The hit British series “Home Fires” follows a collective of strong, inspiring women in the rural community of Great Paxford as they adjust, thrive and sometimes struggle to live life beneath the cloud of WWII.
As VisionTV continues to air this powerful hour of drama, Julie Summers – the author whose “Jambusters” book inspired the hit ITV period drama “Home Fires” – has delighted us with a collection of engaging backgrounders that set up the episodes, the era and how Woman’s Institutes provided support, inspiration and ingenuity before, during and after World War 2.
Recently, we shipped some questions over the pond to Summers so that she could give you even deeper perspective on her “Home Fires” experiences.
In part one of our two part interview feature with Summers, the author and historian discusses what it was like to have her non-fiction book inspire a dramatic television series, the actors that bring this time period and its situations to life, and the experiences she has had while on the set of “Home Fires.”
VisionTV: After researching and writing “Jambusters,” vivid visuals of the stories and situations you wrote about would’ve been abundant. Even though you consulted on the screenplay that your book inspired, what was it like to see Simon Block’s dramatized vision?
Julie: “You are right that there were no vivid visuals to hand, but I had very strong images in my mind of the types of women that peopled my book and of the situations they found themselves in. I always visualise my material in images: I think it comes from having worked in the art world for 20 years. Having said that, to see the dramatized version of Simon Block’s scripts was breathtaking beyond my expectations. I had not thought about how moving I would find the theme tune or the background music, for example. The first time I saw the trailer for the first series was with the Executive Producer, Catherine Oldfield, on set, in December 2014. Needless to say, I watched it through a film of tears. It was a very emotional moment for me.”
VisionTV: One of the key aspects of the “Home Fires” TV series is the strength, independence and ingenuity shown by those in the Women’s Institute. How important was it for you to see such aspects captured in the program?
Julie: “Simon Block was attracted to the idea of writing about strong women in their own right and not as an adjunct to, or victims of various men. For me, it was crucial to see that played out for real because it reflected most honestly the true situation in the countryside during the war. The majority of men left in the villages were either older, veterans of the last war; men working in reserved occupations (teachers, farmers, etc.); men who were too young to fight, or those who for some reason could not go off to war. So the women left behind had to step up and take on roles traditionally held by men. This they did with determination, pride and tremendous good humour. That strength, independence and ingenuity is integral to the whole series. And the way they hold each other up and support one another is equally part of the wartime story.”
VisionTV: Of course, great casting really helps a great script come to life. What would you like to say about those starring in “Home Fires” and how well they’ve translated the emotions and situations that came with the WWII era?
Julie: “When I first heard who would be starring in ‘Home Fires’ I could hardly believe my ears. It contains some of the most talented and brilliant actors working in Britain at the moment. Francesca Annis brings peerless experience and ‘class’ to the role of Joyce Cameron, encapsulating exactly the kind of woman who found change in the wartime a threat to her very existence. At the same time, Samantha Bond, playing Francis Barden, energises the role of the can-do woman of the 1940s – the type of woman who has been kept on the periphery of committees in the past because of her blunt straight-talking, but who suddenly finds her metier as a wartime leader. Claire Calbraith as farmer Steph Farrow is a joy to watch as she develops over the series while Claire Price, playing Miriam Brindsley, sums up (for me) the anguish and burgeoning terror of mothers watching their boys being sucked into war. She knows what happened to men in the last war and she fears that same future for her ‘David.’
“The married couples are beautifully observed by Simon Block and ring true of marriages of that era: Will and Erica Campbell are a modern couple where Will is respectful of his wife’s dispensing skills. Pat and Bob Simms represent another sort of marriage: the dark side of country life. I feel very strongly that this was an important aspect of the story to explore. Theirs is not an isolated tale. During the research for another book I wrote, ‘Stranger in the House,’ about men returning from the war in 1945, there was a high level of domestic violence. Most of it went unseen and unheard. Rather shockingly, we know that it continues to be an issue in rural Britain today. Many people come up to me and say ‘We don’t like Bob.’ Well, you’re not meant to like Bob! He is not a nice man (Mark Bazeley, who plays him brilliantly, is, however, a very nice man indeed) but Pat is strong and she is held up by the W.I. as other women were in her position in reality.
“There are so many wonderful roles for women in this drama, but also for the men. One of my favourite characters is Little Stan played by the gifted Brian Fletcher. As an actor he takes his role very seriously and is fascinated by the Second World War. I want to watch him grow up in subsequent series. Thumbs, the gardener, played by Jim Whelan, is also a lovely role. My grandparents had a gardener called TIG (the Incredible Giant) who stood at 4’ 10”. He was very like Thumbs, as were many old-time gardeners in those years.
“Whenever I meet the cast they are warm and incredibly friendly. They all tell me how much they enjoy being part of ‘Home Fires.’ What more could I possibly ask for than to be involved, if peripherally, on a drama that people are proud to be involved in?”
VisionTV: What was your experience like on the “Home Fires” set?
Julie: “I have been up to the set twice in each series and loved it. I am struck by the huge behind-the-scenes set up: make-up and wardrobe trucks, a canteen for breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee or tea all day, trailers for the cast, marquees for the extras as well as crates of chickens, dogs, pens of cattle and fleets of old cars, tractors and other props. When I first walked into the unit base and saw everything labelled with the sign ‘Jambusters,’ as it was still named then, I was completely overwhelmed. My son Richard had to catch me in a big hug as I staggered a bit. The lovely thing is that the name has stuck. Even though the series is now called ‘Home Fires,’ the signs around the area still say ‘J-base’, ‘J-loc’ (Jambusters Location) and I get a tiny ‘zing’ of pleasure when I see them on the road near my parents’ home where filming takes place.
“The sets themselves are stunning. I am constantly amazed by how accurate the art department’s detailed creations are. There is a moment when a ‘modern’ person dashes onto a set to apply make-up or tweak a costume and you suddenly realise that they are from the real world and what you are looking at is a creation of 70 years ago, but in the main it is like being transported back to an earlier time.
“The cast and crew are warm and always make me feel welcome, though I suspect visitors are a bit of a nuisance for this is a place of work and it is important not to forget that. I took my 86-year-old father on set and he watched, fascinated, as the crew filmed a scene in the Farrow’s farmhouse over and over again. He had a pair of ‘cans’ so he could hear the dialogue. ‘Not bad for a first at my age’ was his response when I asked him how it had been for him. Brian Fletcher (Little Stan) chatted to him and told me afterwards that it had been like meeting living history.”
VisionTV: When you first watched a completed episode of “Home Fires,” what immediately came to mind?
Julie: “My first thought was ‘Hurray! It looks just like I imagined it would.’ I then felt so delighted and thrilled that people responded to it so warmly. Simon Block’s scripts and the brilliant cast have brought to life the world of wartime rural Britain in the most compelling and authentic way.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our conversation with Summers. There, she’ll provide more insight into Women’s Institutes, as well as her forthcoming projects.
– Adam Grant