TV blog: World on Fire

Benjie Goodhart / 27 September 2019

TV reviewer Benjie Goodhart looks at a new BBC One drama set during the outbreak of WWII.

World on Fire 1/7, Sunday 29th September, 9pm, BBC One

Nobody could say this new seven-part drama on BBC One lacks ambition. It tells the story of the first year of World War II, from the outbreak of hostilities in Poland to the Battle of Britain. There are plot strands occurring simultaneously in London, Manchester, Warsaw, Berlin, Paris and Danzig, a massive cast speaking a plethora of languages, and enough different storylines to bamboozle a plate-spinner. And this, apparently, is just series one. The idea, eventually, is to do the entire war. Honestly, the logistics of writing and producing something of this scale must make the planning of D-Day look like a low-key church fete.

The action opens in March 1939, in Manchester. An attractive young couple, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) and Lois (Julia Brown) are attending an event. Oh. It’s a meeting of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts. You’d not get me joining a group like that. Black is just soo drab. Plus, I’m not nuts about the whole fascist thing. Nor, come to that, are Harry and Lois, judging by their attempts to disrupt the meeting. Ouch. They’ll be even less keen after receiving a more than forceful request to leave.

The pair are subsequently arrested. Pacifist bus driver Douglas (Sean Bean) comes to the police station to plead for his daughter’s release. Harry’s rather formidable and snobbish mother Robina (!) (Lesley Manville) does the same, although when you’re that posh and that scary, you don’t have to plead with anyone. If we’d sent Robina to Berlin she’d have secured the Nazi surrender in September 1939.

Anyway, Robina doesn’t approve of ‘factory girl’ Lois, and reminds Harry that he is shortly to be posted abroad, to work as a translator. Not that that will make any difference – I know true love when I see it. Nothing could break these two apart. Five months later, Harry is working in Poland. Hmmm. Autumn 1939… Poland… something rings a bell about that. Anyway, Harry is in love with a Polish girl, Kasia (Zofia Wichlacz). Oh Harry! You do make it difficult for men not to come across as total twonks.

Meanwhile, an American journalist, Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt, no less), is out searching for a story in Poland. She finds one: To all intents and purposes, she’s discovered the start of World War II, with the Germans invading Poland. As scoops go, it’s no ‘Love Island pair split’, but it’s not bad!

In case you’re worried I’m giving away too much information, rest assured, all of this action takes place in the first few minutes of the episode. And apologies for giving away the German invasion of Poland – although if you were unaware of this particular plot point from 1939, there is probably very little hope for you.

The very fact that all of this happens in the opening minutes of the episode gives you an indication of the cracking tempo of the plot. And we’ve not even mentioned Kasia’s brave and patriotic family, or Nancy’s beloved Paris-dwelling nephew, or Lois’ ne’er-do-well brother.

The one false note in the whole thing comes when Lois and her dad and brother are listening to the wireless, to what is almost certainly the most famous bit of radio in British broadcasting history. You know the one – you’ve heard it in virtually every wartime drama ever committed to celluloid, with Chamberlain grimly intoning: “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.” In the midst of the most important broadcast ever made, the family are chatting the whole way through. I can’t stand it when people talk through an ad break, let alone during the start of a cataclysmic global conflict.

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What Britain Buys and Sells in a Day 1/3, Monday 30th September, 9pm, BBC Two

Remember the old days? Ahh, they were great, weren’t they? I mean, not the proper old days, when there was no internet and very few TV channels and blancmange was served without irony. I mean the old days as in 2015, when people didn’t bang on about trade deals all the time, and when none of us had heard about WTO Rules.

Now all of that chat is everywhere. You can’t nip out for a pint of milk without getting involved in a six-hour debate about the benefits or otherwise of a free trade agreement, frictionless borders, import/export deficits and trading blocs.

Against such a backdrop, the BBC has made a new three-part series, looking at what we import and export, where from, how, and why. In a climate where our trading relationships are potentially on the brink of seismic change, and in a world where there are profound environmental implications to who we do business with, this programme has never felt more relevant.

At least, that’s the theory of it. In practice, by the end I didn’t really feel better informed on any of the epochal issues facing our country, our continent and our world. But I did know more about avocado production in Peru and tomato-growing in Holland so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

The programme is presented by Ed Balls, Ade Adepitan and Cherry Healey, whose name makes her sound like the lovechild of a Datsun and an Austin. Tonight, they are covering the fruit and veg trade. Half of our veg, and almost all of our fruit, is imported, much of it through London Gateway, which sounds like a local supermarket chain but is in fact a huge high-tech port in Essex. Ed Balls is here, overseeing the vast influx of perishable goods. They come in on huge refrigerated containers called reefers. It would be an immature soul indeed who snickered every time Ed Balls mentioned large reefers, and I’d like to reassure readers that I didn’t laugh once. (This reminds me of the time I was a student, home from university, and was surprised when my mother suggested to me that it was always a nice idea to have a joint on a Sunday).

London Gateway uses some of the world’s biggest quay cranes to unload ships. Ed joins crane operator Emily, who looks about 15, and is working a 12-hour shift in a crane 16 storeys high, in a booth with a glass floor. It’s enough to make your palms sweat just watching.

A less intense experience is watching Cherry visit an office where a bunch of men are buying and selling fruit and veg over the phone. Not to put too fine a point on it, this may be the most boring sequence ever committed to celluloid.

Of more interest is Ade’s trip to an avocado farm in Peru. It is built on land that has been reclaimed from the desert, and is, frankly, absurdly vast. It has a staff of 17,000, and during harvest, 6.5 million avocados are picked every day.

Back home, Cherry meets an apple farmer, and discovers that any oversized apples deemed too big for the British market are sent to the Middle East. “You’re sending these to the MIDDLE EAST?” she remarks, incredulously, as if he’d just announced he were shipping his crop to Uranus. Later on in the show, she expresses utter bewilderment that potatoes can be exported to Ireland; she’s clearly someone for whom global trade is a consistently remarkable and fascinating thing.

Unfortunately, I beg to differ. What this programme essentially shows is that we buy some things from abroad, and ship them in on big containers. That is pretty much the sum total of it. And even I, with my less-than-extensive grasp of global trade, kind of already had a handle on that.




The best… and the rest:

Sunday 29th September

Inside the World’s Multi-Million Pound Mega Mansions, 9pm, Channel 5: You can’t beat a good snoop around somebody’s house – all the more so if it’s an absolute palace. Property porn at its finest – even if it does make you look at your two-bed semi in Frinton in a slightly different light.

Monday 30th September

999: Britain from Above 1/2, 8pm, ITV: The emergency service documentary gets an aerial makeover, as cameras follow the National Police Air Service in action.

Tuesday 1st October

Snackmasters, 9:15pm, Channel 4: First Dates concierge Fred Sirieix presents a new series which sees top chefs try to recreate some of the nation’s favourite snack brands. Tonight, two chefs go head-to-head to recreate the KitKat.

Wednesday 2nd October

The Apprentice, 9pm, BBC One: 16 vacuous narcissists whose self-belief far outstrips their ability go head-to-head in gladiatorial-business-combat and then try and blame each other when it all goes nipples north. All to impress a grumpy man with a beard who keeps pointing and shouting. Mystifyingly popular.

The Science of Sleep: How to Sleep Better 1/2, 9pm, Channel 5: Gaby Roslin and Amir Khan (not that one) present a two-part documentary examining the secrets of a good night’s kip. They also conduct a sleep deprivation experiment, and help an extreme snorer and a sufferer of night terrors.

Thursday 3rd October

The Met: Policing London 1/7, 9pm, BBC One: Third series of the observational documentary that follows the boys-and-girls in blue as they patrol the streets of our capital city.

Friday 4th October

Inside the Cockpit: The Concorde Crash, 9:15pm, Channel 5: It seems unthinkable that the Concorde crash outside Paris took place almost 20 years ago. This one-off documentary examines the theories as to what brought down Air France Flight 4590, killing all 109 on board.

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