“The world has averted its eyes to the buildup of German troops along the German-Polish border and Hitler’s threat to take Danzig by force,” Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt), American Radio International journalist, reports from Warsaw in late summer 1939. “The Poles have bicycles. The Germans have tanks.”
The warning falls on deaf ears, and the most destructive conflict in human history is about to begin.
World on Fire, a seven-part Masterpiece miniseries (Sundays at 9pm ET/PT beginning April 5 on PBS, check local listings) dramatizes the interwoven relationships of ordinary people in Europe who become embroiled in an unimaginable global calamity. Joining Hunt in the ensemble cast are Sean Bean as a British veteran of the Great War, Jonah Hauer-King as a translator working in Warsaw, Julia Brown as a factory worker moonlighting as a torch singer, Brian J. Smith as an American doctor in Paris, and Lesley Manville as a British fascist sympathizer.
Series writer Peter Bowker based several of the characters on actual people. Hunt’s character is an amalgam of American journalist/historian William Shirer and British reporter Clare Hollingworth. “[Hollingworth] literally was the woman who saw the Nazi tanks gathered on the Polish border,” Bowker says. “When she told the British embassy this, the British, being the British, said, ‘Well, the Germans wouldn’t do that. They’re good sports. They’re gentlemen. That’s not how you fight a war.’ So she wasn’t listened to.”
Bowker based Brown’s Lois Bennett character on his grandmother, who was in a musical duo during the war. Coincidentally, Brown’s own grandmother was a jazz singer during that era. “She used to sing these songs to me when I was younger, so getting the role was a strange personal full circle,” Brown says. “It was easy to draw on family stories and play the humanity of it and the characters by the stories that we’d been told growing up.”