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World on Fire (BBC) - First episode review

World on Fire

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

THE complexity of war and its effect on ordinary people lies at the heart of BBC1’s ambitious new Sunday night drama World on Fire, laying some strong foundations for the remaining six episodes that follow.

Created by Peter Bowker (of The A Word fame), the first episode certainly couldn’t be criticised for scope or level of ambition. But in trying to set so many things into play and keep the plot moving forward at a decent pace, it did sometimes feel as though it was compromising on the emotional element.

This was particularly felt in the central love triangle underpinning the series, between middle-class translator Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King), his plucky working-class girlfriend Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) and Polish waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz). As yet, the true depths of Harry’s feelings for both women haven’t had chance to grow, which threatens to undermine any tragedy that lies in wait.

As evidence of this, Harry’s relationship with Lois was set up via an establishing opening scene in which he and she protested at a Blackshirt rally, before being arrested. In little under five minutes, they had expressed their desire for each other, yet agreed to part ways and remain as pen pals while Harry went to Poland to pursue his career.

Cut to Poland, and Harry is seemingly smitten with the beautiful Kasia (Wichlacz), yet also mindful of the impending invasion by German troops and guided by a colleague to marry her in order to do the ‘right thing’ and prevent her from being raped by scores of enemy soldiers.

Such was the pace of the first hour, and the numerous other characters that needed establishing, the romantic dilemma that this chain of events set in motion has yet to be explored. True, Lois remains in England awaiting for word from Harry via letter, but we’re yet to feel the undying love and, as a result, any true sense of desperation or worry.

Similarly, with Lois in Harry’s heart, we weren’t offered any real insight into what made Kasia so irresistible to him, beyond her looks.

That being said, Bowker had a lot to set up, given the number of characters he has chosen to work with. Aside from this central trio, there’s Helen Hunt’s US journalist Nancy Campbell, who remains determined to expose the truth about German invasion tactics, as well as Lois’ PTSD-stricken, pacifist father Douglas, struggling to come to terms with the headlines he is reading about the impending conflict.

In Poland itself, there’s also Kasia’s father and brother, who venture to Danzig to make an ill-fated stand against the Germans, while over in Paris, Campbell’s nephew Webster (Brian J Smith), a doctor, is embarking on a fledgling relationship with another man, mindful of the warnings to leave the city while he still can. There’s a lot going on.

Bowker’s screenplay is clearly designed to offer an all-encompassing look at how war – and the Second World War in particular – informs the lives of everyone forced to live in its shadow, especially those oppressed by an occupying force (Kasia and her family), or religiously or sexually demonised (Jews, gays or people of African American heritage). As such, it offers lessons from the past that can inform our present.

But it also draws on the effect of war on those who have previously fought and been left ravished by it (Bean), while tip-toeing into issues of class divide (as epitomised by Lesley Manville’s snobbish, and possibly Fascist, mother), and the need for quality journalism to expose political wrong-doing.

There’s a lot going on… with the past once again offering a mirror of sorts into the complexities that continue to inform our modern world.

If you don’t want to read into the allegorical nature of proceedings, then World on Fire works as a gripping war-time drama in its own right, offering equal parts action, tension and romance. And Bowker’s screenplay was wily enough to ensure that you wanted to see more.

A hint at what might be to come in terms of emotional investment was to be found in the final moments, as Kasia selflessly put the life of her younger brother over her own, and switched positions on the train that Harry had managed to book for them. It was an effective, eye-opening scene that sets things up nicely.

But there was also great tragedy in the fateful last stand by Kasia’s family in Danzig, as well as a certain breathless tension in her brother’s subsequent attempt to escape German captivity and/or execution following the callous gunning down of their father. In such moments, Bowker spares viewers little in depicting the brutality and atrocity of war.

In doing so, he also serves up a sobering reminder of the wastefulness of war, as told from the perspectives of the everyday lives torn apart by it. It’s engaging, relevant viewing that offers both absorbing human drama, as well as biting historical and contemporary lessons.

Read an interview with Sean Bean