There’s something so fitting about the fact that the final episode of Peter Bowker’s second world war drama, World on Fire, will air on Remembrance Sunday. A sweeping look at events across Europe after the outbreak of war, from the start it has been clear that conflict has a heavy price, and that we should never forget both the sacrifice and the suffering of those who lived through it.
This is not, however, the blind jingoism of those who trot out old canards about ‘our finest hour’ as though there is nothing better than viewing a nation through the prism of destruction and death. Instead, Bowker’s story – in addition to being cracking Sunday night viewing – has worked precisely because it has refused to shy away from the true cost of war. It repeatedly reminds us of the everyday struggles, big and small, of people from Poland to Paris, showing us that people didn’t simply dust themselves off and get on with life but were instead always fundamentally altered by their experiences.
Not that everyone has been happy with the series. There have been complaints – most recently in the Mail on Sunday and The Sunday Times – about both Bowker’s diverse cast and storylines, and at least one piece on its perceived inaccuracies. That complainant may well be right, but I would argue that what Bowker is trying to achieve here isn’t a drama of historical record but rather a homage to the great melodramas of the 1940s.
World on Fire is a drama concerned with human stories as much as history, and its aim is to capture how it might feel to be in these terrible circumstances as much as how it actually was. Such emphasis means that occasionally the show veers into cheesy territory. This is the sort of drama in which people announce: “You don’t have to love me. You just have to let me love you” with entirely straight faces. Yet call me sentimental, but there’s something very satisfying about the way Bowker balances warmth and romance with the bleak horrors of war.
In this, he is helped immeasurably by a string of strong performances. Chief plaudits clearly go to Lesley Manville and Sean Bean as Robina and Douglas, two people from very different backgrounds who are united by the sorrow and, perhaps more importantly, the residual wounds they both carry from the first world war.
If Bean and Manville bring gravitas and grace, there have also been brilliant performances from a host of lesser known actors. From Julia Brown’s Lois – whose dark sense of humour has seen her through situations that would have broken other women – to Parker Sawyer’s seemingly doomed jazz musician Albert, and Eryk Biedunkiewicz’s wide-eyed Jan, wise beyond his years but still yearning for a happy ending, World on Fire is full of characters whom you both root for and hope will survive. Chief among those is the show’s central pairing: Robina’s son Harry (Jonah Hauer-King, whose soulful performance has grown on me as Harry has gone from naïve man-child to battle-worn soldier) and Kasia (the outstanding Zofia Wichlacz), the Polish girl he loved but lost after she shoved her younger brother Jan on the last train out of Poland in her place.
While Harry has had his idealism tempered by the bitter reality of war – and the slow realisation that while he might see himself as noble his actions towards Lois, whom he carelessly slept with then abandoned, are anything but – Kasia has joined the Polish Resistance, where her brutal experiences have helped her survive, at a terrible cost.
As someone who grew up going for lunch at the Polish centre in Hammersmith and who lives near the Polish War Memorial in South Ruislip, it is this last storyline that has resonated the most. We are all used to images of French musicians playing jazz as Paris falls, of Nazi officers parading stone-faced in Berlin and British troops desperately evacuating Dunkirk while their families keep the home fires burning in the face of a sustained bombing campaign. World on Fire has told many of these stories and told them well, but it has also thrust Poland, too often reduced to a historical footnote, centre stage. In doing so it reminds us of a story of bravery and loss, of resistance and the strength of humanity in the face of brutality that is easily the equal of the stories we tell of Britain’s war.
As to how it will all end on Sunday, my main concern is that with so many sprawling storylines, so many potential relationships to explore, Bowker will find it tough to tie everything up in a neat package. There’s currently no word on whether there will be a second series – and the production costs and epic scale of the show suggests it will have had to do well both here and abroad to earn one – but even if certain storylines end up uncertain then I for one will be satisfied. Messy, complex endings are – after all – a key aspect of war.