Monday 28 March 2016

How to Make a Drama out of a Crisis by Julie Summers

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. None at all. So you can imagine that it has been a journey of many exciting twists and turns: to create a drama out of the greatest crisis to hit the lives of those living in the middle of the twentieth century.

First things first. I am a historian, not a script-writer, 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 on a course in the beautiful English county of Devon in 2012. Simon was one of two tutors on a TV script writing course. If I am not script writer, what was I doing on this course? It’s a good question and one I asked myself several times during the week. I had written ten books and fancied that writing in a different format or discipline might be a new challenge.

Home Fires © ITV

At the end of the course Simon and I discussed the fact that I did not want to become a script writer but that storytelling was my great passion. I told him about my book on the WI, which I had just submitted to the editor in its final draft, and to my surprise he was very interested. I think even back then he could see the potential for a women-led drama set against the backdrop of the Second World War. He wrote to me earlier this year with his thoughts:

‘Like most people I think, I had no idea of the extent and importance of the role played by the WI during the Second World War. Not only in regard to its activities aimed at supporting the home front but also in terms of the support and friendship it offered to often isolated women who needed the companionship of other women like never before - even if for a few hours a month. The 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 (as is often the case with women's history) left me feeling it was a significant episode in British culture that should be more widely recognised. Plus, it offered a fantastic opportunity to write about a lot of women in their own right, and not merely as adjuncts to - or victims of - various men, which is so often how women are portrayed in television drama.’

 Selling jam in episode 1 of Home Fires © ITV

Simon approached Catherine Oldfield at ITV Studios and we were introduced. Within an hour of meeting Catherine I knew that I could trust her with my work and within four days she and her boss, Francis Hopkinson, had taken out an option on my book, Jambusters (Home Fires in the USA). That meant ITV Studios would be able to work up a first script and submit it to the television networks in due course.  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 Hopkinson explained to me that in the normal course of events an author is not involved in drama development. However this appeared to be a slightly unorthodox situation as my book was to be the source for inspiration rather than adaptation. Simon Block describes it as the DNA of the series.

So I was retained as the historical consultant to the scripts, which means that I have had the immense good fortune and delight to have been involved in meetings when story lines were discussed. My role is to produce the history, when required, of both the progress of the war and the situation at any given point in time of the WI. I was able to offer a sense of background for the first series, emphasising the mood in Britain during that strange period called the Phoney War: the country was at war, the British Expeditionary Force was guarding the Maginot Line in France, but nothing was actually happening. It produced a kind of paralysis in the country, which changed into anxious boredom and then the acceptance of the calm before the storm.

Erica Campbell hitches a lift with Steph Farrow,  Home Fires © ITV

All the characterisation was developed by Simon Block and he knows each of the men and women in his drama intimately. In a fascinating three day meeting ‘in conclave’ in April 2014 five of us sat down, with tea, coffee and cakes (WI style), and discussed the back-stories to all the main characters. Nine months later we were back in conclave considering the possible story lines for a second series and that is when I realised they are moving slowly through the war and this next series only takes us up to the end of summer 1940. As my mother’s friend said to me with a grin: ‘Julie, there’s a lot of war left!’

Domestic violence was prevalent in the 1940s Home Fires © ITV
My involvement stops with the scripts. The production is a whole different game and I find it both fascinating and bewildering. When I write a book there are perhaps half a dozen people involved – editor, copy-editor, proof reader, publicist and so on. That is about the same number of people working in the make-up truck on the set of Home Fires. On my first visit to set in September 2014 I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the enterprise. Watching the filming of series 2 was no less magical, just a great deal more muddy. I have enjoyed the experience enormously but I think I made the right decision to stick to writing and story-telling. I’ll leave television to the professionals.
Home Fires Season 2 starts on ITV on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm and will be seen on PBS later in the year.

Home Fires © ITV


Sue Bursztynski said...

How exciting for you! Congratulations and now I must chase up your book. I haven't seen Home Fires/Jambusters, but will chase that up too.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Sue. I hope you enjoy Home Fires if you get to see it.

Joan Lennon said...

This sounds like so much fun - congratulations!

Bev Newman said...

I loved series one and can't wait for series 2. It puts the reality with the memories my grandmothers, their sisters, daughters and friends used to share with us as children.

Bev Newman said...

I loved series one and can't wait for series 2. It puts the reality with the memories my grandmothers, their sisters, daughters and friends used to share with us as children.

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