World on Fire WWII Epic Hits TV Screens

Kasia and Harry Chase (played by Zofia Wichłacz and Jonah Hauer-King). Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/BBC/Mammoth Screen 2018
Kasia and Harry Chase (played by Zofia Wichłacz and Jonah Hauer-King). Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/BBC/Mammoth Screen 2018

The BBC’s epic WWII production World on Fire starring Sean Bean and Helen Hunt is perhaps one of the most ambitious series ever devised.

It tells the story of the first year of WWII through the eyes of ordinary people and starts before the outbreak of war in quiet fashion. Needless to say, things escalate to a point where the producers had to source thousands of extras across four countries.

Chris Clough, producer on the WWII series said that the new show was, “one of the biggest television projects ever made anywhere in the world.” When he read the scripts, written and created by Peter Bowker he said he thought it would be ‘madness’ to attempt to make it. With over a hundred speaking parts and set in locations across the globe, logistics alone would make it a very complicated piece of work.

Mateusz Więcławek as Grzegorz Tomaszeski, brother of Kasia Tomaszeski, in World on Fire. Photograph: Dusan Martincek/BBC/Mammoth Screen

Nevertheless, the seven-part serial has been completed and has aired on UK television to a very positive response from critics and TV audiences, vindicating the amount of hard work, not to mention budget, that went into the making of the WWII drama.

Lancashire’s scenic beach Lytham-St-Annes, on the North East coast of England, doubled as the French port of Dunkirk.

Acre upon acre of sand was littered with the detritus of the British Expeditionary Force and their French and other allies. Helmets, boots, vehicles and even a mock-up of a Spitfire were used to evoke the horrors of the mass evacuation.

Massive set-pieces aside this was devised as a way to tell the story through the eyes of people who were there.

A Polish boy in the ruins of a street in Warsaw in WWII

In Germany there are the Rosslers whose son is an enlisted soldier off to the front and into danger. At home he leaves a sister whose epilepsy could mean her removal from the family and execution in the name of eugenics.

In Poland we meet the Tomaszeskis, Grzegorz and his father travel to Danzig to defend the city from the advancing Germans while his sister Kasia, a waitress remains in Warsaw, where her path crosses eventually with a young man, Harry Chase.

Life becomes complicated when the two become romantic as Harry already has a girlfriend back in Manchester, Lois. Lois’s father is a bus conductor, Douglas Bennet, played by Sean Bean.

sean bean
Sean Bean. Credit 9EkieraM1 CC BY-SA 3.0

His character is a war veteran who suffered terribly during the First World War. He suffers from shell shock and supports conscientious objectors believing there should be negotiation before war. He is appalled at the events unfolding as they do.

Helen Hunt is another star turn in the World on Fire playing a daring and perhaps rather cavalier broadcaster, who broke the news of German forces massing on the Polish border.

Her character, Nancy, is based on English reporter Clare Hollingsworth, “She saw sacks hanging on a fence, and when the wind blew them, she saw hundreds of German tanks ranged behind them,” said Hunt.

Another huge set piece was the Battle of the River Plate which involved Douglas Bennet’s son Tom. The question of how to tell the story came to Bowker when he read the story of the ship’s canary, which survived when all the men in the engine room of the HMS Exeter had perished.

At the end of the battle the bird had not only lived through that terrible battle, but bizarrely it had laid an egg. “I wanted to capture some of that absurdity, so I created a story that begins and ends with this canary.” said Bowker.

Sean Bean is said to have been concerned that the writer might kill off his character, but Peter Bowker confirmed that he had reassured Bean when they first discussed the actor’s involvement with the project. “I don’t die in this one, do I?” he asked Bowker, “No, you’ll be alright,” was the reply, “Then I’ll do it,” Bean confirmed.

Another Article From Us: Gal Gadot to Play Polish Heroine ‘Irena Sendler’ in Holocaust Drama

Manchester newspaper, The Mancunian called World on Fire ‘emotionally gripping’ and ‘entertaining and thought provoking’. Miss it at your peril.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE