'World on Fire' Introduces an Age of Anxiety & Uncertainty

Jonah Hauer-King as Harry Chase and Zofia Wichlacz as Kasia Tomaszeski on a bicycle in 'World on Fire' Season 1

Jonah Hauer-King as Harry Chase and Zofia Wichlacz as Kasia Tomaszeski in 'World on Fire' Season 1

Ross Ferguson / © Mammoth Screen 2019

The problem with World on Fire — and it isn’t really a problem — is that we know what’s going to happen. The Second World War has been covered many times in documentaries, notably the BBC documentary series World at War, which served as an inspiration to writer Peter Bowker (The A Word) and in thousands of fictionalized accounts. 

So it’s a massive credit to Bowker and his international cast that he succeeds so well in his goal of bringing the war to a personal level, moving across Europe and slicing through class lines, telling the stories of ordinary people. It’s no accident that much of his research included reading diaries of private citizens (recording ordinary experiences was something the British government encouraged). The approach can seem chaotic, particularly when sound effects from one scene blend into the next; or we jump suddenly to different characters hundreds of miles away, and the series demands the viewer’s attention shift accordingly. But war is chaotic, brutal, and unsettling, and again it’s to the series’ credit that so much of this works, even if it isn’t always easy viewing.

The first episode opens on the brink of war in Manchester, UK, where two young idealists, Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King, Laurie in the 2017 Masterpiece Little Women) and Lois Bennett (Julia Brown), heckle a rally held by Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. They are promptly thrown out and arrested. When their respective parents turn up at the police station to bail them out, we realize this couple is from very different social spheres; Harry’s mother, Robina Chase (Lesley Manville, worlds away from her sympathetic role in Mum) is upper class, snide, and contemptuous of her son’s political involvement and his entanglement with a mill worker. She and Lois’s working-class father, Douglas Bennett (Sean Bean), immediately sum up each other’s social status and ignore each other.

Picture shows: Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) and Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) after an adventurous date.

Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King) and Lois Bennett (Julia Brown).

Ben Blackall / © Mammoth Screen 2019

Douglas. a World War I veteran, is ashamed of his PTSD and is now a pacifist (an interesting change of role for Bean, who tends to fight — and be killed — a lot). Lois is a bright young woman who shares her father’s views but is also excited that the inevitable war will open up additional opportunities for her as a singer. Her character is based on Bowker’s grandmother, a singer during the war for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association). At the same time, she has to deal with her father’s expectations that, as a woman of a working-class family, she will be expected to take on all household tasks as well as her mill job. There’s also a brother, Tom Bennett (Ewan Mitchell), a petty criminal who’s in trouble with the police and with the draft board.

Lois is smart enough to know that when Harry leaves for a posting as a translator at the British Embassy in Warsaw, their affair will likely fizzle out, even though they agree to write to each other. Harry denies it, but we know she’s likely right. With his charm, good looks, confidence, and the sheer adrenaline buzz of doing meaningful work at a significant time in history, Harry is having a whale of a time in Poland and has almost immediately started an affair with local waitress Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz). The whole country is waiting for war to begin and is unprepared. The repeatedly mentioned soldiers on bicycles are a dead giveaway.

American journalist Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) witnesses civilians being executed by German troops near the border on the Polish side. Hunt’s character is based on journalist Clare Hollingsworth, who scooped a similar scene leading to Britain’s declaration of war. A very young and nervous German soldier opens fire as she drives away, and we find that she’s borrowed her friend Harry’s car. In his usual breezy way, Harry complains about the damage to his vehicle but won’t take her insistence that he take Kasia to England seriously.

Nancy reported on the Spanish Civil War and knows what happens to women in an invasion. It’s not pretty.

 Julia Brown as Lois Bennett hurries home in World on Fire Season 1

 Julia Brown as Lois Bennett in World on Fire Season 1

Ben Blackall / © Mammoth Screen 2019

Nancy also tells her nephew Webster O’Connor (Brian J. Smith), a doctor at an American hospital in Paris, to leave. But he’s another young man enchanted by a foreign city and all too ready to fall in love, and when he and a saxophonist share a silent, heated look in a jazz club, you know that going back to the US is the last thing he wants to do. They meet again when the musician, Albert Fallou (Parker Sawyers, who played the young Barack Obama in Southside with You), shows up at Webster’s hospital, with a head injury after an attack by a far-right French group.

In Warsaw, the bombs start to drop. Harry rushes to Kasia’s cafe as it’s blasted, and he is knocked unconscious. As she leans over him to ask if he’s hurt, he opens his eyes and proposes marriage to her. It’s the only way he can get her out of the country safely. But when he calls his mother to tell him that he’s coming home, he omits to mention that he’s married. Robina naturally wants to know his arrival date since she’s planning social events, and a surprise arrival will upset her seating plans. Yes, truly a woman who has her finger on the pulse of world events.

Lois visits Robina to find out if she’s heard from her son recently. Robina embarks on a patronizing series of statements about how men tend to lose interest in a woman who’s their social inferior, and Lois should try to find herself a nice clerk. Lois tells Robina she’s “a bloody snob,” and Robina announces proudly that no, she’s an elitist.

Sean Bean as Douglas Bennett struggling with PTSD in World on Fire Season 1

Sean Bean as Douglas Bennett in World on Fire Season 1

Ben Blackall / © Mammoth Screen 2019

Meanwhile, there’s a last get-together with Kasia’s family, as her father Stefan Tomaszeski (Tomazs Kot), another World War I veteran, and brother Grzegorz (Mateusz Więcławek) are preparing to go to Danzig to fight. Harry takes a photograph of himself and the whole family together, and everyone is putting on a brave face, partly because they believe their allies, the British, will support them. But Harry can’t get a straight answer from other Embassy staff on this question.

When Stefan and Grzegorz arrive in Danzig, it’s all too clear that their country is in trouble. They join a group of men, most postal employees, in the basement of the city’s post office. There aren’t enough weapons to go around, and when they open fire on the trained, well-equipped, and disciplined German troops, they don’t stand a chance. The Germans pour gasoline into the basement and keep firing. Forced out by the flames, Stefan takes a white flag out to surrender and is shot dead. Those still alive, including Grzegorz, run and are pursued through the city. There are no British; the streets are crawling with German troops, and they’re on their own.

Elsewhere, Harry waits anxiously at the crowded Warsaw railroad station for Kasia to join him in leaving for England. She turns up late with her little brother Jan (Eryk Biedunkiew), who’s come to say goodbye. But at the last moment, she pushes him onto the train into Harry’s care and urges her new husband to take care of him. She has chosen to stay and fight.

There’s a lot going on in this first episode. We’ve met most of the major players, and we’re left with many questions since just about everyone is in some deep trouble. What will happen to Kasia and the rest of her family? How will Lois react to Harry’s return and face opposition from her family when she leaves for a singing career? Will Harry’s charm be enough to get little Jan across borders? And how will Robina react to her new family member?

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World On Fire

Emotionally gripping World War II drama World on Fire premieres on Sunday, April 5, 2020.
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Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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