fri 21/06/2024

World on Fire, Series 2, BBC One - return of Peter Bowker's panoramic view of World War Two | reviews, news & interviews

World on Fire, Series 2, BBC One - return of Peter Bowker's panoramic view of World War Two

World on Fire, Series 2, BBC One - return of Peter Bowker's panoramic view of World War Two

Lesley Manville continues to shine as the matriarch Robina Chase

Home fires burning: Lesley Manville as Robina Chase, Mark Bonnar as Sir James Danemere

Writer Peter Bowker apparently had plans to make six series of World on Fire, but the arrival of Covid after 2019’s first series threw a spanner in the works. Anyway, here’s the second one at last, and it’s a little strange to find that this encyclopedic saga of the Second World War has only advanced as far as the autumn of 1940.

Bowker’s plan was to stitch together a panorama of the war told through the stories of a range of characters across different continents, and this time we find ourselves visiting Manchester, Paris, Berlin and the Egyptian desert. Familiar characters return, including Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King), his Polish wife Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz) and his ex-fiancee Lois (Julia Brown). Towering over it all is Harry’s formidable mother Robina, a haughty, deep-frozen matriarch who may conceivably prove to have a soft spot somewhere if we’re patient enough.

Lesley Manville’s portrayal of Robina seems to draw on its own mysterious power supply, and her subtle nuances of expression and vocal timbre leave the rest of the cast struggling to catch up. One of her many memorable moments comes when Kasia suggests to her that her son thinks she’s afraid of strong emotion. Robina’s riposte contains a perfectly-measured pinch of contempt. “Not afraid I don’t think… I just disapprove of it.”World on Fire, Series 2, BBC OneOften, though, World on Fire continues to suffer from the same pitfalls as the first series. Hopping restlessly between locations and characters keeps the momentum going, but means that it never sticks around long enough to get deeply under the skin of the characters. Hence, the actors are often reduced to sandwich boards indicating an attitude or a situation – “frustrated single mother”, “refugee fighting for her homeland”, “innocent child struggling against Nazi brainwashing”, “Jewish RAF pilot seeking revenge on the Germans” etc (pictured above, Julia Brown as Lois and Gregg Sulkin as David).

In this age of movie-like multi-million dollar drama series from the streaming services, World on Fire also suffers from its obviously limited budget. Scenes of the British fighting the Italians in the Egyptian desert seem to have been bodged together with a few studio props and a wind machine blowing clouds of sand about. Sequences of RAF pilots intercepting Luftwaffe Heinkels bombing Salford docks look astonishingly primitive.

Approached as a kind of instructional soap with a moral purpose, WoF makes for easy viewing while also prompting us to reflect on war’s endless catalogue of horrors, now visible again in real time in Ukraine, among other places. One bit of good news is the introduction of Sir James Danemere into Robina’s household. He’s played by Mark Bonnar with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of hidden depths waiting to be revealed. Watch this space.

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