World On Fire marks 80 years since the end of the Second World War by homing in on human stories that sweep across Britain, Poland, France, Germany and the United States.
Sunday 29 September, 9pm, BBC One HD (CH 101/108). Also available for 30 days in Catch Up > Channels > BBC iPlayer
Across this seven-part series, a brilliant international cast (including Sean Bean, Blake Harrison, Helen Hunt and Lesley Manville) grapples with love triangles, forbidden romance, class divides and dangerous jobs. Why? Because people’s concerns back then were the same as today, says writer Peter Bowker (Blackpool): “falling in love, falling pregnant, somebody dying, somebody disgracing themselves, somebody getting drunk… life goes on”.
“It was a relief that, lo and behold, I could still write about the tos and fros of family arguments within the context of the Second World War”, he adds. The characters are just ordinary people who are incredibly relatable. That’s why World On Fire is not your typical war drama – it’s way, way better.
Although loose lips sink ships, we managed to convince the cast and creative team to let us in on a few show secrets…
Bowker frames the story through a multitude of perspectives
“With people in wartime, what I’m interested in writing about is that we do good things for bad reasons and bad things for good reasons. That’s part of a larger ambition to reclaim the wartime generation from keeping them in aspic and claiming them back as flesh and blood – some with flaws, which makes them more heroic to me, not less. There are great war films which already exist, so why would I want to do it the same way again?”
The scope of the series is HUGE
“The first couple of weeks, it was a new location every day and almost a new set of cast every day,” says lead director Adam Smith, who directed episodes one and two. Three other directors were brought on board, with Thomas Napper directing episode three, Andy Wilson directing episodes four and seven and Chanya Button directing episodes five and six.
Adam continues, “We shot in Prague and pretended that Prague was Warsaw, Berlin, Paris and a bit of Manchester and then we shot in Manchester and pretended Manchester was… Manchester and Warsaw. We pretended Bolton was Manchester as well.
“We had a colour palette for each world. The idea was that we were making one massive movie.” Other filming locations included London, Paris and Berlin.
Every episode features a major event
Helen Ziegler, executive producer for Mammoth Screen, says, “In episode 1 you've got the invasion of Warsaw and the battle of the post office at Danzig, episode 2 is the fall of Warsaw, episode 3 is the Battle of the River Plate, episode 4 is Louvain, 5 is Dunkirk, 6 is the fall of Paris and 7 is the beginning of the Battle of Britain.
“Obviously there’s a lot of CG [computer graphics] in the show, but we tried to use as many real things as possible and augment rather than create, so it felt truthful and realistic.”
The Dunkirk evacuation was filmed on St Anne’s Beach near Blackpool
Blake Harrison, who plays Stan Raddings, a sergeant in the British Army, was involved in the Dunkirk scenes and he says the set was “incredible”. “One of the things I found amazing when researching it was just the complete chaos and helplessness of it all.
“One of the reasons the British forces were able to escape is because Hitler ordered that the Panzers [German tanks] had maintenance done to them, so the Panzers were two days late getting to Dunkirk. It’s miraculous how many of these tiny little incidents that seem insignificant had such a massive effect on the outcome of the war and the survival or deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”
Connie Knight and Lois Bennett are based on real people
Yrsa Daley-Ward, who plays Connie, says, “Peter Bowker had a grandma and an auntie who were like Connie and Lois. It's been really nice to see this brought to life, this interracial, deep friendship at the time. They want to see the world, they want to make a difference and as part of the war effort, they decide to perform for ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association].
“It’s an opportunity that a lot of women wouldn’t have had before the Second World War, so they’re really excited about it. They’re in a band called the Victory Vs. Lois is the singer and Connie plays piano.”
The clothes are authentic
Julia Brown, who plays Lois Bennett, says, “[Yrsa and I] got to have three looks. We had our day-to-day working-class clothes, which have been well researched and they were brought from Paris fashion houses. They were real pieces from the time that had been perfectly kept. It was incredible wearing a dress that was from the 1930s.
“We had our evening look, which, because they didn’t have much, we decided maybe they inherited one from their mothers or they made them themselves. They get to put on a bit of lipstick and do their own hair. We also had our army look with ENSA. We felt very smart in those. Clothes act as a way into where the characters are in the story.”
Sean Bean’s Douglas Bennett is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder
Bean explains, “Douglas served as a soldier in the First World War and he was shell-shocked. They were looked upon as people who were shirkers, that weren’t men – they were [seen as] weak, cowardly. It’s so sad, because they were men and they were strong men. They went to war and they came back mentally disturbed because of the physical things around them. I imagine it would have traumatised me very much and I'd have come back a different man.
“It can happen to anyone and it did. It’s what it does to your head. I’ve played a lot of soldiers, but I’ve never served in a war. I had to bring up something similar in my life, instances that were traumatic to me mentally in the past.”
Zofia Wichłacz (Kasia Tomaszeski) taught Jonah Hauer-King (Harry Chase) Polish
“Luckily they didn’t ask me to show them my Polish or French when I was auditioning, because I had none,” he says. “I speak a fair amount of French and Polish in it. Polish is a really beautiful language and incredibly difficult to learn. Zofia was my teacher. She was amazing. I learnt from the best.”
The cast spent a lot of time bonding
“We had two weeks of rehearsing and time to spend together. We went bowling on one of our first nights. That was fun and really needed. It was a great idea from production and Adam,” says Zofia. “We could really bond and then feel safe on set during all these emotional scenes. I didn't feel like I was with a stranger on set and suddenly I have to fall in love with this stranger. I trusted Jonah, he trusted me.”
Jonah and Julia also went on “dates”, including a virtual reality experience and an escape room to prepare them for escaping a fascist Blackshirt rally.
Parker Sawyers (Albert Fallou) really plays the saxophone
“Albert is a French jazz saxophone in Paris. I’m American, but I took French for ten years growing up. I have French neighbours and I had them translate all of my lines into French so I knew exactly how it would sound in French and then I’d say it in English.
“I play piano and saxophone and I just picked up guitar. In episodes 2 and 3, you'll hear me playing a solo. Everything we did, I learned how to play. My grandfather was a jazz saxophonist as well, so that was really special to me. I have three of his saxophones that he bequeathed to me.”
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Image credit: World On Fire © Mammoth Screen – Photographer: Gareth Gatrell