For fans of ITV drama, the announcement of Downton Abbey’s coming demise may have been disheartening news. Perhaps the arrival of Home Fires will help fill the hole in our hearts.
Set in picturesque Great Paxford in the Cheshire countryside, Home Fires follows a group of women as the storm clouds of World War II draw in, disrupting the lives of ordinary people up and down the country. You may think you know the story of the women of WWII, but think again. Whilst we all know the tales of the inspirational young women who rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in at the ammunitions factories, or else raced into the military hospitals to do their bit, there are many more that remain untold—primarily of those living in rural areas.
This is something Home Fires tries to address, by centering on the Great Paxford Women’s Institute (WI). This may not sound a particularly exciting prospect—aside from kinky photo shoots, the WI tends to conjure up images of stuffy town halls, copious amounts of tea and biscuits, knitting circles, cake baking and a lot of old old-age pensioners. Not very glamorous stuff. However, the story of the WI during WWII is actually pretty fascinating; aside from supporting the war effort in material ways, they also provided an essential site of community and support for British women during the nation’s darkest days—and not just for the elderly.
Home Fires is inspired by Julie Summers’ non-fiction book, Jam Busters, which tells the tale of the WI’s jam-making initiative. In ITV’s fictionalized account, acclaimed actress Samantha Bond plays the formidable Francis Barden, who spearheads the hedgerow-scouring movement. As Francis explains, the first casualties of WWI were merchant shippers; by encouraging Britain’s women to maximize homegrown resources and minimise reliance on importation, Frances hopes to save scores of lives. Though the WI members of Great Paxford hail from a relatively small region, the drama manages to include a diverse selection of women, from old to young, rich and poor, some happily married, others ready and willing for a wartime romance, offering something for every viewer. From farmer’s, doctor’s and butcher’s wives, school teachers and mothers, these are the women who have to carry on in the face of fear and uncertainty, both for the nation and for the fate of their loved ones as they’re shipped off to the front.
Feminists will love the more industrious women, often as involved in their husband’s profession as the men themselves, left to take on the work of two when their husband’s itchy feet carry them off to the trenches—such as farmer Steph Farrow, played by Downton Abbey’s Clare Calbraith, whose husband enlists in spite of his essential work exempting him from conscription. Despite the female-heavy cast, Home Fires has an array of equally talented male actors playing both the men who went to war and the ones who stayed behind. Expect to see a lot of comparisons to BBC One’s Call the Midwife—the writers grew notably irked at repeated attempts to liken the two in the post-screening Q&A, cautioning against reductive comparisons simply on the basis of a shared time period and the fact that they’re both women’s dramas. And in any case, they rightly pointed out, you wouldn’t feel the need to call a male-centered show a “men’s drama”, so why lump them in the same bag?
As starring actress Fenella Woolgar puts it, this is a drama about introspective, normal people in an age of egotism and reality television. Living in today’s world of increasing isolation, individualism and loss of community feeling, Home Fires reminds us of the role of friendship and solidarity when dark times hit. Interestingly, the WI played a crucial role in the formation of the welfare estate post-war, through their reports on the health of city evacuees—surely this may serve as a poignant point of contemplation for viewers today, uncertain as the future is for our public services.
Politics doesn’t play a massive role in Home Fires, its true, but the spirit of community and collectivism that it dramatizes is political enough; the war taught our country many lessons that are worth reminding ourselves of. Although at times feeling a little corny, the personal attachment the writers and cast feel to the material clearly shines through. It is certainly not without its dark points, in particular a disturbing—distressing, even—story of domestic abuse, overall Home Fires manages to strike the right balance of dark and light, both optimistic and destitute, which works together to create a genuinely heartwarming, impactful and compelling package. This is the world war, but certainly not as we’ve seen it before.
The first episode of Home Fires airs on ITV on 3rd May at 21.00.