme is the impending invasion. All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by rolling 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. Others created makeshift blocks out of anything they could find which would hamper the enemy’s progress.
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’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!
Season 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.’
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.
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.
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.
HomeFires 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: Jambustersis 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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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…