Tuesday 21 November 2017

Couchsurfer: Burning bright... Home Fires

ITV's new six-part drama, Home Fires, is a look at the lives of women left behind during the Second World War, says Emily Hourican

Rachel Hurd-Wood
Rachel Hurd-Wood

ITV's latest six-part drama is something of an Hallelujah day for British actresses. Set in an isolated Cheshire village during the Second World War, Home Fires is a land without men - not literally of course, there are a handful of male characters - but the main business of the drama is centred around a strong female ensemble cast, led by Francesca Annis, as Joyce Cameron, wife of the local magistrate, cold, controlling, snobbish; and Samantha Bond, as Frances Barden, opinionated, domineering but fair-minded and decent pillar of the local community.

Around these two are ranged an impressive support cast, including Ruth Gemmell, Claire Rushbrook, Claire Price and Rachel Hurd-Wood, pictured above, all in the familiar, homely roles of village life - wives, sisters, mothers and helpers - with their non-domestic responsibilities firmly second.

Only something as cataclysmic as war could break down the social and psychological barriers behind which they operate. And yet, when necessary, the women of England step into the breach left by their men-folk.

The war moves into a more brutal phase, and the harsh realities of rationing kick in. The women of Cheshire realise they are facing pressure and responsibilities previously unknown. And so they band together to form the Great Paxford Women's Institute, an organisation that not only allows them to support and help one another, but also to show the heights of ingenuity of which they are capable in the nation's hour of need - not just in the matter of baking sponges and making jam, but also in taking a decisive role in local community life.

The series is written by Simon Block and inspired by the non-fiction book Jambusters, written by Julie Summers, about the contribution of the Women's Institutes across Britain during the war, and the many ways in which they improved life and morale for wartime Britons.

Summers herself has a cameo appearance in Home Fires, of which she says, "My grandmother, a life-long WI member, would undoubtedly approve of me wearing a hat."

The first three episodes have been directed by Bruce Goodison with Robert Quinn directing the final three.

War trundles on in the background here, propelling the action rather than directly shaping it. Within the village, the main business of the drama is personal and local as the women begin to put aside their differences and step outside the narrow confines of their previous lives.

For the younger women, war is an opportunity - the excitement of RAF officers passing through the village, a chance at change and modernisation - whereas for the older ones it is more harrowing, but also, undeniably, a time to forge new bonds, new roles, demonstrate their under-used resourcefulness.

The period setting means Home Fires manages to seem a slightly cosy, distanced kind of drama, but the actual business of the plot is far more modern. Behind the device of making jam, the women of Cheshire are confronting bigger matters, something Samantha Bond found out fast.

"When I got a phone call from my agent saying they were going to make a series about the Women's Institute based on a book called Jambusters, there was a bit of my heart that fell. I've been very vocal about the lack of parts for middle aged ladies and then I thought, 'They're going to have us make jam.' Then I read the first two scripts and I was absolutely captivated."

Home Fires begins on ITV tonight at 9pm

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