KLCS’ exclusive interview with Homefires creator Simon Block. Both seasons of Homefires are now steaming on KLCS | Passport.
After Season Two, Home Fires was canceled by ITV, just as PBS viewers were starting to enjoy this female-driven ensemble set in World War II rural England, where the fear of Nazi invasion was a daily reality. Fans around the world campaigned to bring the show back to at least have closure for some cliff hangers in that final episode. Creator Simon Block wrote a book in response to their requests, so fans could have their fix of these interesting characters who were members of the Women’s Institute in war-ridden Europe, the second book was released this October. KLCS members can stream both seasons of “Home Fires” on KLCS | Passport available online and via the PBS app. We talk to Simon about the show’s inception, as well as ask if there’s any possibility it could come back to the small screen someday.
How did you come to bring “Home Fires” to TV?
I came across the book “Jambusters” pre-publication, which was a non-fiction, historical account of the work of the Women’s Institute during the war in Britain. I introduced its author to a television producer I knew who specialized in drama of that era. The company the producer worked for purchased the rights to the book and approached me to create a drama loosely based around the work of a Women’s Institute branch in Northwest England during the war. This was then commissioned by the British television network, ITV.
Since it’s set during World War II, did you have to do extra research to get more of an idea of that time, or was the book enough to work from?
The book provided a lot of factual information about the work of the Women’s Institute, but less so about the way people lived during the war. So there was a lot of extra research to get an accurate idea of that time, and an accurate idea of what was going on in the war then – for which we were lucky to have the archivist for the Imperial War Museum as a consultant for the show.
What’s been the most popular sentiment from the many fans around the world about this show?
Two things. Firstly, they enjoyed a drama that was about women and women’s lives; and women of a certain age who don’t always get a look at with contemporary drama series. I think many found it a relief from contemporary drama that is so frequently crime oriented, with all the contemporary requirements for blood and gore (usually at the expense of female victims). Here was a show that had no crime, no blood and guts, just human emotions arising from trying to live one’s life through a very difficult period. They also greatly appreciated the sense of community and pulling together that runs through the show, especially told from the female perspective. Secondly, they are very angry that it was axed after two series when it was going from strength to strength. I think fans of the show felt they were effectively being told they didn’t count as an audience.
It’s set in a town called Great Paxford in Cheshire, where was the actual location for this fictional town and were you on set a lot during filming? Being in that rural area away from today’s modern buildings and fast-paced life, must’ve helped the cast get into character?
The actual location is a town called Bunbury, in Cheshire. I wasn’t on set a lot (two days for both series), but I’m sure the original buildings of the village helped the actors feel they were rooted in the period.
It’s a special show in that it has a large female-driven ensemble, but many women had to step up during World War II. How was it to create these deeper storylines with the war as the backdrop?
It was a fascinating act of imagination to find the drama in the lives of those who had “been left behind”. But of course, they hadn’t been left behind because Germany quickly brought the war to the U.K. mainland via the Battle of Britain and then in swift succession, the threat of invasion and the Blitz. On top of that, many families very quickly had to deal with loved ones lost or captured in the evacuation at Dunkirk. I never felt the war was “a backdrop” as such, because it infused every aspect of daily life. One never knew when the air raid siren would go off. Or when one might receive a telegram informing of the loss or disappearance of a son or husband. Once I understood just how enmeshed people who were living in the U.K. were in the war it became easier to develop storylines for the characters.
There is a storyline of spousal abuse that is hard to watch, yet, unfortunately realistic no matter what era we’re in. Was that storyline hard to write about and was there a lot of viewer feedback on this arc?
It may come as a surprise but it wasn’t hard to write about because it was a storyline where one character was very clearly being treated terribly by another. There was almost no ambiguity about it whatsoever, so in that sense it was dramatically easy to write as I wasn’t trying to pull any punches. The challenge lay in not allowing the storyline to become exploitative of the scenario of domestic abuse/violence, which would be all too easy to do. So, it became quite important that the character of Pat wasn’t entirely broken by her husband’s behavior. There was a defiance and a growing hatred towards him for the way he treated her. And of course, as the story progressed, she discovers love elsewhere, which helps her cope with its absence at home. This storyline did seem to resonate very strongly with viewers, possibly because it was very easy to take sides with Pat against the tyranny of Bob. There was no excuse for his behavior, yet I wanted to make him not just unpleasant but unpleasant in a rather complicated way. It would be too easy to have made him “a monster” when everyone is a product of their experience and psychology. Pure evil is not all that interesting dramatically because it’s almost unhuman, and therefore very difficult to understand. Bob is weak, and this weakness expresses itself via his antagonism towards his wife. That dynamic was interesting to write.
Teresa Fenchurch, played by Leeanne Best, seemingly comes to town to seek a new life, and refuge from her own sexual identity, until she reveals to her landlord Alison Scotlock, played by Fenella Woolgar, that she’s gay. How realistic was that for women in that time and have you heard from fans knowing older women who went through a similar journey?
I think it was realistic that lesbian women had to conceal their sexuality from public view – especially in a small community. I don’t know if they had to go as far as Teresa and move from a city to a rural village, but it seems fairly plausible that someone might have had to move town or district to get away from rumors that may be circulating about their sexuality. Especially if they were in a prominent position, such as a teacher. I have heard from a few fans of the show about similar women who had to be very careful about hiding their sexuality. Of course, sadly many felt the best way to do this would be to marry and have a family.
Frances Barden, played by Samantha Bond, who viewers may recognize from “Downton Abbey” becomes the leader of the WI, which is a focal point of the women in town. She’s also a sympathetic character, it seems always trying to do good and rise above the challenges presented, which seem like many during the war. Is that how you saw her?
Basically, yes. I saw her as a character who regarded the women of the Women’s Institute as her “troops” that she had to rally and encourage and lead to great efforts to help keep the country going on the home front. Because if the country collapsed on the home front, the fight against Nazism would grind to a halt.
What storyline and/or character did you most like writing about?
This will sound like a cop-out, but I really didn’t have a favorite storyline or character. Each is different, and each was a challenge in a slightly different way. I had a very simple test to see if a storyline was working for me. It had to move me as I was writing it. Take me by surprise. Then I knew I had struck a core truth about that particular story.
After the show was cancelled, fans around the world protested and you wrote a book to help answer some unfinished storylines that viewers wanted to know. How was that process and did it become your own story at that point to create, even though the show was created based on the book “Jambusters” by Julie Summers?
Home Fires was always my own story. The book by Julie Summers was a non-fiction, historical account of the Women’s Institute across the United Kingdom during the Second World War. While the show did incorporate some of the Women’s Institute’s activities during the war, Jambusters contained no characters or storylines that were used in the television show. These were all created by me for the show. Consequently, it was very easy for me to continue the story in novel form, much as I had written the show.
Does your book provide closure to these characters, or, might we have more to the story of these lovely characters in another time and place? And is there any talk of bringing your book to TV or a streaming service for those who want to see these characters again?
The books (a second one is out in October 2019) continue the story of the characters from the show. As you might expect, some stories come to a natural conclusion, while others continue for as long as they need to. There is no talk of bringing the books to a streaming service. Home Fires continues in book form. It will never be resurrected on screen.
Is there anything you’d like to add or say that we haven’t asked about for fans who loved this show and wished it were still on?
I receive many lovely messages telling me how much people have enjoyed the show. And others, expressing their dismay that the show was cancelled so abruptly, and so needlessly (its ratings were very good in the U.K. and it was selling very well around the world). It was cancelled due to internal politics at ITV. Immediately afterwards, its producers tried extremely hard to find another home for the show with another channel. But for a variety of reasons it wasn’t possible. I think a lot of people read about one or two instances where programs are axed on one channel and then taken up by another. But this is very, very rare. A lot of people seem to think that the show didn’t get taken up elsewhere because we didn’t try hard enough. I’m afraid that’s patently untrue. Every single avenue was explored rigorously. We all wanted the show to continue, and we all had a great deal to gain by its continuation. But it wasn’t to be. I would rather fans of the show watch the first two series again if they want to, but accept that the stories will only continue via the books. I see little point holding out any hope that the show will be brought back to TV. Not only did we achieve an extraordinarily talented cast that would be almost impossible to reconvene due to their demands elsewhere, the further away from the cancellation we move the older the characters would look in comparison to when they were last seen on screen. It simply wouldn’t work.