Screening a Second World War drama series so soon after the 80th anniversary commemorations could be a bold decision – or a predictable one. Elizabeth Buchan has watched the first episode of World on Fire (BBC One, Sundays, 9pm) and tells Historia whether the gamble has paid off.
A world war with the best tourist locations that is going to be desperate and cataclysmic is surely catnip for those searching for the next big Sunday evening drama. But how to make it different from all those that have preceded it? Award-winning writer Peter Bowker takes up the challenge.
His approach is multi-perspective and episode one opens in 1939 in Warsaw and switches to Manchester, Paris and Berlin. The political situation is becoming urgent but the diplomats and politicians are never centre stage, merely heard on the radio or glimpsed in newspaper headlines. Instead, he maintains a close focus on individuals, none of whom quite understand what is happening – with the exception of American journalist Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who, shuttling between Warsaw and Berlin, tries to warn everyone in her reports, but is ignored.
In Warsaw, Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King), a translator at the British Embassy, is two-timing his English girlfriend, Lois Bennett (Julia Brown), with the beautiful local waitress Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz).
In Paris, a young doctor, Webster (Brian J Smith), is drawn to a night-club saxophonist, Albert (Parker Sawyers). In Manchester, the love-lorn Lois is trying to keep the family together. Her father (Sean Bean) is a pacifist with shell-shock and her flaky brother Tom (Ewan Mitchel) is in trouble with the police.
So far, so inclusive. Here are all shades of class and nationality, political opinions and differing sexualities being put at the heart of the drama. Clearly, there will be no heroics by, or adulation of, the upper-crust hero or heroine in the style of the old black-and-white films.
This clutch is as fallible, snobbish, psychologically wounded, blinkered and as cowardly as any of us. They are also as kindly intentioned, sacrificial and brave as any of us. War is undiscriminating in what it touches is the message; and this balanced approach has convincing appeal and vigour.
Those not familiar with the early stages of the war might find the history confusing – especially events in Danzig. The responsibility to clarify what is happening, or to skate around this lack of knowledge, therefore lies with the characters, who are sometimes burdened with dialogue which is not the most sophisticated or subtle. “Events have just got bigger,” Nancy tells the slightly flaky Harry. “Did you?”
The saxophonist to whom Webster is attracted declares he will never leave Paris whatever happens. “I know what I am,” he tells Webster. “Do you know who you are?”
Things settle down. The characters take on ballast – which should deepen as the series develops – and there are terrific performances from the senior actors. Helen Hunt can tame any role; a restrained Sean Bean is moving and convincing; and Lesley Manville as Harry’s snobbish mother with a penchant for Oswald Mosley and feline put-downs treats us to one of her stand-out performances.
There is some bold camera work. The two Polish resisters on the run in Danzig are shot from a strange angle from above. Waking up in bed after love-making is seen from a tight, close focus. But overall the emphasis is on reproducing the slice of life in a straightforward manner, and much as it must have been.
Dark interiors, smoky nightclubs, crowded stations can never quite escape 21st-century studio sanitisation, but these ones have a convincing messy quality. Similarly, the characters all have good skins and good teeth, but care has been taken with the costumes – and it pays off.
The poise, resonance and psychological truth of the most successful and gripping of dramas often takes more than one episode to dig in. On this showing, it feels it will be worth the watching.
Kasia and Harry, Douglas and Lois, Webster and Albert: all © BBC (BBC Pictures)