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.
In series 2, it’s the summer of 1940 and the village of Great Paxford is caught up in the nightmare of the Battle of Britain. Two weeks after the defeat at Dunkirk, the German army is advancing through France and Britain is bracing itself for invasion.
Throughout the series the residents at the heart of this rural Cheshire community face their own personal challenges and conflicts as reputations are tarnished, loved ones lost, and shocking secrets are discovered. However it’s the war years and the women, under the auspices of the Great Paxford Women’s Institute, unite and discover inner resources that will change their lives forever whilst helping maintain the nation’s fabric in its darkest hour.
New characters and friendships will also emerge as exhausted and battle-hardened Czech soldiers arrive to set up camp just outside the village.
The ITV / PBS Masterpiece television mini-series Home Fires, now in its second season, is based on the book Jambusters by Julie Summers.
In Jambusters (Home Fires in the US), 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.
Willow and Thatch had a chance to talk with Julie and learn more about her writing, the period drama, and her experience of turning her historical book into the PBS television mini-series.
Willow and Thatch: You’ve written six books about the Second World War era including Stranger in the House: Women’s Stories of Men Returning from the Second World War, and When the Children Came Home: Stories of Wartime Evacuees, and you are the historical consultant on the screenplay of Home Fires. Can you talk more about how your vast knowledge of the time period is put to use in the scripts?
Julie Summers: It has been a fascinating and exciting process working with the script writers of Home Fires. I go to the early storylining meetings, which usually take place in ITV’s main offices on the banks of the Thames in London. My ‘job’ is to give the background to what the WI was up to at the given stage in the war and to produce storylines that are factually true but perhaps less well-known or rehearsed than the usual suspects, ie. Declaration of War speech by Chamberlain or some of Churchill’s speeches, or indeed the evacuation of 3.5 million women and children from the cities to the countryside. The writers want to avoid those old familiars and find something that tells us more about the human condition and how people reacted to the war. I always talk about the mood of the country.
We know how the Second World War ended but in 1939 there was no certainty that Britain would win and certainly no one knew how long the war would last. Sometimes I produce small details, such as information about the Prices of Goods Act from November 1939 which turned into Alison Scotlock’s brush with the law. Others are a bit larger: the National Register of September 1939 which Miriam fills out but omits David’s name so he doesn’t get a ration card in January. This really did happen. Approximately 60,000 young men’s names were withheld, often by mothers who had suffered grievous losses of family members in the Great War twenty years earlier.
And of course, the great jam making in Episode 1 really occurred. The WI acquired 350 tons of sugar three days after war broke out and made 1740 tons of jam on an ad hoc basis. When we were discussing the first series, Simon Block, the show’s creator, tried to catch me out. He asked me what day it had started snowing in 1940. What he didn’t know is that I am obsessed by the weather so of course I knew the answer to that question. It still makes us both laugh.
Though World War II was a time of rations and sacrifices, there are still plenty of swoon-worthy fashion moments in Home Fires. Star Francesca Annis was especially struck by the original, period clothing used for the series. “It’s incredible how beautiful the clothes were. Imaginative and different in detail that we don’t have now. A lot of people actually made their own clothes…So you have much more of a sense of individuality and you see that in a lot of the costumes. It’s also amazing to think how long they have lasted. – PBS
Willow and Thatch: Your book Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War has been listed in The Times review as one of their History Books of the Year in 2015. Julian Fellowes called it “A marvelous read.” That’s wonderful! What led you to write this book and do we see traces of your knowledge about WWII fashion in the period drama, or is all that left to the costume department?
Julie Summers: Fashion on the Ration was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum, London, to accompany an exhibition of the same name. I worked closely with the curator so that most of the stories in the book were also illustrated in the exhibition. Initially I was not sure I wanted to write about fashion as it seemed rather a light-hearted topic but as I got into the research I realised it was of immense significance in government thinking. What people wore and how they felt about their clothes influenced their mood. The government wanted women to be well-dressed and made up in defiance of Hitler and out of respect for all the young men and women in uniform. The amount of fashion exported during the war more than quadrupled, bringing in vital foreign currency. So in the end I was very glad to have had the opportunity to write it and was thrilled that Julian Fellowes was so complimentary about it too.
I didn’t have a direct influence on the costume department but I did spend quite a lot of time with Lucinda Wright, who was in charge of the costumes, and we talked particularly about colour. I was very keen, as was she, to emphasise the fact that there was no restriction on colour during the war. We see most pictures in black and white, thus wrongly concluding that clothing was drab. It became drab later in the war when there was so little to buy in the shops after clothes rationing and coupon culture took over. People could only buy the equivalent of one new outfit a year by the middle of the war, so old clothes were refurbished and mended. At the beginning, however, people were still well-dressed and that is reflected in the clothing worn by all our characters.
Willow and Thatch: Many of the characters in Home Fires are middle-aged women who remember the toll that WWI took on the country, and on the men, women and children for years after the war ended. The British First World War patriotic song Keep the Home-Fires Burning, was hugely popular when it was composed in 1914 by the 21 year old Ivor Novello with words by Lena Guilbert Ford:
Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
‘Til the boys come home.
It seems that the lyrics summed up the sentiment of the time, but did “Home Fires” mean the same thing to Britain in the late 1930s? I’m thinking of when, in season 1, Pat says “Make no mistakes, ladies, this is our time too,” and that many of the women of the WI, at the time of the story, were decedents of early supporters of the women’s movement.
Julie Summers: I think that this is the first time I have ever been asked this question and it’s a good one. Yes, many of the WI members in the 1930s had been either decedents of early supporters of the women’s movement and indeed some of the older members had been directly involved. The Women’s Institute was formed in Britain in 1915 at a time when men were leaving the countryside in their thousands to sign up to fight. Women had to work the land in order to help to produce food and the WI gave those women not only the chance to contribute through the structure of a new-born but highly effective organisation but also a community spirit which many living isolated lives had never experienced.
By the time the Second World War broke out the WI was 24 years old and mature. It had a fully fledged, democratic structure, it was a respected voice in government circles and it had proved immensely popular among country women, many of whom had gained skills and benefitted from educational opportunities. In September 1939 the WI relished the prospect of rolling up its communal sleeves and setting to work to keep the countryside ticking. This they did magnificently and with a spirit of indomitable optimism that made them a force to be reckoned with. Whether they actually used the expression ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ I do not know but most of the membership in Great Paxford would have known the song from their childhoods or adolescence. When Pat says ‘this is our time too’ she is reflecting on the fact that the public had been warned that in a total war there are no non-combatants, no ‘illegitimate’ targets and that the Germans would show them no mercy. Everyone would be involved and she knew that women would have to find inner strength to cope.
Willow and Thatch: Currently you are working on a book that looks at the secret life of country houses in Britain during the Second World War. That sounds fascinating; can you fill us in a bit about that project? You’ve said that you suspect it might be your last non-fiction book on the war as you would love to write some fiction. Do you have a different era in mind?
Julie Summers: The secret life of houses book is a treasure to research. I am looking at what happened to properties that were taken over for military or civilian use. What is coming to light is the immense diversity of activities that took place in houses all over Britain, often in great secrecy. I have a house near the south coast of England that was used as a staging post for French agents working as couriers for the Resistance. They would stay for one night, or more, waiting for a full moon so they could be flown into France. Not far away is a large house used as a nursing home for expectant mothers from the East End of London. The wall paper in the birthing suite was covered in enormous peacocks and some women, drowsy from the gas and air, thought they were hallucinating. Other houses were used by the military: I have American soldiers in Cheshire, close to where Home Fires is filmed; I have Polish pilots near London and Czechoslovak resistance guerrillas in Northern Scotland. It’s a fascinating mixture and I am almost done with the research and hope to start writing it later this month. It will certainly be the largest book I have written to date.
I think I’m going to regret announcing to the world that I plan to write fiction! But I feel the need to step back from the social history of the Second World War and focus on human stories. That is what I find fascinating. There is no such thing as an ordinary person. Everyone is unique and everyone has their own story. It might not be a story of derring-do or exploration but it will tell you something about them as a person. I am not interested in super high-achievers, I love exploring people who believe they have lived ‘normal’ lives. One of the most interesting characters in my houses’ book is a Roman Catholic priest who was chaplain to an evacuated girls’ school from Kensington. He spent the war looking after the souls of 50 little girls while at the same time translating the bible into English and writing some of the wittiest and most delightful sermons you could ever hear.
Willow and Thatch: Home Fires is set in the fictional Great Paxford, England, but is filmed in Cheshire, on the road near your parents’ home. Is that a coincidence or did Jambusters feature stories from that part of England that led to the location being used?
Julie Summers: The fact that Great Paxford is in the north of England is not a coincidence. The two pieces of influence I had on the series were that it should be set away from London and the south-east and therefore the London Blitz, and that women should not witness the war, at least not until the bombs came to the North West. That was taken seriously by the script-writers and producers and it is one of the reasons why I think the series stands out as something a bit different. The location for filming was nothing to do with me at all. The producer told me that they had considered several other places in the UK but when they discovered the sleepy, beautiful village of Bunbury in Cheshire they realised they had exactly what they wanted. The village is stretched out over more than a mile so that there are two centres for filming – one by the church and the other by the butcher’s shop. I was delighted that they chose Bunbury for several reasons. It is set in some of the most beautiful countryside in the North West. Cheshire is a huge county and much of it is flat grassland as it was once under the sea, but the corner where they filmed is hilly and is close to the great old ruined fortress of Beeston Castle, which I first visited as a child.
The second reason was the obvious one that it is close to my parents’ so they have been able to enjoy a little bit of the limelight. They are a farming family and use the medical practice in Bunbury. One day when they were filming my mother was seen walking along the road to the surgery on her crutches. She said to the receptionist: ‘see that road block there, where they are filming? That’s my daughter’s fault!’ I think she secretly rather enjoys it. The third reason is that it has a beneficial impact on the local community. The church and parish have benefited from ITV’s generosity but also from increased tourism. Most people are positive about that. Not everyone though!
Willow and Thatch: You had a cameo appearance on Home Fires as a WI county organizer. What was that experience like, to be able to step into such an authentic representation of a world you know intimately on an intellectual level?
Julie Summers: Gosh, it was an amazing day, I have to say. We filmed on one of the hottest days of September 2014 and we all overheated in our thick wool and tweed skirts and jackets. My hair is short and straight, so absolutely hopeless for the era, so they put me in a grey wig. I looked like a larger version of my grandmother who, incidentally, was a lifelong WI member. I was struck by the length of time it takes to film a scene. They told me it takes a whole day to get about 4 usable minutes of television, so we were on set for a good eight hours. I loved being immersed in the wartime era but it didn’t move me as much as my very first set visit when I watched the drama’s opening scene being filmed. The farmer, Steph, drives a herd of cows into her farmyard in front of an army lorry. When I saw that being filmed I was moved to tears: here was my world, the one I have known in black and white from library books, photographs and newsreels, coming to life in full colour. And it was moving and mooing and smelling of my childhood. It was the most magical thing I have ever experienced and it will stay with me forever. I don’t think any visit to set will ever surpass that experience.
Willow and Thatch: I read that War and Peace is your all time favorite novel because “the whole of life is contained in that book.” Home Fires aside, do you have a favorite costume drama or era that you like seeing depicted on film?
Julie Summers: I can never get enough of War and Peace. I don’t read Russian fluently so I have only ever read it in English but I have been given a new translation so I will be re-reading it this summer on holiday. It is the most extraordinary, wonderful, inspiring book that makes me laugh and cry. There was a recent adaptation of it on the BBC which got some critics very hot under the collar but I enjoyed the series because it gave me the opportunity to see someone else’s take on the subject matter.
My favourite TV costume drama of recent times is Wolf Hall, based on the utterly brilliant books by Hilary Mantel, charting the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell. The series was wonderful. I also very much enjoy watching Endeavour, the prequel to the famous Oxford-based detective series, Morse with John Thaw. Endeavour is set in the 1960s, which is when I was born, and I really enjoy the costumes, hairstyles and interior décor from the period.
I think a costume drama or a historical drama, like Home Fires, has to be true to its era. It does not need slavishly to follow the language but it needs to accept the norms of behaviour and basic historical facts in order to convince the viewer that he or she is entering into the spirit of the time. The storylines have to be believable but so do the human interactions and if anything jars, either aurally or visually, the spell is broken. When I was visiting the set of Home Fires I was struck by the impact that putting a modern person, such as a camera man or a make-up artist, into the set just shouted ‘Ow! Clash!’ at one. As soon as they moved away, the set was transported back 70 years to the war. It was extraordinary.
Willow and Thatch: The period drama Home Fires focuses on the women who worked tirelessly to supply food for the nation, while looking after evacuees, knitting for the troops, and forging a deeper sense of community in wartime rural Britain. Season 1 has managed to bring us into the heart of these activities and the emotions that fuel them at the start of the war. Can you say anything about what to expect in season 2? Should we look for it in the fall on Masterpiece?
Julie Summers: I have to be a little careful not to give anything away about season 2 of Home Fires because I might spoil people’s enjoyment of the drama. However, what I can say is that it takes place against the extraordinary summer of 1940. Season 1, as you say, set the scene for what happened in rural Britain during the early months of the war in the period known as the Phoney War. The unnatural calm of the winter and spring of 1939-40 was about to be shattered by the Blitzkrieg when Hitler’s army marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Expeditionary Force, who had spent the winter guarding the Maginot Line, was suddenly called into action against a furious, implacable, overwhelming foe. This began on 10 May and by the end of the month over 330,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk.
A month later France fell to the Germans and Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe waiting with baited breath for an invasion. It was a summer of high drama and danger, a summer when thousands of families opted to send their children abroad to the USA, Canada and Australia. It was also a summer of bountiful harvests, glorious weather and prodigious activity by the WI on the food production front. Britain was never invaded, as we all know, but everyone, even Churchill himself, thought it the likeliest outcome that summer. He welcomed into the country a large number of battle-hardened troops from the continent, including Czechoslovak and Polish Forces, who would turn out to offer immeasurably valuable support during the Battle of Britain when the German Luftwaffe tried, but failed, to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force.
This is the backdrop for season 2 of Home Fires and let me assure you that it is going to get very exciting and dramatic in Great Paxford. I believe you will be getting season 2 in the fall, so I hope very much you will enjoy it. I shall be writing blogs for PBS/Masterpiece giving the background to each episode so watch out for those.
Thank you so very much to Julie for this insider’s look at Home Fires. You can learn more about Julie Summers and the process of her book becoming a television mini-series here. 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.
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.
You may also 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.
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.
About the book Fashion on the Ration: In September 1939, just three weeks after the outbreak of war, Gladys Mason wrote briefly in her diary about events in Europe: ‘Hitler watched German siege of Warsaw. City in flames.’ And, she continued, ‘Had my wedding dress fitted. Lovely.’For Gladys Mason, and for thousands of women throughout the long years of the war, fashion was not simply a distraction, but a necessity – and one they weren’t going to give up easily. In the face of bombings, conscription, rationing and ludicrous bureaucracy, they maintained a sense of elegance and style with determination and often astonishing ingenuity. From the young woman who avoided the dreaded ‘forces bloomers’ by making knickers from military-issue silk maps, to Vogue’s indomitable editor Audrey Withers, who balanced lobbying government on behalf of her readers with driving lorries for the war effort, Julie Summers weaves together stories from ordinary lives and high society to provide a unique picture of life during the Second World War. As a nation went into uniform and women took on traditional male roles, clothing and beauty began to reflect changing social attitudes. For the first time, fashion was influenced not only by Hollywood and high society but by the demands of industrial production and the pressing need to ‘make-do-and-mend’. Beautifully illustrated and full of gorgeous detail, Fashion on the Ration lifts the veil on a fascinating era in British fashion.
Fashion on the Ration came out in paperback on 25 March and the exhibition which it accompanied at the Imperial War Museum in London last year will be reopening, slightly enlarged, at IWM/North at the end of May 2016.
There is almost a whole chapter devoted to corsets in Fashion on the Ration; you can read more about that on Julie’s blog here.
About the DVD: 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.
Although we lock the British version first, the American version will end up being 5 minutes longer. Strangely this gives a sense of freedom at both stages. The episodes always start overlong, and I’m far happier to consign a good scene, or a guest appearance, to the cutting room floor when I know there’s a good chance that it will come back for the PBS cut. – Mark Thornton, Home Fires editor
Home Fires is created and written by Simon Block with episodes co-written by Mark Burt and Tina Pepler (Downton Abbey, Princes in the Tower). The period drama has been developed by Catherine Oldfield (Fingersmith, Foyle’s War) who executive produces alongside Francis Hopkinson and Rebecca Eaton.
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.
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.