World On Fire’s Peter Bowker: I won’t have WWII rewritten by isolationists

Peter Bowker's new drama World On Fire tells the story of the Second World War from a new perspective. The writer explains how he created an epic series by telling the stories of ordinary people living through extraordinary times – and why he won't accept the rewriting of history for political ends

Peter Bowker is the award-winning writer of Occupation, Marvellous, Blackpool, Eric and Ernie and The A Word. When he writes a new TV drama, you know it is going to be smart, incisive and infused with sharp wit and engaging characters.

But even Bowker was worried by the scale of his latest television project, World On Fire. The series, which airs on BBC1 on Sunday nights, is an attempt to tell the story of the Second World War in a new way. Quite a challenge for the most dramatised conflict in history.

Bowker’s inspirations were two-fold. The classic 1970s series World At War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, widely seen as the definitive documentary on the Second World War, was a touchstone. Could a television drama be equally definitive? But Bowker was also inspired by recent TV trends.

The success of Danish shows The Killing and The Bridge, particularly, suggested audiences were now more willing to engage with subtitled shows – meaning he could tell this global war from a global perspective, in multiple languages.

The plan is for seven series, each telling the story of a single year of the Second World War

The result is stunning. Rather than Churchill and Hitler’s speeches, Spitfires dueling, Vera Lynn and the spirit of the Blitz – a version of history we’ve seen countless times – Bowker focuses on people across Europe whose lives were irrevocably affected by this global conflict. Through these brilliantly drawn characters a new picture emerges of the impact on the ordinary people living through extraordinary times.

And we have only just begun. For the grand plan is seven series, each telling the story of a single year of the Second World War from multiple perspectives. We spoke to Bowker about his most ambitious series to date…

Is this the perfect time to tell this story of the international conflict that eventually led to long-term peace in Europe?

The perfect time might have been a couple of years ago! But I think we constantly need to remind ourselves that it is a story about international co-operation to defeat Nazism. A group of countries with very little in common politically formed an alliance because they knew they had more in common than what set us apart. That is what World War Two was. And I won’t have it rewritten. Because it is insulting to the memory of everybody if you go along with the ‘plucky Britain’ myth. I know what my dad thought he was fighting for – and it wasn’t isolationism. He fought alongside Gurkhas, soldiers in the Far East, alongside all nationalities. And he never forgot that.

How do you get beyond the received wisdom about the war to the on the floor reality?

I’m normally interested in people at the bottom of the food chains – on the sharp end of political decisions, enacting these decisions whether they are right or not. The Imperial War Museum have been amazing. At one point I went in and said: One of my characters is a Polish waitress in her 20s. Have you got anything? Within three days, they had found two diaries that had been translated. What was reassuring was that there would be a page saying I have joined the resistance movement run by the old scoutmaster. But the rest would be about boys and coffee.

In a weird way, Andrew Davies’s War and Peace adaptation opened it up for me. I could see how you could be both part of history and not deny the history, but simultaneously get stuck into the day to day concerns, falling in and out of love, having children, people dying, people being traumatized, people having a disability.

How did you go about building the story of this massive global conflict from the intimate stories you chose?

One of the first things I did was to invent a character, played by Sean Bean, who is a pacifist. Because to keep the conscientious objector argument sustained during the Second World War is the hardest challenge. It is the least equivocal war of all time. But then you have a story – because you have events pushing against this man and his beliefs. And you have his two children taking up different positions to him. So you also have a father-daughter and father-son story. I am interested in reclaiming that generation from keeping them in aspic. It is far more interesting if they are flawed human beings.

Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 and all that…

Exactly, so it is reclaiming that generation as flesh and blood human beings – and I think that is honouring them far more than idealising them as some special generation we revere. Another starting point was a desire not just to tell a white man’s war [retrieves photograph from his bag].

Julia Brown plays Lois Bennett, jazz singer with duo the Victory Vs

This is my grandma and this is my Auntie Anna. They had a musical duo called the Two Shades and toured Manchester and the north west. She was the daughter of a French variety artist and an American – somebody told me she had the same genetic make-up as Jimi Hendrix. But she was adopted by a white family and raised in Doncaster in the 1920s. Her and my grandma had this variety performers called The Two Shades, which preceded Two Tone by, what, 50 years? So there is a singer and a dual race couple in World On Fire.

At what stage do you make a stand? At what stage do you compromise to achieve a greater good

We always look for contemporary relevance – with the Second World War being invoked so often in the political debate at the moment, what are you hoping people take from it?

The Second World War is evoked so often in very un-nuanced arguments. Our national myth is based on it. So it is healthy to look at that and say ‘My version of the war isn’t the same as yours’. I would hope is that the contemporary relevance is to do with the big questions – at what stage do you make a stand? At what stage do you compromise in order to achieve a greater good? And I am talking not necessarily about political decisions, but personal decisions. The other thing is the irony that for women, in particular, the war being one of the great moments of liberation. I want to mark the social changes that it brought about, the unintended consequences I guess.

How does the international nature of the drama – telling stories in Warsaw, Paris, Berlin, Manchester – help your mission to change our perspective on the war?

The advantage of writing an international drama is that the war started for a lot of other people, including Poland and France, a lot earlier. So it has been a joy to honour that struggle. I knew I was going to tell the story of Danzig and Warsaw in the first episode (above). So although we might be writing through a British lens, we are also reminding people that the Poles had a fairly major part to play in that war for us. Neither the British nor the French went in when the Poles were under the impression that we would. The siege of Warsaw happened soon after that. The German occupation pretty soon after that.

World On Fire
Sean Bean and Lesley Manville in World On Fire

We’ve never seen Sean Bean like this – his is quite a performance as a survivor of the First World War with PTSD who is now a pacifist…

He rang me and one of the things that swung it for him is that he wanted to make sure he didn’t die. But no, I wanted a man who looked physically powerful and had a powerful presence. Because the cliché of men with post-traumatic stress from the First World War would be played by somebody like Tom Courtenay, who is thin and nervy and neurotic. I wanted us to be able to see the man he had been before he was traumatised.

It comes down to the heroism of people who have mental illness in their day to day life. I am interested in where that for him is as much of an emotional need as well as a political need, in order to reclaim a version of his masculinity. People forget how relatively mainstream that was.

And finally, for us fans, will The A Word be back soon?

We are still filming at the moment. Thank you so much for that cover with Christopher Eccleston and Leon Harrop. It was iconic. I have got a poster of it. I have framed it. Chris and Leon got one as well.

World On Fire airs on BBC1 on Sunday nights. Catch-up on iPlayer…