When I set out to write a history of the activities of the Women's Institute of England and Wales in 2009 I had no inkling that it would lead to a full-blown television drama series. I am a historian, so the suggestion that a village women's institute might be a potential seed of an idea for a drama came not from me but from the brilliant mind of Home Fires' creator and writer, Simon Block. He and I met in 2012 when I was on an Arvon Foundation script-writing course. I told him about my book on the WI and to my surprise he was very interested. I think he immediately saw the potential for a women-led drama. He wrote to me after reading Jambusters:
'Your book opened my eyes to the great extent WI women mobilised to make such a huge contribution, generating a fantastic spirit of 'community'. The fact that this was largely unknown left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised.'
Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book. But how to translate historical non-fiction, the voices of real women, and the goings on in the Second World War on the Home Front, into a television drama that would pack a punch but remain true to the history? Francis explained that normally an author is not involved in drama development. However as my book was to be the inspiration for the series rather an adaptation I was retained as a consultant. Simon Block describes Jambusters as the DNA of Home Fires.
I have the pleasure and excitement of being involved in story-lining. My role is to produce the history of the war and the situation at the time of the WI. The book is there to be mined but what I can also offer is perspective on the view from the Home Front at the time. We all know how the Second World War ended but in 1939 there was no certainty of outcome and certainly not in 1940 when everything looked very bleak. For the first series I emphasised the mood in Britain during the Phoney War, when a kind of paralysis set in. The country was at war but nothing was actually happening. The second series, by comparison, is set against the dramatic summer of 1940 when the Allies retreated from Dunkirk, France was occupied by the Germans, invasion loomed and the Battle of Britain was fought in the skies. Armed with this information the script-writers could get on with their work in the knowledge that the history they were weaving into the scripts was as accurate as possible. And that is where my input ends.
I am not involved in the production, though I am allowed to visit the set in Cheshire once or twice during filming. My first visit to set was in September 2014 with my son. Nothing could have prepared me for the thrill of seeing the black and white world I have known for the last fifteen years through pictures, words, diaries and books come alive. The scene the team were filming was the opening sequence series 1. The farmer and her son were driving a herd of shorthorn cattle into a Cheshire farmyard. Simple as that. But for me it was an emotional explosion. There were smells, so familiar from my childhood now linked with Simon's drama. There was noise, colour, movement, heat and energy. It was overwhelming and I had tears in my eyes when I saw Steph, played by Clare Calbraith, encouraging the cows into the yard. 'Slow as you like, Stan', she says to her son. Slow as you like indeed. I didn't want it to stop. And because this is television, it did not. There were several takes.
The filming for Series 2, which has just aired in the UK, took place last autumn. The weather was not as kind and as I paddled through a sea of mud in the Unit Yard I reflected that television drama may look sleek and glamorous but the reality is that behind the scenes it is just as hands on a job as writing a book. Except that there are about as many people in the Make-Up truck as there are in the whole production of one of my works of non-fiction. Home Fires has opened my eyes to a whole new world but secretly I am happiest in a library with a good book and silence.
Home Fires Series 2 now available on DVD and Digital Download
ITV Studios Global Entertainment