It’s possibly not a great sign of a Britain at ease with itself that the historical character most likely to show up in a TV drama now seems to be Oswald Mosley. But the week after his starring role in Peaky Blinders ended, there he was again, right at the beginning of BBC1’s next Sunday-night drama. World on Fire opened with Mosley addressing a 1939 Manchester rally, where he duly whipped up his supporters and reminded the rest of us of the dangers of extremism.
Luckily, there were two people in the hall brave enough to protest: salt-of-the-earth northern lass Lois Bennett and her much posher and therefore much stiffer boyfriend Harry Chase. Less luckily, their reward was to be thrown into neighbouring police cells, from where they were collected by their even more carefully contrasted parents. Douglas Bennett (Sean Bean) impressively manages to be both more salt-of-the-earth and more northern than his daughter — and if Robina Chase (Lesley Manville) has ever made a non-snooty remark in her life, we certainly didn’t hear it on Sunday.
But as it (very quickly) transpired, there’s a lot more to World on Fire than merely the battle for the soul of Britain. The commendably ambitious aim of its writer Peter Bowker is to make a coherent drama out of the effects of the second world war on several different families and individuals all over Europe — and so far he’s doing a remarkably good job.
The first episode naturally had plenty of business to do, what with having to introduce characters based in Britain, Poland, Germany and France, and to establish why they’re all in the same series. Yet, by the end, not only had this mission been accomplished, but we’d also been given an exhilarating hour of television.
Because of that need to combine the big picture with so many small ones, the programme’s tendency to broad-brush characterisation can surely be forgiven. And so too can its use of coincidence. Harry, for example, turned out to be so fluent in Polish and German that he was sent as an interpreter to the British embassy in Warsaw, where he met a hard-boiled American journalist called Nancy (the Oscar-winning Helen Hunt), whose much-loved nephew lives in Paris where he’s obliging enough to fulfil the demands of 21st-century television by having a relationship with a hunky black saxophonist. And before long, Harry himself was seeing Kasia, a local waitress whose brother and father then headed to Danzig to fight the invading Germans in the episode’s most viscerally affecting scenes. Back in Warsaw, Harry and Kasia knew the Germans would invade there too — but they (and we) were still astonished by the ferocity of what the world would soon learn to call Blitzkrieg.
Of course, it may yet prove that Bowker has put so many elements into play — with the promise of more to come — that he’ll run into problems juggling them all over the next six weeks. Sunday’s opener, though, gave every impression that we’re in safe hands.
But if even World on Fire isn’t enough to satisfy your star-studded historical-drama needs, Sky Atlantic can offer you Dame Helen Mirren in Catherine the Great (Thursday). This is written by Nigel Williams, who as a novelist has always shown a winning respect for genre. If he’s writing a dark comedy, not many paragraphs will pass without a good black joke; if it’s a thriller, the thrills are guaranteed to abound. Now he brings the same scrupulousness to bear on Catherine the Great — right from the opening captions that inevitably referred to her ‘turbulent reign’.
So it is that the characters helpfully provide the information we require by telling each other things they already knew. (‘Look at Orlov,’ somebody said to a friend early on, ‘the man who put her on the throne and now wants some of it for himself.’) We also get an extremely neat delineation of Catherine’s many contradictions as a liberal autocrat, a Russian patriot from Germany and a woman with a steely commitment to romantic flightiness.
The other aspects of the programme display a similarly whole-hearted dedication to the conventions of its chosen form. The music swells in all the right places. Mirren is supplied with any number of sumptuous clothes and locations in which to do her familiar regal turn.
Yet, while the result is a perfectly solid slice of classy costume drama, there is perhaps one rather ungallant elephant in the room. Whereas Catherine was in her mid-thirties during the events of Thursday’s episode, Mirren is 74 — which, at the very least, lends a slightly different feel to her relationships with various handsome army officers. This is not an easy thing to suggest in public, but could it be that Dame Helen is a tiny bit miscast here?