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World on Fire - Sean Bean interview

World on Fire

Compiled by Jack Foley

WORLD on Fire is BBC One’s epic new drama from multi-award winning writer Peter Bowker. In this interview, Sean Bean discusses his character, Douglas Bennett, the scale of the show and any personal memories he has of the Second World War from family members.

Q. Describe the character of Douglas – what it was about him that drew you to the script?
Sean Bean: Douglas was involved in the First World War and was so mentally damaged by shell shock that it has an influence on how he viewed everything to do with the Second World War. He doesn’t believe in war as a means of achieving objectives. He thinks there should be negotiation and people should be trying to communicate.

At this point, no one is aware of the impact that this second war is going to make on the world but from his experience of the First World War he always wondered what it was all for. The people who fought were cannon fodder with no real understanding of why they were fighting. For Douglas it was a futile war, that left him mentally scarred and suffering from flashbacks, anxiety, insecurity and a slight leaning towards madness.

Q. Where does Douglas fit into the Bennett family set-up?
Sean Bean: The Bennett family consists of Douglas, son Tom and daughter Lois. Lois is the backbone of the family and is a strong-willed woman. She runs the everyday life of the family, leaving Tom and Douglas to just sit about the kitchen and wait for her to make cups of tea and feed them.

They’re working-class men and are very down to earth. Douglas’ wife died years ago so he’s brought the children up somewhat on his own. He’s been trying to keep it together but he’s weak and he’s depressed from the First World War and he’s nervous and unsure about the future. It’s difficult for him to relate to his children at times and it’s difficult for them to know how to treat him without robbing him of his dignity or his independence.

Q. Tell us about the relationship that develops between Douglas and Robina…
Sean Bean: Douglas and Robina meet purely because of Harry and Lois’ relationship. It’s a very unlikely relationship, a working-class bus driver and a very gentrified lady of the manor as it were. They’re thrown together because of their children’s relationship. It’s quite an interesting friendship that emerges between them. Some people are thrown together who would never otherwise meet, but Robina recognises that Douglas is an intelligent man and has a warmth of personality that she finds both alien and interesting to her.

Q. Explain how Douglas and Jan are thrown together, and how that friendship develops?
Sean Bean: A big element in the relationship between the Chase family members and the Bennett family is the young Polish refugee Jan, whom Harry brings home from war. Jan is being brought up by Robina, and Douglas gets to know Jan well and becomes really fond of him. He befriends Jan and plays football with him; he shows him some fatherly love. Douglas sees him as another son and I think Jan sees Douglas as a surrogate father figure. They form a really interesting and quite touching relationship.

Q. How does he feel when his son and daughter both head off to service the war in their different ways?
Sean Bean: As a pacifist, Douglas has to watch his daughter Lois go off to join the entertainment corps ENSA, and then sees Tom join the navy and go to war on the HMS Exeter. This terrifies Douglas, yet when Tom returns on leave he wants Douglas to sanction him becoming an objector and essentially going AWOL – but no matter what he is, Douglas is not a coward and doesn’t give his blessing to Tom.

He’s a man of morals and he knows what this would mean for the pacifist organization that he belongs to, but more importantly what it could mean for his son if he is caught. He could be court marshalled and disgraced and he doesn’t want that for Tom. Tom is many things, and headstrong, but to live his life as a cowardly criminal or be executed is not what Douglas’ wants for Tom, so the only way out of that situation is to encourage him to go back to war and possibly certain death. It weighs heavy on Douglas.

Q. Describe the scale of this show…
Sean Bean: It’s an amazing production that I became engrossed in as soon as I read it the scripts. In some ways it’s like a completely captivating novel and every individual seemed to be portrayed as unique. They all have their particular ambitions, dreams and jobs before the war starts and then their fears and dread as events unfold are the same across all the countries we show. They are all coming to terms with the changes that are happening in their lives and realise that, for some of them, ridicule, intimidation and persecution are coming down the line because of their beliefs and simply for being who they are.

Q. Do you have any personal memories of family members who were alive during the war?
Sean Bean: My mother and father were born just before the war started in the 1930s. They used to tell me stories about how they used to wear the gas masks. My auntie and uncle had an Anderson shelter in their shed (that’s still there today) that we used to play in it when we were little. It was very flimsy as bomb shelters go and I’ll always remember those moments. They were storytellers and there was a lot of humour and funny stories to be told of those times.

Q. Is this a period in history that you are particularly interested and did you conduct any research to prepare you for the part?
Sean Bean: I did a fair bit of research for the part but it’s something I’ve always been quite interested in as an area of history. The Second World War fascinates me, but it was the reparations that were set in place following the end of the First World War that heralded the introduction of Hitler. I’ve always been interested in how people like Douglas Bennett were shunned within that community. They were ostracised which must have been very, very difficult. You’re going totally against the propaganda and the general feeling of the country by actually standing up and saying, I’m a pacifist. That’s an incredibly hard and brave thing to do and you suffer for it.

Q. How do we see Douglas being affected by his beliefs?
Sean Bean: Imagine being in a closed-knit community and people turn their back on you. Shopkeepers don’t want to serve you in shops and shout at you in the street and call you this and that. I would imagine you have to be pretty determined and principled to stick to your beliefs in the face of popular opinion. So that was interesting and just the fact that Douglas is physically and mentally not very well wasn’t really understood, certainly not in the wake of the First World War – shellshock was just frowned upon.

Today’s soldiers have a diagnosis now in PTSD and we can see how it works on the brain and how these people suffered in silence. It’s a difficult one. It’s a difficult illness to talk about, especially during the Second World War, so for Douglas to actually stand up and say, I don’t believe in it [the war], was a really, big and brave statement.