Peter Bowker’s Second World War drama makes a belated but welcome return to BBC One. Matthew Bell reports
BBC One’s hit wartime drama World on Fire returned over the summer – but only after a frustrating series of delays, largely caused by Covid, which led creator Peter Bowker to joke that the series “took longer to film than the war itself”.
Bowker was speaking at an online RTS National Event in July ahead of the transmission of the second series, almost four years after the first aired.
Series 2 sees the battle against fascism shift from Europe to North Africa. “I wanted to write a series that was a genuinely global look at the war,” explained Bowker, who penned the drama with Rachel Bennette and Matt Jones.
“The DNA of the series is to present it as a truly global conflict and, in particular, to introduce the armed forces from what was the Empire and became the Commonwealth, and [address] the whole convoluted, sometimes toxic, sometimes mutually supportive, relationship between the colonised and the colonisers.”
The war overseas and in the air is interspersed with scenes of domestic life on the home front in Manchester and in Berlin. “As always,” added Bowker, “it’s [about] finding the small human moments in what might be called bigger history.”
One horrifying story is that of 16-year-old Marga (Miriam Schiweck) who is part of the Nazi Lebensborn (Fount of Life) programme, whose goal was to increase the number of “racially pure” Aryan people by forcing girls to have sex with army officers.
Pakistani-Canadian actor Ahad Raza Mir joins the cast as Rajib, a captain in the Indian Army. “He’s an army man… he has strong beliefs… but he has an identity crisis. He doesn’t know what to believe by the end of the series. Everything he believes in falls apart,” explained the actor.
Rajib is fighting in the North African desert but, thanks to modern set design and special effects, the scenes were shot on in Belfast. “I flew over and walked into this studio… and it was genuinely the desert – it had sand everywhere… it smelt of sand,” said the actor.
The explosions, though, were real. Mir recalled: “You don’t have to act very much… I don’t know about the rest of the boys but I was terrified every time they rigged up the explosions. I hated it, but it really helped the performance and drove that factor of fear and panic.”
In contrast, Blake Harrison, who returns as Sergeant Stan Raddings, loved the battle scenes. He joked: “Physicality is my middle name – I took to that like a duck to water.… I really understand why some of these incredible actors just decide to do action movies all the time, because it’s so much fun.
“What are we doing today? ‘Well, this guy has set up a bunch of explosions and you’re going to run away from it.’ And you’re going to pay me for that? Fantastic.”
The scripts are peppered with what Bowker calls “flash, bang, wallop moments”, but the scenes he really liked writing are “two men trapped in a ditch overnight talking – that’s where you find the humanity”.
Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Harry, an officer reckless both in war and in his personal life, described the shoot as “frenetic but amazing fun as well”.
Julia Brown, who plays Lois, the mother of Harry’s baby, added: “The whole thing was shot out of sequence, slightly chaotic at times and you had to keep up with the adrenaline of it all and not let the emotion affect you – but that’s our job as an actor, isn’t it? You’ve got to perform on the day and not take it home with you.”
World on Fire is made by Mammoth Screen and its co-production partner, Masterpiece, with support from Northern Ireland Screen. It is available on BBC iPlayer.
The RTS National Event ‘World on Fire: series 2 Q&A’ was hosted by the broadcaster Charlie Girling on 6 July.