First look UK TV review: World on Fire
James R | On 29, Sep 2019
The Tudors and World War II. Those have long been the subjects primarily covered in the English school curriculum, so when a new TV drama comes along focusing on the Second World War, it’s easy to dismiss it as something you’ve seen before. BBC One’s World on Fire, though, brings a powerful sense of scale to this horrific chapter of history.
As the title suggests, this is an international portrait of the conflict from all sides, and judging by its opening episode, the series has no problem juggling the globe-hopping goings on. That’s partly because writer Peter Bowker is a dab hand at nuanced characters and varied ensembles, with Eric and Ernie and Blackpool on his CV. He also penned From There to Here, and brings that same knack for retelling actual events with sensitivity and a grounded humanity.
Humanity doesn’t come more grounded than Sean Bean, and he provides our eyes into the summer of 1939 as Douglas Bennett, a worker in Manchester who knows all too well the consequences of war and is now a pacifist campaigning for peace. Bean, who is benefiting hugely from roles where he doesn’t immediately die, brings an earthy intensity to the part of a worn, worried father.
His daughter is Lois Bennett (Julia Brown), a factory worker and singer whose boyfriend is a translator. He’s called Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and has been shipped out to the British Embassy in Warsaw, where he is finding a new romantic interest in waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz). Harry’s mother, meanwhile, is Robina (Lesley Manville), who disapproves of pretty much everything around her – a perfect showcase for Manville’s wonderfully withering delivery. And lest we not forget young Tom (Ewan Mitchell), who joins the navy at a time when doing so is guaranteed to put him in harm’s way.
All of these are balanced out by American journalist Nancy (an enjoyably outspoken Helen Hunt), who is willingly putting herself in peril for the sake of her neighbours. She, meanwhile, has a nephew in Paris.
If all of that sounds crowded, Bowker’s achievement is to make sure each one gets just enough screen time before we jump to the next. The ensemble, too, impress by underpinning every strand of this tapestry with convincing performances. As the ties between each of them are revealed, that chemistry and sincerity means that we not only believe the dramatically convenient connections but care about them to boot.
It’s all pieced together at a pace and with panache; from the opening scene, set at an Oswald Mosley rally, where Lois joins in a singing protest, the period is brought to life with a confident style, providing a springboard to hop over to Poland’s suffering domestic climate to battlefront sequences and back to Manchester again. Unlike a typical war movie, the focus here is on the ordinary people left behind by the troops and the consequences their conflict has for them – it’s a tableau of human drama, punctuated by cinematic action, and the effect feels more immediate and moving than any school history lesson.
World on Fire is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.