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!
Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovakian 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 Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechoslovakians 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 safety 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. 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 on PBS Masterpiece. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Home Fires which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.
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.
I have been deeply frustrated and saddened by the, to me, farcical discussions between FIFA and the Football Association about the wearing of a poppy on a black armband on Armistice Day. Frankly no one has taken the trouble to look at the facts behind the poppy as a symbol of remembrance so here is a brief history lesson in the whole subject.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was set up in May 1917 to commemorate, in perpetuity, the fallen of the Great War. It was needed because the repatriation of remains was impossible given the colossal numbers of the dead and cemeteries had sprung up all over France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli, in Greece, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. Over 1,100,000 men from the United Kingdom and the British Empire died in the First World War and are commemorated by the CWGC in cemeteries and memorials all over the world. A further 800,000 came under their care after the Second World War. The numbers of dead from other countries in the Great War were even higher. France lost over two million, Germany over four million… It was death on a scale hitherto unimagined. The CWGC has from the very outset made no differentiation in its cemeteries and memorials between race, caste, creed or rank. The officers in all but the earliest cemeteries are buried alongside the men in equality. The headstones are marked with the symbol of the buried man or woman’s religion and if there was no religion then the headstone has no symbol. There would be no bar to any soldier, sailor or airman who died in the service of his or her country in the First, and later the Second World War, to CWGC commemoration.
Along with the desire in Britain to commemorate the dead was an equal desire, post-war, to form some sort of ceremony. On the 11th November 1920 the first Remembrance Service took place in London. The occasion was to mark the return from the battlefields of the mortal remains of the Unknown Soldier who would be buried in Westminster Abbey in soil brought back from France. 2,000 people attended the service, the elements of which had quickly to be put together in a form that would be as equal in its regard for colour, creed and rank as the CWGC is in its memorials.
The two minute silence had been proposed in November 1919 and was ordered by the King to be held on 11th November 1919 at 11 o’clock. The Manchester Guardian described the scene:
The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.
The two minute silence is now a part of all Remembrance Day Services.
The poem, For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon, was written in 1914 in a reaction to the horrific high casualty numbers of the British Expeditionary Force. For the record, Binyon could not fight as he was too old but he volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers. The poem was adopted as part of the Remembrance Day Service in 1920 and has been used ever since. The haunting second stanza has been claimed as a tribute to all casualties of war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The bugle call, Last Post, sounded at every Remembrance Day Service, is a military call that dates from the 17th century. It appears to have originated from British troops stationed in the Netherlands which drew on an old Dutch custom called taptoe from which we now have the expression Military Tattoo. But that is an aside. The taptoe signals the end of the day and itself came from the expression in Dutch that meant the beer taps had to be shut. The Dutch phrase is Doe den tap toe which means Close the Tap.
So far, so secular. And now to the poppy, this innocent flower that grows best in freshly turned soil. Poppies flowered in huge numbers all over the battlefields of France and Belgium adding a blast of colour to the decimated landscape torn up and freshly turned by the machines of war and the spades of the grave diggers. ‘There was a great profusion – beautiful it was – of wild flowers – poppies, cornflowers, white camomile and yellow charlock’ wrote Captain Parker, one of the CWGC’s first horticultural officers. In May 1915 a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was inspired by the sight of the poppies to write a poem in tribute to a friend who died at Ypres. In Flanders Fields immortalised the poppies among the graves:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
McCrae’s poem was published that year and it inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman. The Royal British Legion, which was formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies to sell on the 11 November of that year. They sold out almost immediately and raised over £106,000 or £28,000,000 in 2016. The money was used to help veterans with employment and housing. The following year ex-servicemen were employed to make poppies and the tradition has continued ever since.
There is nothing religious about any aspect of the core of the Remembrance Day Service, nor is there anything political about it. If you take the trouble to watch the service at the Cenotaph on Sunday 13 November you will see that the poppy laying, the poem and Last Post are a self-contained mini-ceremony before the religious prayers and the military parade.
So please, when you next hear bleating about the poppy being a religious or political symbol, just recall that it is, like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission itself, neutral. It represents remembrance of everyone who dies in war regardless of rank, creed, colour or caste. Like the lark in McCrae’s poem, the poppy is ‘above’ the noise of the guns below.
Sometimes people who ask me about my work are a little sniffy about the fact that I am a female historian writing about Second World War home front focusing on women and the Woman’s Institute at that. They mock at their peril. Woe betide them if they ever come face to face with an angry WI group. Ask Tony Blair. He didn’t like it much when they roasted him in 2000. Politely. But a roasting nevertheless. The WI is a magnificent organisation with immense power and patience. I have endless respect for them today as I do for their mothers and grandmothers who were part of the WI seventy years ago.
The wartime Women’s Institute was dominated by three powerful women at the top of the organisation who had energy, vision and passion. They took on the establishment to prove to the government what a valuable resource women, and the WI in particular, could be. The first was the national chairman, Lady Denman, who had been in post since 1917 and knew a thing or two about getting things done. Her deputy, Grace Hadow, was a brilliant academic and suffragist. The third was a Cambridge educated economist called Francis Farrer.
Grace Hadow was educated at Oxford and known as one of the best public speakers of her age; she was the brains behind the national executive. By the outbreak of war she was sixty-four and as active as ever, having spent the previous summer climbing in the Alps. It was Miss Hadow who had to designate the restrictions for the WI’s wartime work so as not to breach their Pacifist stand.
She wrote: ‘No one would wish to restrain people from volunteering for National Service, but National Service may lie in simple things, and to help to keep up morale and to prevent life in an emergency from becoming wholly disorganized is in itself work of no mean value.’
The only stipulation she made was that WI funds could not be used towards the war effort. This meant that every penny spent on wool for knitting for the troops or jam jars and sugar for making jam had to be raised and accounted for separately. As the WI was and remains very good at fundraising this was no obstacle to their work but it was an extra burden for them at a busy time when many were stretched more than they had ever been. Men were away, the villages were full of evacuees and their help was needed on all fronts. Sadly Miss Hadow died in January 1940 of pneumonia and the WI was robbed of a great talent.
Frances Farrer was the general secretary of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, from 1929 to 1959. She was created a Dame (DBE) in 1953 in recognition of the immense contribution she made towards the war effort by acting as a conduit between the government and the membership. She was, as far as I am concerned, the chief Jambuster, in that she bust bureaucratic log jams and hassled ministers to get things done. An early hit on the Ministry of Food three days after war broke out produced 350 tons of sugar which went towards the first ad hoc jam preservation of autumn 1939. This proved to the Minister, Lord Woolton, in 1940 that he had an army of willing volunteers with access to surplus fruit who would help him to stock the nation’s larder.
Miss Farrer took up cudgels on behalf of evacuees; she wrote to the Ministry of Health with members’ suggestions which fed into the Beveridge Report and she made sure that there were WI members represented on most post-war reconstruction boards. When the Board of Trade wanted to discuss clothes rationing they brought in two women they needed to get on side: Miss Farrer representing the WI and Lady Reading for the Women’s Voluntary Service. Miss Farrer would phone ministers before breakfast in order to get their attention.
The only battle she never won was with a Mr Squance in the Department of Mines. He was responsible for petrol rationing. They locked horns in 1940 and she eventually wrote her last letter to him in April 1946. The WI was not entitled to bulk petrol rations, like the WVS and the Women’s Land Army, as it was not a war organisation, on account of its pacifist stance. Thus the WI was treated as a civilian social organisation, something that enraged Miss Farrer. She needed extra petrol for members to deliver their produce to country markets or to collect and deliver fruit to preservation centres. This was never forthcoming and members had to resort to catching lifts or using unusual sorts of transport.
For me the most impressive member of the wartime WI hierarchy was Lady Denman. Even though she had technically stood down so she could run the Land Army, she was still the figurehead and highly recognisable in government circles. Extraordinarily practical – she was an expert on poultry keeping – she was an inspiring leader for the WI. She was described as ‘attractive, very intelligent, [she] had a fine stride in walking, was good at sport and expert in tree felling, a capable business woman, a good housekeeper, shy, devoid of sentimentality, and full of sympathy for those in trouble. She believed in success and demanded a high standard of work in everything and never spared herself.’
Lady Denman believed in democracy and said: ‘It is better for a meeting to make the wrong decision it wishes to make than the right decision which its chairman wishes to make.’ One MP who saw her in action on House of Commons wrote that she was worth ten men on any select committee. An example of her belief in the power of the WI to be a force for change was when she was leading the 1938 WI resolution which campaigned to get free school milk for children. (remember 1/3 pint milk bottles, with frozen cream in the winter and often a little off in the summer?). She told delegates and members at the Annual General Meeting about her experience:
‘I do know that very many WIs did write to their MPs, for I was one of your representatives who met the Nutrition Group of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. On that occasion more members came than we expected. One MP suggested that he would have been saved a lot of work if he had received one letter from the County Federation rather than fifty from individual WIs. I suggested in reply that it was always possible for one letter to be overlooked, whereas fifty were bound to receive attention. Judging by the way this remark was greeted by a chorus of ‘Hear Hear’ and laughter, most of the Members of Parliament entirely agreed that there is strength in a united attack.’
Lady Denman knew all about united attacks and she continued to make use of any means she could to communicate the WI’s message throughout the war. She used the media to her advantage and played it brilliantly: a visit to a WI in Kent with Mrs Churchill, Mrs Roosevelt and Lady Reading; a broadcast in 1942 which reached millions urging the government to make use of members in post-war reconstruction and an invitation to the Queen to speak to the only AGM that took place during the Second World War. By the end of the war no one could overlook the WI’s contribution towards the war effort, despite the fact they maintained their pacifist position throughout.
The WI has been and continues to be an organisation that believes in positive, constructive campaigning. Letters, petitions … even flower-bombing war memorials after the Women’s War Memorial in Whitehall was defaced in May 2015. I am always impressed by how much they achieve by the simple power of persuasion on a vast scale. They are inspiring women indeed. And these three wartime leaders in particular.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.’
That 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the second season of Home Fires draws to its dramatic close I thought I would concentrate on a question I have spent a great deal of time working on: the true cost of war. I do not mean in the sense of how much it cost the government to prosecute the Second World War – that figure is recorded as somewhere in the region of £10,000,000 a day. No, I’m interested in the cost of the war in human terms. Not numbers of killed or wounded but the impact it had on their families.
Last week I visited Etaples Military Cemetery and was reminded that 10,816 men and women are buried here, of which just 35 are unidentified. It was the cemetery for nearly 20 First World War hospitals. Each of those buried would have had parents and possibly siblings. Some would have been married with children, so the number of people mourning the dead buried at Etaples would be in the tens of thousands. Next year the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will be 100 years old. This remarkable organisation commemorates over 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. It was set up in May 1917 in response to the outpouring of grief over the slaughter on the battlefields of France, Belgium and further afield on Gallipoli and in Palestine and Greece. Bodies could not be repatriated. That only started in the late 1960s, so men had to be buried where they fell and the Commission’s job over the next decades was oversee the construction of cemeteries and memorials for two world wars. It now has a presence in 154 countries worldwide. It is through their remarkable determination to remember the war dead and to commemorate them in perpetuity, that has shaped our remembrance services of today. But for the men and women whose sons, daughters, lovers, husbands, brothers, uncles were sucked up into the Forces in 1939 commemoration was the last thing anybody wanted to be thinking about. Every hope was for the safe return of a loved family member or friend.
One of the worst notifications a family could receive, short of killed, was Missing in Action. This was the fate of the Brindsley family in Home Fires. Miriam refused to believe that David was dead and held onto that hope against all the odds. In Jambusters I told the story of diarist Clara Milburn whose son, Alan, was posted as ‘missing’ after Dunkirk. Her diary entries over the summer of 1940 make haunting reading. In June she wrote: ‘How curious this life is. A sort of deep stillness comes over everything from time to time. There is not much traffic on the roads during the week and the village seems empty in the evenings. One misses the young life everywhere, particularly Alan coming in in the early evening.’ A month later there was still no news of her son: ‘Always one is thinking of him, wondering whether he still lives and if so, whether he is well, where he is, what he does all day, what discomforts he is suffering. If… if… And so the days go by.’ At the end of July she heard that he was a prisoner of war and hugged her husband ‘for sheer joy at the good news’. It was not until October that she received a letter from him, a full nine months after she had last spoken to him over the phone. Alan Milburn returned safely but a very changed man.
For Barbara Cartland the news from France was the same as for Clara Milburn. Both her brothers, Ronald and Tony, were fighting with the British Expeditionary Force. Ronald wrote to his mother just before he went into action: ‘This is just to send you my love and bless you always. Don’t be anxious if there is a long silence from me – the fog of war is pretty impenetrable. We shall win in the end, but there’s horror and tribulation ahead of all of us. We can’t avoid it. What a waste it all is, but after months of desolation we shall gain and retain what you and I have always understood the meaning of – freedom.’ Barbara’s mother, Polly, had lost her husband in 1918 and knew full well the horror of the telegram. It came twice over that hot, dry summer of 1940. Both her sons were ‘missing’. In January 1941 came the terrible news that Ronald had been killed in action on 30 May 1940, hit in the head by a German bullet.
Barbara wrote: ‘We had gradually been losing hope of hearing that he was alive – now we knew the truth. My mother was wonderful. “Missing” is the cruellest uncertainty of all, as she well knew, for my father had been missing in 1918; and that ghastly waiting, watching, hoping and praying was hers all over again – not twice, but three times, for Tony was still “missing”.’ Tony Cartland had been killed the day before his brother, hit by a shell. For Polly and Barbara Cartland there was no happy ending to their story.
In Home Fires there are men caught up in the same drama as the Cartland brothers and Alan Milburn. Sarah Collingbourne’s husband, Adam, is missing in France while David Brindsley has miraculously returned from an horrific accident at sea and Bob Simms, wounded at Dunkirk, was sent back to Great Paxford in an ambulance. It is easy to understand why Miriam clung so desperately to her belief that David was still alive and remarkable that he was able to come home. Of the vicar’s fate we know little. Ronald Cartland described ‘the fog of war’ meaning there was confusion and chaos as indeed there was. And the pressure on families was immense.
My grandfather was taken prisoner on Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the first official notice my grandmother received that her husband was alive but a POW was on Christmas Eve of that year, almost 11 months after he had been captured. For her the fog of war was exceptionally thick. And for her there was the added problem that as he was ‘missing’ he was neither dead, in which case she would have received a war widow’s pension, or alive, in which case he would have received army pay. So for nearly a year she and tens of thousands of other wives received no money.How did they cope? Sometimes firms would make hardship payments to wives of men who had worked with them pre-war but more often than not they had to rely on family support or charities. The oldest military charity in Britain was SSAFA – the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It was founded in 1885 to provide lifelong support to serving men, women and veterans from the British Armed Forces and their families or dependents. In the Second World War SSAFA helped hundreds of thousands of families and their support was invaluable then, as it is still today.
So as this second season of Home Fires gives us a powerful finale, it is worth reflecting that there are very real parallels between the experiences of the fictional characters and their historic counterparts. We are going to be left with more questions than answers but then that reflects the true cost of war. Let’s just hope we get a third season to give us some answers.
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.
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. Always 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.
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.
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.
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’.
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!
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!
‘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.
From 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.’
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.’
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.