Home Fires (2015) is a period drama inspired by the true story of the Women’s Institute, a community organization that brought women together from all over Great Britain, through food production, education, and social issues. The WI, and the shared mission and friendships formed there, helped the women to face personal struggles and the challenges of World War II.

Great writing from Simon has given Julie Summers’ wonderful book a fictional life. The women are real and engaging and have fantastic spirit and attitude.  With World War II on the horizon, multiple strands of plot interweave to create a period drama full of jeopardy and intrigue, but also great humanity and modernity. – Steve November, ITV

At the start of season 1 of Home Fires it is August 1939, and war with Germany is all but certain. While citizens of the isolated village of Great Paxford each face the prospect of war in their own way, all agree that they must do everything they can to hold their village—and their nation—together. But when the value of the largely social group, The Women’s Institute, is called into question, forward-thinking Frances Barden (Samantha Bond) and snobbish Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis) clash over the fate of the Institute and the roles its members can play, far from the front.

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Jambusters-Julie-Summers

The ITV / PBS Masterpiece television mini-series Home Fires, now in its second season, is based on the book Jambusters (Home Fires in the US) by Julie Summers. 

In Jambusters / Home Fires, Summers tells the story of the Women’s Institute in the Second World War, following the lives of a small number of women who kept diaries or accounts of the war years.

Below, author Julie Summers shares the process of her book becoming a much loved period drama.

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When I set out to write a history of the wartime activities of the Women’s Institute of England and Wales in 2009 I had no inkling that it would lead to a full-blown television drama series.

None at all. So you can imagine that it has been a journey of many exciting twists and turns: to create a drama out of the greatest crisis to hit the lives of those living in the middle of the twentieth century.

Cover Home Fires

First things first. I am a historian, not a script-writer, so the suggestion that a village women’s institute might be a potential seed of an idea for a drama came not from me but from the brilliant mind of Home Fires’ creator and writer, Simon Block. He and I met on a course in the beautiful English county of Devon in 2012. Simon was one of two tutors on a TV script writing course. If I am not script writer, what was I doing on this course? It is a good question and one I asked myself several times during the week. I had written ten books and fancied that writing in a different format might offer a new challenge.

At the end of the course Simon and I discussed the fact that I did not want to become a script writer but that storytelling was my great passion. I told him about my book on the WI, which I had just submitted to the editor in its final draft, and to my surprise he was very interested. I think even back then he could see the potential for a women-led drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War. He wrote to me earlier this year with his thoughts:

Like most people I think, I had no idea of the extent and importance of the role played by the WI during the Second World War. Not only in regard to its activities aimed at supporting the home front but also in terms of the support and friendship it offered to often isolated women who needed the companionship of other women like never before – even if for a few hours a month. The book opened my eyes to the great extent WI women mobilised to make such a huge contribution, generating a fantastic spirit of ‘community’. The fact that this was largely unknown (as is often the case with women’s history) left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised. Plus, it offered a fantastic opportunity to write about a lot of women in their own right, and not merely as adjuncts to – or victims of – various men, which is so often how women are portrayed in television drama.

Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and we were introduced. Within an hour of meeting Catherine I knew that I could trust her with my work and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book, Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA). That meant ITV Studios would be able to work up a first script and submit it to the television networks in due course.

WI-women-gardeningWI members working on the land to support food production during WW2 ©NFWI

But how to translate historical non-fiction, the voices of real women, and the goings on in the Second World War on the Home Front, into a television drama that would pack a punch but remain true to the history? Francis Hopkinson explained to me that in the normal course of events an author is not involved in drama development. However this appeared to be a slightly unorthodox situation as my book was to be the source for inspiration rather than adaptation. Simon Block describes it as the DNA of the series.

With great sensitivity and an equal amount of verve, script-writer Simon Block has got inside the heads of those wartime Institute members and created a women-led ensemble drama which shows a different side of life during the Second World War in the UK. For me, as the author of the non-fiction book Jambusters [Home Fires in the USA], what I celebrate in this drama is Simon’s ability to convey the fear of the unknown for the mothers, sisters, daughters of the characters as well as their resolve not to be undone by a new, possibly more terrible war. The threat of the Second World War brought with it the very real possibility that their way of life would be destroyed. The strength and determination of the women to work together to stand up to this threat is inspiring and moving. It is a vital continuum of the women’s movement portrayed in Suffragette.

So I am retained as the historical consultant to the scripts, which means that I have the immense good fortune to be involved in the meetings when story lines are discussed. My role is to produce the history, when required, of both the progress of the war and the situation at any given point in time of the WI. I was able to offer a sense of background for the first series, emphasising the mood in Britain during that strange period called the Phoney War: the country was at war, the British Expeditionary Force was guarding the Maginot Line in France, but nothing was actually happening. It produced a kind of paralysis in the country, which changed into anxious boredom and then the acceptance of the calm before the storm.

Bishop-Stortford-about-1940Bishop’s Stortford WI Market Stall c. 1940 © NFWI

All the characterisation was developed by Simon Block and he knows each of the men and women in his drama intimately. In a fascinating three day meeting ‘in conclave’ in April 2014 five of us sat down, with tea, coffee and cakes (WI style), and discussed the back-stories to all the main characters.

Although Simon Block’s scripts are entirely fictional, they draw deeply not only on my non-fiction book, but also on my knowledge of the wider story of the war. What we discussed very early in the planning stages of the drama was the need to capture the mood of the country in the first few episodes. I had very strong images in my mind of the types of women that peopled my book and of the situations they found themselves in. The majority of men left in the villages were either older, veterans of the last war; men working in reserved occupations (teachers, farmers, etc.); men who were too young to fight, or those who for some reason could not go off to war. So the women left behind had to step up and take on roles traditionally held by men. This they did with determination, pride and tremendous good humour. That strength, independence and ingenuity is integral to the whole series. And the way they hold each other up and support one another is equally part of the wartime story.

My involvement stops with the scripts. The production is a whole different game and I find it both fascinating and bewildering. When I write a book there are perhaps half a dozen people involved – editor, copy-editor, proof reader, publicist and so on. That is about the same number of people working in the make-up truck on the set of Home Fires. On my first visit to set in September 2014 I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise. There are hundreds of people on set and they all know exactly what their role is and where they should be at any given moment. I visit infrequently because to me it is still magical and I do not want to lose that sense of wonder.

To be involved in Home Fires, if only peripherally, has been one of the most exciting and thrilling experiences in my career to date. I am delighted with the drama series and I can only say that if you have enjoyed Series 1 then watch out for Series 2. It is fabulous. The final episode of the current series will give a flavour of what is to come. The Phoney War is over. And the crisis is about to produce yet more amazing drama.

Thank you so very much to Julie for this insider’s look at Home Fires!

Home Fires, the period drama, is available on DVD and to stream online. Look for season 2 of Home Fires on PBS Masterpiece in 2016.

You can learn more about Julie Summers and Home Fires in this exclusive Q&A with Willow and Thatch. 

Home Fires stars many of Masterpiece’s beloved actors including Samantha Bond as Frances Barden (Downton Abbey’s Aunt Rosamund, Miss Marple, Poirot), Francesca Annis as Joyce Cameron (Cranford, Madame Bovary), Clare Calbraith as Steph Farrow (who was the flirtatious maid Jane in Downton Abbey), Claire Rushbrook as Pat Simms (she played Pip’s older sister in Great Expectations), Ed Stoppard as Dr. Will Campbell (political playboy Sir Hallam Holland in 2010’s Upstairs, Downstairs, Any Human Heart) and Fenella Woolgar as Alison Scotlock who has appeared in many Masterpiece titles including The Way We Live Now, Poirot, and He Knew He Was Right, as the spinster Arabella French.

Also, you may recognize Frances Grey who plays Erica Campell, from Vanity Fair, Mark Bazeley (Bob Simms) from The Queen and Mark Bonnar (Reverend Adam Collingborne) from Jekyll & Hyde. That’s a costume drama lovers delight of a cast!

It isn’t in the trailer but when you watch the series I am sure you’ll find that the theme song is downright addictive, so I thought I’d let you know a bit about it. Willow and Thatch couldn’t stop humming the tune after episode 1. It was written by Samuel Sim, who also composed the score for Emma (2009) starring Romola Garai.

My grandparents lived through and fought in the War, and I was always fascinated to hear their stories. But I set out to create something that represented a contemporary view of that period in history rather than a pastiche the music of the time. The lyrics represent the women who were left supporting the home front while their loved ones went off to fight. Consequently they are supposed to evoke a feeling of resilience and unity in the face of loss and tragedy. Although the world as they knew it is falling apart, they carried on fighting regardless. The lyrics are obscured by the fact that there are several different lines being sung at once, but that’s part of the point. Ultimately they found strength in their unity with others.– Simon Sim

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Home-Fires-the-bookMore about the book Home Fires: Away from the frontlines of World War II, in towns and villages across Great Britain, ordinary women were playing a vital role in their country’s war effort. As members of the Women’s Institute, an organization with a presence in a third of Britain’s villages, they ran canteens and knitted garments for troops, collected tons of rosehips and other herbs to replace medicines that couldn’t be imported, and advised the government on issues ranging from evacuee housing to children’s health to postwar reconstruction. But they are best known for making jam: from produce they grew on every available scrap of land, they produced twelve million pounds of jam and preserves to feed a hungry nation.

Home Fires, Julie Summers’s fascinating social history of the Women’s Institute during the war (when its members included the future Queen Elizabeth II along with her mother and grandmother), provides the remarkable and inspiring true story behind the upcoming PBS Masterpiece series that will be sure to delight fans of Call the Midwife and Foyle’s War. Through archival material and interviews with current and former Women’s Institute members, Home Fires gives us an intimate look at life on the home front during World War II.

Home-Fires-DVDMore about the period drama: The Masterpiece PBS mini-series follows a group of inspirational women in a rural Cheshire community with the shadow of World War II casting a dark cloud over their lives. The isolated village couldn’t feel further away from the impending bloodshed and battlefields and yet it is not immune from the effects of war. As the conflict takes hold, and separates the women from their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers, the characters find themselves under increasing and extraordinary pressures in a rapidly fragmenting world. By banding together as the Great Paxford Women’s Institute, they will help maintain the nation’s fabric in its darkest hour, and discover inner resources that will change their lives forever.

Home Fires is created and written by Simon Block with episodes co-written by Mark Burt and Tina Pepler (Downton AbbeyPrinces in the Tower). The period drama has been developed by Catherine Oldfield (FingersmithFoyle’s War) who executive produces alongside Francis Hopkinson and Rebecca Eaton.

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julie_summerspupsPhoto Barker Evans

About Julie Summers: I was born near Liverpool and grew up first on the Wirral and then in Cheshire. Although the greater part of my childhood was spent outside pursuing any number of outdoor activities, I have always wanted to be a writer. For the first twenty years of life after university I worked in the art world but was drawn inexorably towards writing. Finally, in 2004, I gave up my job and began writing full time. It was the best decision I have made in my career. I am passionate about writing and unembarrassed to be so. I love researching my books, especially when they involve meeting people and talking to them about their lives.

People often ask me why I am so fascinated by the Second World War. My answer is that it is not war that interests me but the way people coped. In extreme situations such as war or mountaineering ordinary people find extraordinary strength and courage. That is what I enjoy learning about.

I have a little study in the attic of our house with one of the best views in Oxford – the dreaming spires seen from Iffley. I write in the mornings and find the problem is not sticking to the routine but tearing myself away from writing at the end of the day. My companions are two Border Terriers who keep me entertained and fit. They sleep in two old wine boxes under the window in my office.

I describe myself as a biographer and historian but the most important thing for me is to be a story teller.

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WI-2015-PosterCourtesy of Steph Baxter

Today, the WI remains as a resource for women to gain educational opportunities, learn new skills, develop new friendships, and campaign on social justice issues. To learn more about the WI, visit their website.

If you enjoyed this post you’ll want to wander over to the Period Films List – the best costume dramas, heritage films, documentaries, period dramas, romances, historical reality series and period inspired movies, sorted by era and theme.