To mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Agatha Christie, the BBC is bringing two of the great novelist’s lesser known capers to the small screen on Sunday nights for a brand new 6-part drama series.
Based upon The Secret Adversary and N or M?, the titular partners in crime are married couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (David Walliams and Jessica Raine). An unlikely crime-fighting duo they may be but a chance meeting with a stranger on a train back from Paris, as is so often the case, thrusts them into an ever spiralling plot of disappearances, mistaken identity and assassinations in early 1950s Cold War-era London.
Tuppence, a housewife but avid reader of crime novels and private detective-in-waiting, has her interest piqued immediately when their mystery train companion, Jane Finn, disappears, leaving only a notebook of clues. Unbeknownst to the Beresfords, she conceals a recording in a package they are carrying which provides the identity of a Society spy in the capital, there to assassinate a public figure.
Tommy, a not-so-avid reader of books on beekeeping and rather prim and proper suburban gent, would prefer to keep his nose out of it all and instead concentrate on his hives - the latest in a long line of failed enterprises it would seem. After some encouragement, his bumbling and awkward manners give way to his wife’s fervent enthusiasm and excitement in a quest to discover what has happened to Ms. Finn. Why not trying being a government asset after beekeeping?
Tommy’s uncle, a military man, now runs the secret “Third Floor” organisation dealing with the Russian threat and has two new recruits before he knows it. Not afraid to disregard the rules laid down by Uncle ‘Carter’ (a bespectacled James Fleet), the first few episodes suggest that Tuppence isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and will stop at nothing to unravel this particular mystery, even though they may be in over their heads. Lucky, then, that son George is shipped off to boarding school where he’ll be safe… Or is he?
As with the more familiar Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries there a moments of dark humour here to which Mr. Walliams’ comic timing is well attuned. Amorous approaches towards his wife when disguised as a blond maid fall on deaf ears but do elicit a wry smile. British pride and stiff upper lip-ness clash to some degree with Clarke Peters’ (of The Wire) entrepreneurial American, interested in rescuing his niece but Tommy is suspicious of his intentions, and so are we.
If Tuppence and Tommy are more forthright and foolhardy, it is perhaps old friend Albert (also an asset, working as a chemistry teacher) that is the brains of the operation. Jonny Phillips plays the bad guy and has the chops to do so. The cast certainly has potential and direction by Edward Helm keeps things bouncing along nicely.
The Beresfords are an ordinary couple in extraordinary circumstances and whilst their adventures tread familiar ground the series should be entertaining Sunday night programming. It’s not tense enough to have you on the edge of your seat, but maybe the middle and getting to know this man and wife pair of Christie sleuths is a worthwhile step away from the comfort of a little moustachioed Belgian man or a little old English lady.
You can see it on Sunday evenings at 9pm.
Rory Kennedy’s 2014 documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, is the latest feature in the BBC’s always superb Storyville collection. Combining incredible archive footage with moving testimonial from those who were there, it tells the story of Saigon’s fall to the North Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam War, and the final
The US ambassador in Vietnam at the time, Graham Martin, stubbornly refused to believe that Saigon would fall, and ignored repeated cries from his staff to begin covertly preparing for full scale exodus, as the North Vietnamese tanks moved closer by the day. By the time he finally relented, Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport had been destroyed by NVA fire, and so the Americans had to begin the so called, last-resort, ‘option 4’ evacuation plan –taking out all American citizens, and as many at-risk South Vietnamese people as possible, in helicopters, flying back and forth between the American embassy and aircraft carriers moored in the South China Sea.
It’s heart-breaking to hear and understand the dilemma of some of the American soldiers – many had made good friends, or even married and had children, with the South Vietnamese. Any people found guilty of collusion with the Americans, or of having served in the South Vietnamese Army would be at risk of imprisonment, torture or execution from the NVA, and so a decision had to be made on who to take, and who to leave behind. The stories of the soldiers who were there are harrowing, as they talk of families with multiple children having to be left out, of hordes of people crowding at the embassy gates desperate to be let in.
Alongside this, many pilots in the South Vietnamese army took matters into their own hands and flew themselves, and their families and friends out to American naval vessels. There were queues of helicopters waiting to land, and without space to accommodate them all, the only option was to simply push the helicopters into the sea after they had landed.
The archive footage of these events results in some truly jaw-dropping footage. There are incredible scenes too, of boats, designed to take no more than two hundred people, with over two thousand crowded on them as they make their way out of Saigon.
There are contributions throughout from US military and embassy staff, as well as many South Vietnamese who escaped – and some who were left behind, only to spend several years in ‘re-education’ camps. The terrible moral choice faced by the soldiers on the ground and the chaos and confusion that reigned throughout those last days are keenly felt throughout this powerful and breath-taking portrait of the fallout of the USA’s errors in Vietnam.
Intelligence Officer Stuart A Herrington, who was one of the final Americans to leave Saigon, aptly sums it up: ‘promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt – because we didn’t get our act together’.
The Last Days of Vietnam is a gripping, and at times shocking account of one of the most extraordinary stories from one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century.
The Last Days of Vietnam is on BBC Four at 10pm.m Monday 13th July.
Second only to the ‘procedural cop show’ is the ‘backyard makeover show’ in terms of formulaic predictability. As you might imagine, I began watching The Autistic Gardener with considerable skepticism. Unfortunately my reservations were mostly confirmed but there were some glimmers of imagination and interest in this show. And there’s the larger question of whether a show like this should be judged according to others in its category or overall as a piece of entertainment.
Despite my preexisting irritation with the genre, I was quite intrigued by the title and concept before I watched Wednesday’s episode. When you explain the show’s premise to someone it’s easy to make it sound intriguing because we’ve all seen or heard of amazingly detailed paintings, musical compositions, or inventions crafted by people on the spectrum. But the show doesn’t seem to offer any of these super-human challenges or opportunities to its amateur autistic gardeners. They touch on and explain the skills and traits that they have but don’t really put them to the test. Instead they labour their social challenges. There may have been good reasons for this at some point during the production process but it feels like they’re contriving conflict rather than celebrating uniqueness.
The host, Alan Gardener, fits the show well. His voiceovers had moments of brilliant self-awareness, eg: “This is the bit they tell me we’re supposed to recap what’s happened so far”. But hanging over his head like a wet sponge is a format that hasn’t adapted to the concept. They’ve just plunked a group of likable autistic people in a traditional backyard makeover show and watched them try to fit into it; providing frequent moments of tension, both social and otherwise. This gives viewers the sense that something is at stake, which is often important for shows in this genre, but doesn’t capitalise much on the premise itself.
The interludes in which Alan describes the science of autism are actually really interesting and make me think the show would have worked better as a documentary rather than a cheesy half-real reality show. We want to see the talent, grit, determination and struggle but not within the confines of ‘Ooops-style’ twinkling background music and obvious close-ups.
Now in its third season, Orange is the New Black has plumped for a fluid style of storytelling, allowing the interweaving strands of plot to meander and mingle together organically, rather than being satellites orbiting a dominant narrative. This new style is well suited to the talented ensemble cast and gives writer Jenji Kohan more space to unflinchingly tackle a wider spectrum of issues than the two previous seasons and the quality of the show is all the better for it.
The first season was framed with the story of Piper Chapman, the alpha and omega of floppy blonde wank. The story of the poor little rich girl recoiling with Bambi eyes at the criminal savages before finding it within herself to extend acceptance and benevolence to her fellow detainees could verge on tiresome, particularly as Piper, a drug trafficker, was probably one of the few inmates who deserved a bit of incarceration. The show was more sophisticated in its outlook than some of its harsher critics gave it credit for. The implication was that prison ought to be the great social equaliser – status on the outside world evaporates, your uniform is beige and your arse is fair game for a cavity search. And yet, prison is not an equaliser. The structures of oppression and privilege are replicated over and over again within its walls. Yet, allowing one of the most privileged characters to dictate the interpretation almost made the show itself complicit in the very thing it was criticising.
This season does not allow itself to fall into that trap. The viewpoint of the marginalised is key this time around as the show launches into a wide-range critique of the long and short term impact on privatisation of public services, the inhumanity of capitalist venture and the damage it inflicts on the vulnerable. It’ll make you feel awful and sad and a bit sick. But in a fun way!
Characters that have previously been side-lined are given more focus. Just as the show transformed Suzanne from a seemingly offensive stereotype into one of the most beloved characters, Chang, Big Boo and silent Norma are all given their turn in the spotlight. Even the awful white trash women, the only disadvantaged group that liberals don’t feel guilty about sneering at, are fleshed out and thoroughly humanised. No character is allowed to be light relief or simplistically painted. In Orange is the New Black, ugly waters run deep. Ridicule is always undercut with venomous brutality and the focus is always on the victim in their suffering, their flaws and their humanity.
Mental health issues have been danced around since season one, mainly focussing in on Suzanne. This season focusses more on the common and garden variety of mental illness; depression. Depicting depression on screen is always difficult, mainly because depressed people are deeply uninteresting to look at. They don’t do much. It’s kind of the whole thing. This problem is often dealt with dramatically by glamorising the illness. Orange is the New Black manages to swerve past both of these, creating storylines that are neither boring nor sensational. Another notoriously difficult issue for dramatists is rape and again, the show does an excellent job, neither descending into mawkishness nor insensitivity.
Women’s prisons in America and the UK are stuffed to the rafters with depressed women and abused women so it’s great to see both of these tackled so uncompromisingly. The third bread and butter staple of the women’s prison system are drug addicts. Here, the show doesn’t pull its punches here either. Unlike depressed women, addicts are not boring. They are, on the other hand, deeply unpleasant and irritating as fuck. Nicky is an awful, awful wanker. She’s self-destructive, selfish and she refuses to take responsibility for her ridiculous actions. She’s also one of the most lovable characters on the show. The consequences of her love-hate affair with heroin have devastating consequences in this series and the ugly nature of addiction and the inhumanity of the counterproductive war on drugs are spelled out in a beautiful and subtly crafted sequence.
In Orange is the New Black we have an unlikely successor to The Wire. Both shows share a cause – a humanist-orientated critique of America’s bureaucracy, political short sightedness and the effects of pathological capitalism. While not as literary or as comprehensive as The Wire, Orange is the New Black is still capable of packing a serious political punch in amongst the hot lesbians, boobs and dollops of vaginal discharge.
Magic and realism combine like Jamaican patois and cockney English in Debbie Tucker Green’s debut feature. The result of this composite equation is a compelling, atmospheric, and wholly original film.
Set in the suburbs of South London, Second Coming pertains to the definitive meaning of that phrase, without Marshall’s un-expecting mother (Jax) explicitly stating anything miraculous about her pregnancy within the film’s 105 minute running time. Instead, the narrative’s focus remains on the triumvirate of performances from Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, and their 11-year old son, Kai Francis Lewis.
Suitably, the strength of Second Coming is in its performances, which Green’s directorial style demands a great deal from. Elba is required to tone down some of his strengths in order to play a struggling, but essentially good father and husband. Marshall is a women scarred by her own emotional battles with pregnancy; JJ (Kai Lewis) is her only child from five pregnancies, and it is in Lewis that the high quality watermark of performances is sealed.
The intriguing editing of the film hacks away at time, periodically dropping in on this ordinary family at various stages in Jax’s unordinary pregnancy. Like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (though the timeframe here is 9 months rather than 18 years), the moments which Green’s camera does drop in on aren’t particularly important in and of themselves. Instead, they provide a complete picture of this family’s everyday life: preparing food, visiting family, and the drawn out tension – and corresponding bursts of frustration – that play out in between.
All the while, and to the frustration of her friends, Jax remains unwilling to open up about her pregnancy. Is there another man? Is she anxious about losing it? Or is the answer something altogether more metaphysical? Answers aren’t particularly forthcoming, and Green isn’t interested in teasing audiences with clues either.
For some viewers, the lack of emotion portrayed by Jax – the film’s central character – could prove testing. Though this sanitization of overt feelings, and the whole process of bottling things up inside, becomes a theme that is explored in the film. With one of the most uncharacteristically melodramatic scenes coming as Elba vents his anger and confusion toward the ‘elephant in the womb’.
Certainly from what is on offer here, it’s clear that Green has the original perspective and flair for cinema that is going to yield an interesting collection of films.
Second Coming is released in the UK on 5 June 2015.
The first episode of the new season of Benefits Street, based in the Tilery Estate in Stockton-on-Tees, strangely enough offered a degree of positivity that was sorely missing from the first. Some characters are portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, explanations are offered for their continued reliance on benefits that even the most hard-hearted couldn’t criticize, and attempts are made to offer an insight into the disillusionment many disadvantaged people feel with the establishment. It’s important to get the recognition of this out of the way, though, before making the main point—that this marginal improvement does not redeem the series, nor allow it to climb out of the poverty porn cesspit that constitutes the very worst kind of elitism our modern popular culture can muster up.
The matriarch role of this series is shared by best friends of 20 years, Julie and Sue, who have 11 kids between them and are both on benefits. Sue, we are told, hasn’t worked for a year, and Julie for 15—something the show wastes no time getting out there, playing into the hands of those who would berate poor women for having more kids than they can afford. Those who make such snap judgments though will later be left feeling rather foolish, when Julie—a former Youth and Community worker—reveals the tragic details of her life, tearfully recalling the moment when her now 15-year-old son suffered a cardiac arrest as a baby and died in her arms. Though he was revived through the determined efforts of a crash team—to whom Julie pledges any potential future lottery wins—he was left severely brain damaged and entirely dependent on round-the-clock care from his devoted mother.
Caring and motherly by nature, both women support their neighbours, regularly cooking meals for the more vulnerable amongst them. This spirit of solidarity is touching, and may hope to counteract the run of the mill demonization of communities such as these. Of course, Channel 4 can’t allow their subjects to get away that easily—positive aspects are counteracted by the handling of other characters more ripe for exploitative consumption. One star of the series, Maxwell, is a drug user and repeated offender—his criminal record includes incidents of burglary, fraud and shining lasers at police helicopters—who sells cannabis from his flat and collects £500 a month in Income Support and Disability Allowance on account of memory loss problems, clearly implied to be a result of cannabis use. Footage showing Maxwell bagging up weed, as well as taking a large number of Diazepam pills before turning up 45 minutes late to a court appearance—he was let off anyway—has been criticised, and many have asked whether he was naively undertaking acts of bravado for the benefit of the cameras, unaware of possible consequences. Portrayed as the typical undeserving recipient of state handouts, Maxwell is ultimately likely to damage the reception of other characters that might otherwise be judged deserving. Its notable that no attempt is made to offer a wider socio-cultural explanation for Maxwell’s behaviour and incarceration at only 18, whether it’s a result of his childhood, economic factors, a failure in the education system, or any other reason.
Particularly unpalatable in this first episode were the relentless attempts at self-defense through deflecting blame onto reporters who had gotten wind of the new location. Whilst rightfully challenging the authority of reporters to take pictures of unconsenting subjects, including children, as well as documenting the false claims excreted by newspapers such as The Sun, the episode sidesteps the issue of whether a documentary subject can ever really give consent, given they cannot truly know how they will be portrayed. Alex Cunningham, MP for the local area, makes his first ever visit to the street to criticize the exploitation of his vulnerable constituents—though making sure to bring his own news crew each time—and is ridiculed by residents who feel his concerns are insincere. Whilst this segment does well to highlight the isolation of the estate and its lack of facilities, offering concerning viewers a chance to analyse why a pocketed community, abandoned by the outside world for all intents and purposes, may suffer from incidents of crime and drug use, it does feel like it’s primary purpose is to defend Channel 4 from criticism—one resident declares that they, unlike Cunningham, are giving her a voice, no doubt to the glee of producers.
Benefits Street represents the very worst of trash TV. Laughably posing as groundbreaking journalism, shows such as this serve only to perpetuate extremely damaging myths concerning the abuse of our welfare system, which pave the way for further demonistation of our most vulnerable and needy. The première of the second series was postponed until after the election, for fear it would interfere with the result. This may sound admirable to some, but really the damage has already been done.
Benefits Street is airing on Monday nights at 9pm on Channel 4.
When it comes to comedians and elections there is a part of me that is ever so slightly conspiracy theorist: in that I think the people who are most likely to be shy Tories are comedians.
Most say they are left-wing, but there is the part of me that secretly suspects that they vote right-wing because the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Farage are easier to mock and make their jobs easier. However, I don’t consider this to be true of Rory Bremner, but that’s mainly because Ed Miliband is much funnier to impersonate.
The Election Report was a follow-up to the Coalition Report from earlier in the year and features several of the same elements as before: informed stand-up and impressions from Bremner, a wide range of sketches and parodies featuring performers such as John Bird, Sara Pascoe and Fay Ripley; and other stand-up performers, namely Matt Forde who had previously worked for the Labour Party under Tony Blair.
I’m very fond of Bremner as a performer. His knowledge of politics is something that is often lacking in other topical comedy shows. For example there was one routine about the Conservative manifesto having three-times as many words about polar bears than welfare cuts. Bremner is also one of the best impressionists around, with his more recent takes on Nigel Farage being very good.
Regarding the other highlights of the programme, the other big highlight came from Forde when he talked about a piece in the Sunday Telegraph where they interviewed several party leaders about the one thing they would change about themselves, and Farage said that he thought was that he was too tolerant.
On the downside, it does feel a bit safe. There are certain elements of the election and the aftermath that were not covered. It seems that even BBC comedy shows are not that keen on talking about the riots either. Anyone fancy sending Bremner some tweets?
Beat the Brain is not really a typical quiz, because it is not a game based on general knowledge. It is not a game that you can revise for.
Hosted by Countryfile’s John Craven, the show see a team of four players taking on a set of questions which have been set by “The Brain” – which is actually a computer graphic of a brain voiced by comedian Josie Lawrence. However, instead of testing the players on their knowledge of history, geography or culture, they face a series of IQ test-style mental challenges that each fit into a particular category or “Zone”. These are “Logic”, “Memory”, “Orientation”, “Observation”, “Language” and “Multi-Tasking”.
Each question the contestants get right adds three bonus seconds to their “Brain Bank”, which gives the players added bonus time in the final round. The finale sees all the contestants having to answer similar style questions to those they have already faced previously. The total amount of time to do it is two minutes plus the amount of seconds they won in the “Brain Bank”. The jackpot is £3,000, but once they use use all the money in the “Brain Bank” and start using their allocated two minutes they lose £25 per second.
Once you get over the slightly daft idea of a computerised brain providing the questions, the quiz itself becomes rather enjoyable. The main reason for this is because just about anyone can have a go. Whether you know all the prime ministers or the elements of the periodic table is irrelevant. It is all about mental ability, short-term memory, basic arithmetic, spelling and so forth. The other thing is that everyone has a strong subject and everyone has a weak one. I for example was hopeless at “Multi-Tasking” – talk about fulfilling the male stereotype.
“The Brain” herself does seem a bit daft at first but you eventually get over this, and Craven and Lawrence both make the show entertaining. If there is a problem it is that because this is a BBC game show they cannot give away a huge amount of money. The total jackpot may be £3,000, but that is split between all four contestants. That means the maximum any individual can get in this show is £750. If winning more money is what you want, you are better off taking part on another show.
But as the format and the questions themselves go, Beat the Brain is a pleasantly enjoyable show.
Beat the Brain is on BBC Two at 18.30 on weekdays
On the basis of all of the opinion polls the election coverage was shaping up like an Antonioni film –long-winded ennui and listless drifting. This all changed with the shock exit poll when the coverage turned into a joyful Hollywood ending or unrelenting torture porn, depending on your point of view. The Tories had decisively won the day, 1992 had come again and no one saw it coming. Someone must be voting for them, they’re just not owning up to it.
The election poll shocked everyone in the BBC studio and political guests went into a collective state of denial and disorientation. The unravelling of logic reached peak with Jeremy Vine’s unreasonably zany pop-up appearances that at one point, involved him standing in front of a bluescreen image, feigning panic that his ‘swingometer’ was going to ‘break’. “Even with the recalibration!” he yelped.
What is this country and why is it? It’s three o’clock in the morning. It’s the election coverage. A man on the television is springing up and down like a March Hare in a vortex of swirling eighties graphics, and people accept this as a totally ordinary way to carry on. This is not the time or the place for avant-garde hullaballoo. Take your Amstrad PCC and fuck off to Tomorrow’s World where you belong.
Moving on…it’s a very controversial thing in this day and age to suggest that politicians are human beings with thoughts, feelings and genitals but Emily Maitlis was determined to act as the nation’s conscience and continually demanded that we look at the human stories behind the numbers, and she tapped into something. This was a savage election but there was a distinct lack of blood lust. The closest thing this election had to a Portillo moment was the ousting of the Wicked Witch of West Wirral, Esther McVey, and she had to go ruin it by plainly holding back tears and smiling bravely like she had emotions or whatever.
Prior to the election, it was common opinion that you must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the self-inflicted devastation of the Liberal Democrats, whose night’s spoils amounted to 8 seats and 335 lost deposits. It looked like a classic tale of hubris. Icarus had flown too close to the sun and now he was coming crashing back down to Earth. But as it turns out that looking at splattered political corpses isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It’s very difficult to pull off a morally righteous smirk at Vince Cable looking like a bereft Mr Chips. Worst of all, the greatest proportion of the damage was meted out to the Liberal Democrats courtesy of their coalition partners – the final humiliation and no natural justice at all.
It will come as no surprise to anyone with a sense of proportion that Liberal Democrats are joined in the land of impending irrelevance by UKIP. As the night proceeded, it transpired that the groundswell of the People’s Army was nothing more than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Far from changing the political landscape, UKIP lost a seat. Farage, like all poor workmen, blamed his tools – the electoral system, thereby faring slightly better than Neil Kinnock who simply blamed the idiocy of the electorate for Labour’s decimation.
Astute commentators explained the reasons behind Labour’s dramatic failure competently enough. True, the lack of a coherent economic argument played a significant role, but nothing crushed them more than the complete rejection of the Westminster parties by the Scottish electorate, not even Miliband’s bad table manners. The seismic-shifting victory of the SNP which was the true story of the night. Throughout Scotland, seat after seat fell to Nicola Sturgeon’s party with record-breaking swing after record-breaking swing. Some people might think it was quite important. The guests in the studio treated it with an amused sort of detachment.
After smiling indulgently at the celebrating Scottish nationalists like they were quirky, dancing pixies instead of a dynamic and powerful political force, the BBC proceeded to almost entirely ignore the political landscape of Wales, except in marginal Conservative seats. Meanwhile, loads of interesting things went on in Northern Ireland. I know that because I read it in the Belfast Telegraph. Despite declaring that the Northern Irish parties were ‘finally relevant’ (and oh, little Ulster eyes did spring sparkly tears at such fulsome praise) the BBC still managed to ignore them in their entirety all night long.
The media’s blatant disregard for anything that happens outside of the confines of England passed irritating in this election cycle and hit outright insulting. Northern Ireland have taken the worst deal; being excluded from the leader’s debates, being excluded from nationwide forecasts and continually referred to as a homogenous bloc of ‘Other’ instead of by their party names. This is not a question of proportional representation. The DUP, the SDLP, the UUP and Sinn Fein all took more seats than UKIP and combined received less than a fraction of their coverage.
With that in mind it was something of a surprise to hear BBC personalities concern trolling the Conservatives about their apathy towards the Union. Physician, heal thyself. The BBC have shown nothing but a reluctantly dutiful interest in anyone lacking an English accent in the course of this election and as the Scottish people have decisively shown; this really isn’t going to slide anymore.
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.