World on Fire is an example of the UK’s current ‘high-end’ TV production boom. This 7 x 60 mins episodes serial attempts to follow multiple characters, mainly young men and women, through the first year of the Second World War from the German invasion of Poland up to the Battle of Britain. It is a ‘long form narrative’ complementing recent ‘short form narratives’ such as State of the Union. As a formal project this differs from more typical British serials adapted from ‘classic’ (or not so classic) novels and feels more like the original serials developed for US cable TV. Surprisingly perhaps, World on Fire does not seem to have required US funding or to be an official co-production with a European partner. I think that the production has been sold to PBS in the US and I would expect it to sell to Poland and other territories. The production company Mammoth Screen is actually owned by ITV Studios but Mammoth’s projects are often, like this one, screened by the BBC. Presumably the production benefited from the tax schemes for high-end TV programmes. This is the new ecology of TV but does it work to produce interesting narratives?
The writer of the serial is Peter Bowker, a Northern lad with 25 years of writing for TV and many hits. My two favourites would be Blackpool (2004) and Eric and Ernie (2011) (from an idea by and starring Victoria Wood). More recently he has had success with three seasons of The A Word (2016-2019). My first thought was that Bowker might have been inspired by the German serial Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013). That controversial but very successful production took five young Berliners (men and women aged 18-21) in 1941, all friends before they set off on different ‘journeys’, mostly on the Eastern front. Three of the five survive to be re-united during the fall of Berlin in 1945. Bowker’s script for World on Fire focuses on a larger group of 8-10 characters, although interestingly it shares an interest in a young woman who is a singer, a young officer in the Army and a character acting as a guerrilla fighter in Poland. The German narrative had fewer characters and less time but was broadcast as three 90 minute episodes, i.e. each the equivalent of a cinema feature. It covered a longer time period, but not such a wide geographical spread. I mention these differences because at this point, after watching five out of seven episodes of World on Fire, I’m already worrying that there are too many separate stories, even though most of them are strongly linked together.
The promotional material suggests that the characters are ‘ordinary people’ whose lives are turned upside down by the outbreak of war. I’m not sure that is true for all the characters but it is important that the starting point for the narrative is a young middle-class man, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and a working-class young woman, Lois (Julia Brown) singing as a form of disruption of an Oswald Moseley fascist rally in Manchester in March 1939. Afterwards Lois will go back to work in a local factory and to her singing gigs at a local dancehall. Harry is sent to Warsaw as an interpreter for the British diplomatic mission. While there he will meet a young Polish woman Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz, who I saw recently in Spoor) and her family, her brothers and her parents. When the Nazis invade in September the stories of the Polish family (three separate stories) Harry’s mother (Lesley Manville) and Lois’s father (Sean Bean) and brother (Ewan Mitchell) will all develop. Also in Warsaw is an American correspondent Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who, as the invasion starts decides to go to Berlin. She is also worried about her nephew in Paris whose story will be picked up later when Paris falls. There is another narrative involving Nancy with a family in her Berlin apartment block. This story exposes a brutal aspect of Nazi ‘family policy’ but it doesn’t, as far as I can see, connect with the other stories
What should be clear, even from this brief outline, is that there are many stories and there isn’t much space to develop any one story without losing track of others. It also means that a major battle, the confrontation between the German pocket-battleship The Graf Spee and the British cruisers Ajax, Achilles and Exeter is over in a few spectacular and shocking minutes. I’ve seen the famous Powell & Pressburger film many times, but audiences without detailed knowledge may find the scenes difficult to comprehend. (Most take place below decks or on deck with only a few shots of CGI ships.) Kasia’s parents in Warsaw are played by the two top Polish actors who appeared in Pawel Pawlikowski’s award-winning films Ida and Cold War – but they appear only fleetingly. Comments like this appear in several negative reviews of the serial but it isn’t my aim to be negative, I’m simply pointing out some of the outcomes of the narrative structure. On the plus side, a piece in the Observer a few weeks ago praised the serial for its attention to the stories set in Poland. As I’ve noted the cast includes some well-known Polish cinema actors and although the main dialogue is in English, there is subtitling for much of the Polish, German (and later French) exchanges. Subtitled drama on BBC1 is rare.
Episode 5 sees the main narratives converging in the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk. I think that this episode demonstrates the strengths and possible weaknesses of Bowker’s script. But my personal view is that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. An unlikely group of characters are on the beaches during a 24 hour period. They include a British sailor, a Polish soldier, an American jazz musician and Harry, now a British infantry officer, with an oddly assorted group of soldiers he as taken under his wing (although Harry himself is not always totally in control). These include shell-shocked British soldiers and a couple of Senegalese soldiers. At one point several of the disparate characters are brought together through song. Harry joins his men in singing (quietly and plaintively, but with a sense of strength through solidarity) ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. The tune is picked up by the African-American jazz musician close to the beach and then by Lois who is singing as an ENSA entertainer in an RAF hangar. The editing has connected this moment to Kasia in Warsaw and to Harry and Lois’s parents in Manchester listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. This narrative device recall’s Bowker’s Blackpool which used similar devices from musicals. The whole Dunkirk sequence also links back to the debates around Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017). Bowker seems to have picked out characters such as the Senegalese soldiers to address contemporary concerns about representation. He does this throughout the serial, so Lois’s female partner from her singing career in Manchester is a Black British woman who joins Lois in ENSA. And while Lois sings we see that there are two other ‘people of colour’ in the RAF audience. I’m in effect naming Peter Bowker as auteur here, simply because he has written the whole serial. There are three different directors of separate episodes but the casting decisions may have been taken by producers or Mammoth executives, I simply don’t know. The point is that there was great diversity in the Allied forces, even in 1940. But in a sense it doesn’t matter if World on Fire is completely authentic. The casting may be colour blind or to seek that historical diversity. Either way it can be seen as an attempt to engage contemporary younger audiences with wartime narratives through human stories. I prefer this to the more technologically-driven ‘immersive’ cinema of Nolan. It’s also worth going back to Generation War and the debate after the screening involving historians discussing the accuracy of the representations and the importance of access to younger viewers. I also want to give credit to the four cinematographers on the serial with their mix of backgrounds and experience – Søren Bay (2 episodes), Suzie Lavelle (2 episodes), Mika Orasmaa (2 episodes), John de Borman (1 episode)
I’m going to watch the last two episodes and the first five are currently available in the UK on iPlayer. I’ve enjoyed all the performances but especially Julia Brown’s and the feuding between Lesley Manville’s ‘lady of the manor’ and Sean Bean’s shell-shocked First World War veteran. Here’s the ‘Benelux trailer’, stressing the attempt to produce a ‘European story’:
Malta Story screened on Talking Pictures TV a few weeks ago. I don’t remember seeing it before and I found it an intriguing watch for several reasons. The early 1950s fascinates me as a much-derided period of British filmmaking, but also a commercially successful one for some studios and a time when British audiences preferred British stars to Amnericans. The war films of the period have become the most derided by many film scholars and, perhaps not coincidentally they also appear to give comfort to the Brexiteers. Malta Story is a particularly strong example of a film celebrating the bravery and resilience of the Maltese people and the heroics of both the RAF and Royal Navy. It was one of the most popular films at the British box office in 1953. Sue Harper and Vincent Porter (British Cinema of the 1950s) report that the idea for the film came originally from the Central Office of Information under Labour (presumably in the late 1940s) as a propaganda film supporting the three armed services. This version would have been directed by Thorold Dickinson and written by William Fairchild. The project was eventually funded as a production of ‘British Film Makers’ a joint operation between Rank and the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Nigel Balchin developed the script and Brian Desmond Hurst took over as director for a production based at Pinewood with location shots on Malta and access to archive footage of air and sea battles in the Mediterranean. (The Talking Pictures print still announces the film as a ‘Theta Production’ – the company set up by Dickinson and producer Peter De Sarigny.)
As a child in the 1950s I was aware of the powerful mythology associated with ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, the three Gloster Gladiator bi-planes which defended Malta in 1940 in the early months of the war. But Malta Story deals with the later period when the island’s strategic importance made it the target for both German and Italian bombers, attempting destroy its defences for an invasion that would then allow the Axis powers to guarantee their own supply route to North Africa. One of the two lead roles in the film was taken by Jack Hawkins as the senior RAF officer, Air Commodore Frank. It is his responsibility to maintain the the airfields and the dwindling numbers of Spitfires for long enough to allow the RN to bring in reinforcements. He faces a Catch-22 situation since his aircraft are vulnerable on the ground or in the air in facing Luftwaffe superiority of numbers. But if he can’t protect the convoys carrying the reinforcements, they may be lost as well. The ‘inciting moment’ of the narrative is the arrival on the island of a reconnaissance flyer en route to Egypt. Frank gets permission to keep the flyer on Malta and to use him to monitor Italian ports and railways for an invasion build-up. The flyer is F/Lt Peter Ross, played by Alec Guinness. Ross has a double function in the narrative. First he provides the mechanism by which Frank can gain intelligence on enemy troop/shipping movements. Second, he can ‘personalise’ the story by falling for one of the young Maltese women, Maria (Muriel Pavlow) working in the RAF ops room. Maria’s family headed by her mother (Flora Robson) will also provide a secondary narrative about a possible spy in the shape of Maria’s brother.
In 1953 Jack Hawkins was at the peak of his popularity with British audiences. 1953 was also the year of his naval Commander in The Cruel Sea and his ex Army officer in The Intruder and the year before he had been in The Planter’s Wife resisting Malayan independence fighters. In 1952 he’d also had a senior RAF post in Angels One Five and the pioneering head teacher in Mandy. It’s difficult to think of another star actor who carried the same sense of authority and gravitas, but who could also be affable and avuncular and, when necessary, ruthless. I think Hawkins has tended to suffer in retrospect from charges of ‘stolidity’ but for me he is the outstanding male actor of 1950s British cinema. There is much more to him than the ‘stiff upper lip’. The top-billed actor on Malta Story is Alec Guinness but I confess I’m not always a Guinness fan. It seems he angled for the part of Ross as ‘something different’ and he does create an interesting character, the almost unworldly Cambridge archaeologist who had done some aerial photography pre-war. His courtship of the beautiful Maria is sometimes uncomfortable to watch because of his awkwardness but this is resolved in the final scenes which I did actually find quite moving, especially in Muriel Pavlow’s performance.
I’m wondering how much of the original script survived the ‘front office pressure’ of Rank’s John Davis and executive producer Earl St John. Balchin was both a celebrated novelist as well as a top scriptwriter of the period. My suspicions are raised by the relatively minor role played by the relationship between Anthony Steel’s Wing Commander Bartlett and Renee Asherson as another of the women working in the Ops Room. Steel is third-billed on the film’s poster and Asherson is billed alongside Muriel Pavlow but neither role seems to contribute much to the narrative development. Steel’s Bartlett should be the representative of the Spitfire pilots on the island (i.e. those defending the base) but because the role isn’t developed, the twin axis of the narrative is the ‘high command’ and Maria’s Maltese family headed by Flora Robson with what I assume is meant to be a ‘Maltese’ accent. Visually the film is dominated by the location shooting amongst the ruins and across the harbour skilfully edited with archive footage. Similarly in 1952/3 there were still wartime aircraft available to complement the archive footage. (Although because of the rapid development of marques during the war, the Spitfires are mainly later models than those of the 1942 Malta siege.) I didn’t particularly notice the use of model work on my TV screening but others suggest it is extensive in the film.
It isn’t easy to make a film with real narrative drive about a siege lasting several weeks. There is always the risk that the spectacle of aerial dogfights will overtake the drama faced by civilians on the Home Front and the military personnel on the ground in the harbour and on the airfields. There is also a danger in trying to tell too many stories and the 1969 Battle of Britain film fell into both traps for me. In this respect, Malta Story is strengthened by the drama of Ross trying to find a German convoy on its way to support Rommel at El Alamein. If he can do this, the struggles of everyone on Malta will have been worthwhile because the new British bombers which have eventually got through to the island will then be able to attack the German supply line. The irony is that Ross, the Cambridge archaeologist, should be the man whose single mission becomes so important. Several years later, Guinness played ‘Aircraftman Ross’, the assumed name of T. E. Lawrence in the RAF in a 1960 play by Terence Rattigan. Without the family, Malta Story might have become another 1950s war film showing the British middle classes winning the war through good management and strength of character. Ordinary people and ‘the lower ranks’ were important in the 1940s but in the 1950s establishment values were being re-asserted – or at least that is what several film scholars have suggested. History however, records that the ‘people of Malta’ were awarded a collective George Cross for their resistance in 1942 and this is included in the film. Later still Malta gained independence from the UK in 1964, became a Republic in 1974 and joined the EU in 2004. I wonder what the Brexiteers think of that?
Amma Asante has completed three more films since her first, the remarkable A Way of Life, appeared in 2004. That film won prizes as a small independent production but struggled to find an audience outside festivals and a limited UK release. Belle in 2013 brought her to the attention of North American audiences and a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox. A United Kingdom in 2016 continued her move towards international co-production and a bigger budget with two major stars in David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike. Each of these three films dealt with issues of identity in unusual circumstances and they proved difficult projects to get made despite help from the British Film Institute. The films were not without their critics but they did win prizes and some very enthusiastic audiences. Because Belle was a narrative that dealt with issues arising from the Atlantic slave trade in the 18th century it proved the most attractive to African-American audiences. Amma Asante is a British-Ghanaian filmmaker who has moved from acting to scriptwriting and writing-directing. She has very clear ideas about the kinds of stories she wants to put on screen. She has proved determined to present these stories in the most accessible way she can and each of her films is strong in terms of cinematography, editing and art direction. Equally, she draws strong performances from well-chosen casts. I’ve been impressed by all the films but there are critics who find her stories too conventional and lacking in sophisticated ideas. I don’t accept those criticisms but they have been there and I must admit to my concerns prior to watching Where Hands Touch. I was forced to watch the film on VOD just three weeks after its UK release because I couldn’t find it locally in cinemas. The film was released first in North America in September 2018, seemingly for only 3 days in 103 cinemas. In the UK it opened on only 5 screens and the following week was on only one. The distributor, Spirit Entertainment is mainly known for DVD/Blu-ray and VOD. Could the film be as bad as these indicators of a lack of faith in cinema distribution suggest?
I’m relieved to say that many of the criticisms from North American viewers and some critics are either malicious or just silly. There have also been some very enthusiastic responses, but there is something about the film that perhaps doesn’t work. Nevertheless, given the subject she has tackled, this is another win for a brave filmmaker. The story of how the film came to be made and the historical basis is laid out on Amma Asante’s website. I’ll just include a brief summary here.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 included the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland which would last until 1930. The French Occupation Forces included 25,000 to 40,000 ‘colonial troops’. A significant proportion of these soldiers were Tirailleurs sénégalais, West Africans from various African territories in the French Empire. Some of these men married local German women, but many babies were born to unmarried mothers and these became known in Germany as the ‘Rhineland Bastards’. Wikipedia quotes the British historian Richard Evans who suggests that these children comprised 500-600 new ‘Black Germans’. Where Hands Touch focuses on a teenage girl who grows up as one of the 500+. An important point to note here is that the children of a married couple automatically took their father’s nationality, but those born ‘out of wedlock’ took their mother’s nationality. When the Nazis came to power and began to implement policies designed to secure the ‘racial purity’ of ‘Aryan Germany’, they at first had more problems with the Rhineland Bastards because they were German citizens. But after 1937 they adopted a policy of forced sterilisation to prevent any further ‘mixed marriages’ (not only involving Black youth but also Gypsies and others deemed ‘non-Aryan’).
Plot outline (no major spoilers)
Leyna Schlegel (Amandla Stenberg) is a bi-racial girl of 15 in 1944 and still living in the Rhineland when her mother hides her to prevent her arrest by agents who would no doubt find ways to force her sterilisation. Leyna and her white little step-brother Koen are then taken to Berlin where they must try to be ‘invisible’. Leyna will eventually find it impossible to stay in a Berlin school and instead will move into factory work with her mother. False papers keep her safe and she starts a relationship with a young man she meets. He’s in the Hitler Youth, just like every Aryan child, including Koen. In late 1944/early 1945 Berlin is a dangerous place and it’s inevitable that Leyna will be arrested at some point. What will happen to her?
In one sense, this is a family melodrama with an emphasis on the drama. It is also a romance, a very dangerous romance. But in many ways the ‘action’ in the narrative is of less importance than the complicated questions and difficulties that surround Leyna’s sense of who she is. What is this identity in Germany in 1945? Leyna maintains that she is German. She has no other Black friends and no role models (her father disappeared some time earlier, when she was an infant). When she visits Lutz (George MacKay) he plays her a Billie Holiday record from his father’s collection and shows her images of female jazz singers. Leyna is thrown by this, she has had no chance to think about her African roots or about an African diaspora in America. Lutz is looking forward to being sent to the Eastern front. He wants to fight and to protect his country. But both Leyna and Lutz will have to deal with the questions of what it means to be German when they find themselves caught up in questions about how Jews are being killed in the camps.
I think that the central problem with the film is that Amma Asante started to write a story when she discovered the ‘Rhineland Bastards’ and the more she discovered, the more historical facts and issues she tried to include. There is an interesting analysis of ‘Black Germans in Nazi Germany’ by Professor Eve Rosenhaft on the Amma Asante website and we can see the clever way in which Asante has woven into the narrative all the questions and problems discussed. But in wanting the film to speak to mainstream audiences, Amma Asante has also chosen to develop a romance. A focus on emotional relationships has been Asante’s strategy in each of her films and generally I think it works well, but in this case it feels as if there isn’t enough room for the romance itself as well as all the other issues. It may be because the project has been so long in the making. It should have been Amma Asante’s second film – she felt very driven by a search through what she saw as the neglected history of Black people in other parts of Europe. But she couldn’t raise the finance to make the film until she’d had the successes of Belle and A United Kingdom. I’m wondering now if when she finally got to make it, she tried too hard to explore all sides of the story? The film is already quite long at 122 minutes. It may be that it would have worked better as a TV serial like Generation War (Germany-Poland 2013).
There are two issues here that might explain the less than stellar reception the film has received. I’ve indicated Amma Asante’s ambition and the possible problems of structure and the sheer scale of the narrative. It isn’t the fault of the actors Amandla Stenberg, fresh from her triumph in The Hate U Give (US 2018) (a film under-appreciated in the UK, I think) is excellent and George Mackay works as well as he can with the script. Unfortunately for UK audiences there is the feeling that he’s been 19-20 for quite a long time now after roles in successful British pictures such as Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Pride (2014) – he was approaching 26 when he played Lutz. I think his efforts to ‘act younger’ make him possibly weaker as a character. The rest of the cast includes heavy-hitters such as Abbie Cornish as Leyna’s mother and Christopher Eccleston as the father of Lutz, an interesting character who fought in the 1914-18 war and who now wants to simply survive the war and protect his son, using his relatively senior position. Between the four central characters Asante does manage to represent a range of attitudes and feelings amongst ‘ordinary Germans’ in a very difficult situation. But this is something that audiences (still) might not be ready to accept. The history of the war and the Holocaust is too often reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters and not conflicted characters who aren’t sure how and why they should act. I like the fact that the script makes clear that Lutz risks all for the romance – it is as dangerous for him as for Leyna.
This second issue about audiences and how they might understand, sympathise with or identify with characters is the most difficult challenge of all. There is also the decision to use English dialogue with the central characters mostly speaking without a noticeable accent, while some of the minor characters do. I’d be interested to see the film with a German cast or with a dubbed German soundtrack (as was the case with the recent Trautmann/The Keeper).
I hope my analysis hasn’t put you off wanting to watch this film. It’s an important piece of work and Amma Asante is a director who always produces interesting and valuable films. Finally, I wanted to mention the work of Remi Adefarasin, one of the few Black cinematographers in the UK. It’s good to see him as an industry veteran supporting Amma Asante and presenting Amandla Stenberg so beautifully on screen.
The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.
Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).
Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.
The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.
Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).
The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.