Keeping the Fire burning

Keeping the Fire burning

By Michael Pickard
July 14, 2023


World on Fire stars Jonah Hauer-King, Julia Brown and new cast member Ahad Raza Mir preview the second season of Peter Bowker’s BBC wartime drama, discuss its focus on ordinary people in extraordinary times and reveal how the Sahara Desert was recreated in Belfast.

During filming for the second season of World on Fire, Jonah Hauer-King would often be rushing back and forth between the North African desert and wartime Manchester, the city living under threat of nighttime Nazi bombing raids.

The actor’s filming schedule goes some way to demonstrate the scope and scale of the BBC drama, which tells the story of the Second World War through the eyes of ordinary people. Season one, which debuted in 2019, opened on the eve of the conflict, as Hauer-King’s interpreter Harry leaves home in Manchester to work in Poland, leaving behind Lois (Julia Brown) and then falling in love with waitress Kasia (Zofia Wichłacz).

Filming took place in Manchester and Prague, which doubled for Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. For season two, which launches on Sunday, the Mammoth Screen production shifted to Belfast to film a story that moves between the war-torn streets of Britain to Nazi Germany, occupied France and the North African desert, where troops struggle to adapt to a very different kind of combat.

“Harry bounces around quite a lot, and they split filming into two units – the yellow unit and blue unit,” Hauer-King tells DQ. “Yellow was the desert and blue was Manchester or other interiors. So I would often do the morning in one and the afternoon in the other with different directors.

Jonah Hauer-King stars as interpreter Harry in World on Fire

“You had to be pretty nimble with it and pretty prepared as well. The reality was we just had to shoot everything out of chronology, so it was quite important that we had our character and our journeys nailed down beforehand, because you would find yourself blown up in the morning from episode five and then you go in the afternoon into episode two and I’d be talking to Julia in the pub over a nice pint of bitter.”

Hauer-King jokes that he would often play the different units against each other, telling them both they were better than the other to create “some healthy competition.” But the actor also found it an “exhilarating” way to work.

“I’ve never worked like that before, where you have two crews going at the same time,” he says. “But it created this summer-camp feel and there was a good feeling of camaraderie, which was very nice.”

While four years have passed since World on Fire last aired, the story remains in 1940, with the first season covering March to July. S2 picks up in October, when Harry brings his now wife Kasia home to Manchester to live with his mother Robina (Lesley Manville). But complicating matters is his relationship with Lois, who gave birth to his daughter at the end of season one. Other returning characters include Harry’s platoon sergeant Stan (Blake Harrison), Parisian musician Albert (Parker Sawyers) and French Resistance fighter and nurse Henriette (Eugénie Derouand).

“When we meet them both again, they’re now parents, and what that means for their characters, we’ll see,” Brown says of Lois and Harry. “But we saw Lois in season one entering this world she knows nothing about and is unprepared for, being a single mother, and she has just become engaged to a striking pilot. What that will mean in season two, we’ll find out. But she’s moving into a whole new universe, plus also living through a war. It will be interesting to see how her relationship with Harry might change or adapt as they now have this joint responsibility.

In season two, Harry finds himself torn between two worlds

“She’s going through what you could describe as post-natal depression. She’s struggling to adapt to her new life and, in true Lois fashion, she just wants to go out and have some fun. But actually there’s a lot of pain and hurt and we see her going on a real journey through the whole of season two.”

As for “pretty impulsive and quite reckless” Harry, Hauer-King says that even though his character might have the best intentions, he continues to be a “wrecking ball” wherever he goes.

“Season two is about getting to know Harry again,” he notes. “He’s still that same person but he’s been through so much now, he’s more grown up. He really does want to do the right thing and there’s a tension there where, on the one hand, he’s wanting to pick up the pieces, wanting to be a good parent, wanting to be a good husband, while also battling some of those demons.

“He still has some of that self-destructive energy and is fighting this feeling of ultimately thinking he’s best at being a soldier and that’s where he should be. When he’s around his loved ones, he causes hurt. So the best way for him to have some purpose and have some meaning is to go and fight. But obviously he now has these big pulls back home as well. A lot of the season is him struggling between those two things.”

As the story expands in season two, so too does the cast. Mark Bonnar (Guilt) arrives as the mysterious Sir James Danemere, Gregg Sulkin (Runaways) is brave but reckless RAF pilot David and Miriam Schiweck (Der Staatsanwalk) plays German teenager Marga, a dedicated member of the Band of German Maidens.

Julia Brown (right) as Lois alongside George Webster as Ted

Meanwhile, Ahad Raza Mir (Resident Evil) also joins the show as Rajib, who leads a specialist unit of the British Indian Army. Both brave and foolhardy, Rajib insists he will not ask the men in his troop to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, which leads him to take charge of deactivating landmines and luring out snipers in the North African desert. It’s here that he later links up with Harry and Stan.

“One of the special things about the show is it’s history, and history is not just something that we learn in schools,” says Mir, who purposefully avoided watching S1 before he joined the show. “We see the impact of history in today’s world. Seeing all the things I learned happened in the Second World War was really interesting, because there were things I didn’t know about, especially when you look at how Indians came into the war. They weren’t just fighting the war itself; they were fighting a war for their country by fighting a war for another country. There are a lot of interesting things going on.”

When it comes to his character, “I can’t talk about Rajib without feeling a little heartbroken because the journey he goes on, without giving too much away, is that he goes through a bit of an identity crisis,” Mir says. “He thinks he’s doing things the way they should be, he think’s he’s on the right side of everything, but he’s kind of brought down by his own surroundings and the people he’s around. He sees himself as part of the Commonwealth in the same way as Canada and Australia. And when he gets there, he’s not being treated the same as everybody else. That takes him on a really interesting journey. As an actor, that was probably the most fun to play with.”

Fresh from playing Prince Eric in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Hauer-King had never come back to a series before, having only previously starred in big-screen movies or TV miniseries. “So it was quite a joy to come back in and see what that felt like, because it’s great knowing a character, feeling like you can step into those shoes again,” he says, noting how the new storylines will push the characters forward after setting the foundations in season one.

Preparing to play Harry again in the multi-language drama, his preparation balanced historical research of real events the show dramatises with leaning into the scripts written by creator Peter Bowker (The A Word), Rachel Bennette and Matt Jones.

Ahad Raza Mir plays Rajib, who leads a specialist unit of the British Indian Army

“Pete does a really brilliant job of making them feel like very real characters, even though they are fictitious. It’s about trusting the writing and the story that he is giving us,” Hauer-King adds. “It’s helpful to keep an eye on the facts and where you are going but, as much as possible, I was staying to the truth of the story we were telling.”

“Pete’s writing is so great because the issue with a lot of war dramas is they use flowery language or they try to make it more historical than it needs to be,” says Brown. “This is a fresh take on it. In season two, we see Lois take on a new role [as an ARP Warden], so I did a bit of research on that and also managed to find some personal accounts and read about that.

“It’s really powerful for me to see the women in their uniforms and then carrying out all the jobs in the war. That connected me a bit more to my character. It’s really important that young people like us continue to learn about this because it really wasn’t that long ago and, scarily, things like this could happen again.”

Mir similarly learned more about the events involving Rajib, while also discovering he had some family connections to the conflict.

“Before I left for Belfast to shoot, I was telling some family about the work I was going to do and I found out about grandparents and great-grandparents who were in the war and they had pictures,” he says. “It’s interesting to see them; it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. So much of what you see happen in the show is reflective of what’s happening in the world today in some way. That’s why shows like this are important, because you don’t just teach history – you also don’t want things repeating themselves.”

Zofia Wichłacz returns as Kasia, who is now married to Harry

With a cast of close to 100 actors, two units were filming simultaneously across a nine-week shoot led by directors Drew Casson, Barney Cokeliss and Meenu Gaur. The rapid pace of production, and the multiple storylines, meant some actors would only cross paths off set, but Mir says they were still able to build a strong bond during filming.

“Some of us never actually shared the screen together, and you learn about things from them, like, ‘What happened on your set today?’ ‘On our set, we were running from explosions so we had a great day,’” he says.

“Me and Jonah had our fair share of blowing dirt out of places I don’t want to mention. It’s been a pretty wild ride, especially for the boys who end up going to Africa. It was fun; we had this great bond in the cast and I loved sharing stories about what we’d done and where we’re all from. We all came from different places on the planet, me from very far away, so I had some interesting stories about life and it was a really nice experience with great people, great actors.”

“I remember in prep, when I’d gone to get my hair dyed, I’d gone in and seen all this sand around – it looked like an enormous sand pit,” Brown says of the desert scene inside the warehouse where filming took place. “Then it was amazing to go back and see the way they were able to create the worlds they did in the short space of time they did. The production team are wizards. The Manchester Blitz scenes were particularly incredible. Originally, I freaked out a little when they said they were shooting the desert in Belfast – how could they manage it? But they definitely pulled it off.”

“You would walk on set and you could smell the sand,” Mir adds. “I was smelling sand even after I went home at the end of the day.”

From the heat of the desert to escaping crumbling buildings, the danger facing members of the Resistance and thrilling air sequences as RAF and German pilots engage in dogfights high above the clouds, Hauer-King isn’t overstating the high stakes at play when he says every character in World on Fire “gets put through it a bit” in season two. But perhaps the biggest challenge facing the series, which is coproduced by Masterpiece in the US and distributed by ITV Studios, is having to tell a cohesive story across six episodes in the knowledge that the war continues beyond the season’s end.

“That’s a really delicate thing,” the actor agrees. “But each season feels like it has some closure to it while also leaving it open. That is really challenging, and Pete did that really beautifully. It’s about what have these characters learned, what are the challenges they faced, what have they gone through and how are they different, but you also know this isn’t the end. That makes it exciting and means there’s room for lots more to happen in the future.”

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