World on Fire is an epic series, with a huge cast of characters across Europe, as it canvasses the personal impact of the first year of World War 2. It follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people in five countries (Britain, Poland, France, Germany and the United States of America) as they grapple with the effects of the war on their everyday lives. The men are out there in prominent military roles, and on the battlefields, but the series encompasses the role of women in the war effort, too. Whether they’re entertaining the troops, running the resistance, or waving a knife at a Nazi’s groin, these are the women who run the World on Fire.
Lois Bennett (Julia Brown)
We first meet Lois when she gatecrashes a pre-war meeting of UK fascists alongside her boyfriend Harry (Jonah Hauer-King). Their noisy singing isn’t appreciated by the would-be Nazis; their romance isn’t appreciated by their parents. It’s them against the world, only the world is about to be plunged into a war that’s going to test them and everyone they know to breaking point.
In a more traditional take on the Second World War, these two lovers would be our viewpoint characters, their relationship the one constant in a world in flames. Here? After a quick jump forward in time the Germans are invading Poland, World War 2 has begun, she’s working in a factory as part of the war effort and Harry – who’s now working as a translator in Warsaw - is already cheating on her.
When he returns to the UK, he can’t hide what he’s been up to. But things have changed, and Lois has gone from her factory job to a gig as a professional singer entertaining the troops. Now that she’s surrounded by men, the shoe is on the other foot. Suddenly Harry doesn’t look like the dream catch he once was, and a whole new world is opening up for her – even if it turns out she’ll always have a reminder of what they shared.
Kasia Tomaszeski (Zofia Wichlacz)
When Harry starts his affair with Kasia, she’s a soft-spoken local waitress. He’s dreaming of settling down with her, but she’s more down to earth – which is hardly surprising considering the Nazis are overrunning her homeland. When it’s time to flee, she ends up giving her seat on the last train out to her younger brother Jan (Eryk Biedunkiewicz), putting him in Harry’s care while she stays behind to join the resistance.
Her carefree days are soon left behind as Warsaw is crushed under the Nazi jackboot and sabotage and assassination becomes part of her daily routine. Being part of the resistance is no part time job, and the risks both physically and to her metal state soon start to add up. But there’s no other options left to her, even if she wanted them: all she can do is continue to fight against the invaders until her time runs out.
Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt)
Harry’s neighbour in Warsaw, Nancy’s an American radio journalist in town to witness the German invasion. Unlike a lot of characters early on, she’s fully aware of the horrors about to be unleashed across Europe. She sees her job as trying to wake up the world to what’s really going on; her hard-boiled broadcast style doesn’t exactly go down well with the Nazi censors keeping an ear on her work. (her broadcasts are also pretty informative if you’re not already up on the history of World War 2).
Her real drama starts when she returns to her home base in Berlin (at this early stage of the war, the USA isn’t yet involved directly). Her neighbours, the Rosslers, have a daughter with epilepsy; under Nazi Germany’s strict eugenic policies, that’s a condition that sees you shipped off to a death camp. Nancy is committed to helping them – her hatred of Nazis isn’t exactly something she keeps under her hat – but she’s still a journalist and Nazi cruelty makes for great ratings. When she’s faced with a choice between protecting her neighbours and broadcasting to the world the Nazi’s mass extermination plans, which way will she go?
Robina Chase (Lesley Manville)
Harry’s mother starts out on the side of the bad guys, a cold-hearted stuck-up woman who’s openly supportive of the fascist movement in the UK. But there’s a twist: when Harry returns from Poland, he dumps Jan on her before rushing back to his wartime duties, leaving her to cope with a confused schoolboy refugee from a continent she openly scorns.
There’s plenty of comedy to be mined from this situation, and Manville’s acidic performance makes the most of her occasionally jaw-droppingly nasty dialogue without ever losing sight of her humanity. There’s a sad side to Robina that’s gradually revealed; while Lois’ pacifist father Douglas (Sean Bean) is basically her opposite in every way, they both share a past haunted by the previous World War.
World on Fire is a series about how the war changes people and how they don’t have to be fighting on the front lines to find their world turned upside down, with Robina turning out to be perhaps the clearest example of that. In a series full of characters whose lives twist and turn in directions they couldn’t predict, her journey is perhaps the most surprising of all.
World On Fire begins with a double episode on SBS Thursday 7 Jan at 8:30PM. With single episodes then airing weekly at 9:30PM on Thursdays. Episodes are available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast. Watch the trailer here:
Watch the first episode:
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