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’:
Cardinal is a Canadian TV police procedural series which has just completed its second season on BBC4 in the UK in the usual Saturday night slot for European noir crime serials. I had watched most of Season 1, but for various reasons didn’t finish it. I must now go back because I was very engaged by Season 2. For the last couple of episodes I switched the subtitles on and I found it much easier to follow the dialogue. The series is broadcast in both English and French in Canada I think. I don’t know if the French is dubbed. I assume that the English language version I watched was synch sound but it does follow that unfortunate Hollywood convention which allows actors to mumble. Apart from that I found it impressive.
The first two seasons of the show are adaptations of novels by Giles Blunt and the third and fourth seasons are expected to follow in a similar way. The first two books each get 6 x 42 episodes or just over 4 hours of screen time, just about enough to be classified as ‘long-form’ TV narratives, allowing a literary or cinematic pacing. Blunt himself is linked to the writing team on the adaptations (which don’t necessarily follow the order of the original novels). The setting is the fictional city of Algonquin Bay which appears to be very closely based on Blunt’s home town of North Bay in North-East Ontario, some 330 kms north of Toronto. North Bay is on the Canadian Shield giving a distinctive landscape and on the shore of Lake Nipissing. The area is part of the homeland of the Nipissing First Nation of Ojibwe and Algonquin peoples and this is an important element in Blackfly Season.
The central character is John Cardinal (Billy Campbell), a Detective from the Algonquin Bay Police who in Season 1 returns from Toronto to re-open an old case. He is under a cloud of suspicion and it will turn out that his new partner Lise Delorme, a Québécoise played by Karin Vanasse, is also checking on Cardinal for an internal investigation. Cardinal’s wife Catherine has been suffering from a bi-polar disorder and in Season 2 it will emerge that she has something to do with the suspicions about Cardinal’s activities in Toronto. This set-up suggests a familiar generic device – the younger woman who is super-efficient is partnered with the older man who has all the problems associated with a sick wife (and feelings of responsibility for a daughter at university in Toronto). It’s summer in North Ontario and the blackfly are biting when Cardinal and Delorme are called to investigate the case of a young woman who has been shot in the woods. A bullet has lodged in the young woman’s skull but she has survived although she has lost all memories of how she got into the woods. Gradually it becomes clear that a new group of heroin dealers has moved into the region and are now competing with the established drugs network run by the Northern Raiders bikers’ gang. How does Red (the girl in the woods) fit in with the drugs war? And is she connected to what appears to be some form of ritual killing with a mutilated body found in a cave?
There are a number of elements in this series which interest me. Aesthetically Cardinal follows some of the familiar features of Nordic/North European noirs. There are aerial shots of forests and lakes stretching for miles as a lone vehicle follows a narrow road. This could easily be Sweden in summer. The music and sound mix (another factor sometimes making dialogue difficult to hear) is another reminder of The Swedish/Danish serial The Bridge with a title song recalling both The Bridge and the French serial Witnesses through its ethereal voice and strings. This song, ‘Familiar’, is by the Danish singer/composer Agnes Obel who has contributed songs to various TV productions in Germany, Australia, UK and US. Todor Kobakov is the composer of the overall score for the series. The Nordic connections do work with the summer landscape but are perhaps even closer in Season 1, set in the harsh winter and reminiscent of the Iceland of Trapped (2015).
The story in Season 2 has many familiar elements including the drugs war, questions about possible corruption in the police force and a killer with childhood memories that ‘return’ in unfortunate ways. The intriguing ‘difference’ is the setting in a region with First Nation peoples. The third member of the investigating team is Detective Jerry Commanda (Glen Gould) who is cast as what the character himself calls a ‘native’ police officer. Glen Gould is listed on Wikipedia as an ‘Aboriginal Canadian actor of Mi’kmaq and Italian descent’, born in Nova Scotia. I was intrigued to see also (via IMDb) a casting call for Season 1 of Cardinal in which roles were listed, specifying ‘Aboriginal Canadian’ roles and roles open to ‘all ethnicities’. Commanda uses the names of different First Nations as well as ‘native’ and also refers to various ‘res’ or First Nations reservations. I wish I knew more about recent Canadian debates about First Nations and I’m intrigued as to how First Nations issues are developed in film and TV narratives and how the Canadian approach compares with that in Australia and New Zealand as well as in Scandinavia with Sami peoples. I don’t want to say too much about how the narrative develops in Cardinal because it could spoil the viewing experience.
Cardinal seems to have gone down pretty well in Canada and it has been sold to Sweden, Spain, Germany, Australia and the US. I’ll certainly look out for Seasons 3 and 4 and I’m also now intrigued to read Giles Blunt’s novels. Here’s the Canadian trailer for Season 2:
Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.
The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.
The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.
In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.
Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?
I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer: