World on Fire – BBC 1


At one point during the second episode, we went rather rapidly from Sean Bean wandering along Great Ducie Street and Bury New Road to Nazi bombs reducing poor Warsaw to rubble.  This is certainly an ambitious series, covering storylines across a range of different locations during the early part of the Second World War.  I assume that it’s also an attempt to give screen time to groups who are often under-represented in both wartime dramas and history books: a lot of the action takes place in Poland, and we’ve also got a black gay Frenchman with a white American boyfriend, a French Jewish nurse hiding her identity from the Nazis, a German child with epilepsy, a Polish Catholic child refugee, two members of ENSA, a pacifist and a female war reporter.

There’ve been a couple of scenes that I haven’t been entirely comfortable with, although maybe I’m being oversensitive.   Also, one of the German characters is called Uwe Rosler. Seriously. OK, it’s been spelt Rossler, but come on!  And the fact that there are so many different locations and storylines makes it rather confusing.  Oh, and, speaking of locations, I’m enjoying spotting familiar places.  Strangeways was Strangeways, and Castlefield and the John Rylands Library have also appeared … and I believe that the scenes at Dunkirk, which we haven’t got to yet, were filmed at St Annes.  To get back to the point, it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad – and it’s getting better as the series goes on.

I assumed Harry was going to be a big hero, seeing as the programme started with him being arrested for clashing with Oswald Mosley’s supporters at a BUF rally in Manchester in March 1939, but he spends a lot of time moaning, and has been trying to keep two girls, both of whom are far too good for him, on the go at once. He’s from a well-to-do background, living with his snobbish mother in an extremely large house. Lois, one of his girlfriends, lives in Longsight with her brother Tom, who goes into the Navy, and her dad, played by Sean Bean, who, having suffered shell shock during the First World War, is an avowed pacifist. Incidentally, whilst I accept that Yorkshiremen aren’t big on doing Lancashire accents, could he not at least have tried?!  Julia Brown (Lois)’s attempt at a Manchester accent isn’t bad at all.  Ewan Mitchell (Tom) ‘s leaves a lot to be desired: he sounds more Mendips than Manchester!

Lois and her friend are a singing duet, and join ENSA. I like that. Dame Vera Lynn must be one of the most well-respected figures in the country, but you rarely see ENSA mentioned in either factual or fictional accounts of the Second World War.

Harry’s other girlfriend is Kasia, a Polish girl whom he meets whilst working as a translator in Warsaw. A big part of this series is showing the effect of the war on Poland, and I believe that it’s attracted a lot of interest from the Polish community in Britain. The first time I went to Warsaw, way back in 1996, we were shown of a video of the devastation of the city during the war, and its rebuilding afterwards. It really was blown to smithereens.

Unlike in The Aftermath, there’s been no soft-soaping of how the Nazis treated people. We’ve seen Kasia’s dad, with the Polish forces in Gdansk – we were shown the Defence of the Post Office in the Free City of Danzig/Gdansk, which is very well-known in Polish wartime history – and her mum, in her own home, both shot dead at point blank range. Her brother is able to escape, and eventually to join up with Polish forces after spending a long time on the run.  Harry marries Kasia (conveniently forgetting, even once he’s home, to tell either Lois or his mum) so that she’ll be able to accompany him back to Britain, but she chooses to remain behind, pushing her little brother Jan on to the train with him instead – and we see Jan’s experiences as a child refugee, including Harry’s mum becoming attached to him and defending him when he’s bullied at school.

Kasia later joins the Polish Resistance. Most viewers will be familiar with the work of the French Resistance, and to some extent the work of the Resistance movements in other Western European countries such as the Netherlands and Norway, but, although we hear about the Polish units serving with the Allied forces, we hear very little about the Resistance movements further east.

We’ve also got a female American reporter, working in Berlin. Reporters in war programmes are usually male, so that’s another tick for diversity.  A major part of her storyline is the problems she’s having in getting reports past the censors, another important issue. Over in Paris (filmed in Wigan!), we’ve got her nephew, a doctor, who’s in a same sex relationship with a gay black French musician. I don’t know how their story’s going to pan out, but this is doing the important job of highlighting the fact that many different groups were persecuted by the Nazis: we still hear relatively little about the treatment of gay people by the Nazis – thousands of gay men died in concentration camps – or the fact that black people were subject to the Nuremberg Laws in the Nazi-occupied territory.  One of the doctor’s colleagues is a Jewish nurse, and I gather that we’re going to see the two of them work together help patients to escape from the Nazis.

Back in Germany, the reporter is friendly with a couple whose child is epileptic, and who are terrified that the authorities will find out.  The Nazis began killing children with disabilities began in 1939, and forced sterilisation of people with conditions including epilepsy began as early as 1933.  This has been gone into in quite some detail – and we’re also seeing how well-intentioned reporting can be dangerous, with the couple terrified that her link to their family will be discovered and their child put in peril as a result.  Again, this is highlighting another facet of the Nazi atrocities, and one which isn’t always given as much attention as it should be.  I’m sorry that there are no Roma characters, but I suppose they could only have so many storylines: there’s a lot to keep up with as it is.

Any dialogue between Polish characters or between German characters has actually been filmed in Polish or German, with English subtitles. I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work – remember Eldorado?! – but it’s actually working very well … although it’s rather annoying if you want to do the ironing or something else at the same time as you’re watching!

So, there are a lot of things to praise … but, as I said, I was uncomfortable with a couple of scenes. There were some very unpleasant scenes outside Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day in January, with far-right groups claiming that the effect of the Nazi occupation on the wider population of Poland is overlooked because there is so much focus on the Jewish Holocaust. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. Two scenes in this programme, one involving Harry’s mother assuming that Jan was Jewish and Harry asking sarcastically if she wanted him to go back and change him for a Jewish child, and one involving the American reporter complaining that the American media would report on the persecution of Jews but not on the situation in Poland in general, came dangerously close to suggesting the same thing. I don’t imagine that that’s what Peter Bowker meant, but it was badly put. Suffering at the hands of the Nazis is not some sort of competition.  Can we not go there, please?

I’m also having a few issues with the German family (the parents with the epileptic child) because of the Uwe Rosler thing. Is a storyline about the Nazis wanting to kill children with medical conditions really the place for football jokes?  And, given that the scriptwriter’s from Stockport, no-one’s telling me that the name isn’t intentional.   Some of the language doesn’t ring very true for 1939 or 1940, either.  But, hey, nothing’s perfect.

I was on holiday when the first two episodes were shown, and have only just caught up.  A new Sunday night 9pm drama usually becomes a major talking point, and this hasn’t, so I assume it hasn’t attracted the sort of viewing figures that the BBC must have been hoping for.  That’s a shame, because it’s worth watching.  I know some people think that there’s too much talk about the Second World War, but there isn’t.  There really, really isn’t.

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