World on Fire review – ordinary lives caught up in extraordinary times


Peter Bowker’s second world war drama is a beautifully turned ensemble piece starring Lesley Manville and Sean Bean … and far from standard wartime fare

A great sense of destiny unfolding … World on Fire. Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/BBC/Mammoth Screen

The subject is war and the pity of it, and it is rendered freshly and exquisitely painful in the new seven-part drama series World on Fire (BBC One). Created by Peter Bowker (The A Word, Capital, Eric and Ernie), it tracks the declaration and first year of the second world war via the intertwining stories of ordinary families trying to go about their ordinary lives in Britain and various European cities that are soon to become flashpoints.

In Manchester, bright, young, middle-class Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) and his bright, young, working-class girlfriend Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) protest at Blackshirt rallies until he must head to Warsaw as a translator for the British embassy. She will be kept busy with her factory work and with running the motherless Bennett household. This includes her wayward brother Tom (Ewan Mitchell) and – bringing home how precipitous the journey was from the great war to another, worse one – her father Douglas (Sean Bean, in stoic, not swashbuckling, mode) who is still suffering from the shellshock he acquired in the trenches. He is a pacifist now.

Harry promises to write but soon finds himself immersed in his new life and with a Polish sweetheart, Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz), instead.

Helen Hunt plays US journalist Nancy Campbell, who is dedicated at increasing personal risk to broadcasting the truth about Nazi plans for invasion. She is also trying – so far in vain – to persuade her nephew Webster (Brian J Smith) to leave Paris, where he works as a doctor and is falling in love with a man who has been attacked – for his race or his homosexuality, we don’t know – by the Action Française.

The Germans move on Poland and Kasia’s father heads off to defend Danzig. Her older brother, who insisted, as older brothers will, on fighting alongside him, is captured but escapes. Harry is urged by Nancy to do the right thing: marry Kasia, bring her to England and hope they will be able to bring the rest of the family later to keep them safe. “The game just got bigger,” she says. “Did you?” Lois is still awaiting a letter, but Harry cannot bring himself to write, any more than he can bring himself to tell his mother the news over the phone. Mrs Chase (Lesley Manville, whose recent surge in popularity among casting directors remains a long-overdue delight) is a ruthless snob who has advised Lois to curb her “masculine spirit” and set her sights more realistically on a bank clerk or thereabouts. She also has what she calls “a soft spot for Mr Mosley”, but Harry hopes things will turn out all right in the end. Harry is very young.

There is plenty of action, for those who want it, but this is far from the standard wartime miniseries. It is a beautifully turned ensemble piece, with everyone getting their time in the spotlight as we move between locations without anybody’s characters or storylines feeling underbaked: from dolorous Manchester, where Douglas looks with disbelief at the increasingly awful headlines charting the inexorable descent into war, to convulsing Poland and France, maintaining its facade for a last few precious days.

It manages to maintain a great intimacy with them all, while building outwards to give a sense of the global scale of events. Harry’s idealism is both credible and emblematic. The decisions, such as him and Kasia agreeing to marry, feel like those of people with their own personal motivations rather than a great sense of destiny unfolding. Tiny scenes compress much. When Kasia’s little brother Jan wants to go to school as the Germans invade and is told “not today”, it contains almost everything. The sense of impending cataclysm permeates every level of life. More and more rules and niceties are laid aside until suddenly there is nothing left to do but flee.

The protagonists’ vulnerabilities are all the more poignant for never being laboured. The emphasis is on all the characters’ very ordinariness, which in turn makes the parallels with modern times all the more powerful, frightening – and, particularly in the closing scenes of the first episode – heartbreaking. There is nothing that sets them apart from us except for circumstances beyond their control. Which means that we are, in fact, exactly the same. Although perhaps with more of a sense, however unwillingly, that we are living in history, and with less clarity about who our enemies are, and where they might invade next.