The other side of war
Sean Bean immersed himself in personal stories for his latest epic, epic writes Stephen Drill
There have been so many shows about World War II: hero movies, brutally real depictions and even comedies. Think Hogan’s Heroes, The Great Escape, Saving Private Ryan, and more recently Dunkirk.
All these focus primarily on those in the firing line.
Now World On Fire, an epic new production screening on BBC First from tonight, looks at World War II through the eyes of ordinary people, caught in the most difficult of circumstances. And crucially, the series gives a voice to characters from different sides of the conflict.
A Polish waitress, a German soldier, an American journalist in Berlin, as well as those getting on with day-to-day life back in wartime Britain.
For all the star power of the show, including Oscar winner Helen Hunt and Lord Of The Ring’s Sean Bean, it is the story and the script itself that stands out.
Bean, who famously lost his head as Ned Stark in HBO’s fantasy phenomenon Game Of Thrones, shines as Douglas Bennett, a pacifist, working-class man in Manchester who returned from World War I with shell shock and suffering the effects of mustard gas.
Drawing on his own family experience for the role, the 60-year-old Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art graduate reveals his navy man grandfather also suffered lasting effects from World War II. “My dad didn’t see him for many years. He (my grandfather) was a bit shaken by it. He had trouble readapting, coming back to civil life,” Bean tells Insider.
“He got his mojo back eventually but it did happen to a lot of men.” The process of immersing himself in those stories of post traumatic stress disorder was uncomfortable but necessary, Bean says. “It wasn’t enjoyable dredging those memories up and feeling those thoughts but that’s something you have to do to do it justice.”
Watching the first episode makes it clear why Bean has had such a long, successful and decorated career — giving his character kindness and empathy,
The series has been likened to Call The Midwife — set in wartime and across several countries.
“That line of thinking flows throughout the whole drama, many people from different countries are thrown together,” Bean said. “It tells tales of friendship and love, and love affairs, brutality, and it’s very intimate, it’s not a retelling of the facts of the war.”
Writer Peter Bowker, whose series The A Word about a family dealing with how to cope with a child who has autism, has delivered the same level of insight.
“It’s that everyday heroism, it’s what we find in ourselves that I’m quite interested in rather than the going over the top and firing a gun way,” Bowker told the World On Fire press launch at London’s British Film Institute.
The Imperial War Museum in London provided him with extensive records, including diaries, that opened the door to the human side of the war. The wartime diary of a young a Polish waitress showed she had many of the same concerns as people do now.
“Her main diary entries are about coffee and boys. And then she would say, ‘I joined the resistance today, it is run by the local scout master’,” Bowker says. “It’s so reassuring that you are young and you want to find love and you want decent coffee and somewhere to sit to talk about it.”
The BBC has spared no expense on the series, which is likely to become a longrunning drama given the first season only deals with 1939.
Damien Timmer, managing director of production company Mammoth Screen won’t give the exact figure but says: “It’s something like two-and-ahalf times the budget of a normal big show. It’s big.”
WORLD ON FIRE, TONIGHT 8.30PM, FOXTEL’S BBC FIRST
British actor Sean Bean ( far right) has followed his star turn in Game Of Thrones (below) with World War II epic World On Fire (right).