World on Fire depicts the impact of World War Two on families living across Europe

University of Exeter historian’s role in major new BBC series on World War Two

A University of Exeter expert has played a key role in the creation of a major new BBC TV series which depicts the impact of World War Two on families living across Europe.

Historian Richard Overy acted as historical consultant for World on Fire. The programme captures the human cost of war, and stars Sean Bean and Helen Hunt.

Professor Overy advised on the programme’s script to ensure it was as historically accurate as possible. He also watched early versions of the programme as it was being edited.

Professor Overy said: “It was extremely enjoyable to work on this series. It took a great deal of time, but I think it’s very important drama programmes focusing on particular periods of history are as accurate as they can be, as well as being entertaining. There are so many myths about World War Two still to dispel. Historians have an obligation to the public to ensure history cited in television and other forms of entertainment is correct.”

The first episode of the series was set in Summer 1939 when translator Harry, played by Jonah Hauer-King is working at the British Embassy in Warsaw and falling in love with Polish waitress Kasia, played by Zofia Wichłacz.

When German tanks roll into Poland and Britain declares war on Germany, Harry and Kasia are faced with terrible choices. With her life in grave danger, the only way for Kasia to be safe is to escape. Harry has to decide if he can help her, and if he does, how will he ever explain himself to factory worker and singer Lois Bennett, played by Julia Brown, the girl he left behind in Manchester?

Also featuring in the series are Harry's snobbish mother Robina, played by Lesley Manville, and Douglas, Lois’ pacifist father, played by Sean Bean. Lois' younger brother Tom, played by Ewan Mitchell, joins the navy and finds himself under fire in one of the first major battles of the war. Helen Hunt plays outspoken American journalist Nancy.

Screenwriter Peter Bowker has said about the research he conducted for the series: “I thought I knew a bit about the war but it turns out I knew nothing at all. The great thing about the research for the show was that it came from three different directions. Richard Overy, who is a renowned historian, provided an overview for us. He writes a lot of the Imperial War Museum material and is a great writer on the Second World War in his own right.

“I also had a researcher working alongside me who really understood how the fictionalised version might work and we would talk separately to the Imperial War Museum. It was about narrowing down the abundance of material that was there and finding alleyways and places that I didn’t know about. Then it was finding stories, finding the little details that humanise it.”

Date: 10 October 2019

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