With the show set across Europe and the United States, the cast of BBC One’s epic new World War II drama World on Fire is truly international.
Big names including Helen Hunt, Lesley Manville and Sean Bean appear alongside British stars Blake Harrison, Jonah Hauer-King and Julia Brown, and award-winning Polish actors including Zofia Wichłacz.
Created by multi-award winning writer Peter Bowker (The A Word, Eric and Ernie), World on Fire is an emotionally gripping drama that tells the story of World War II through the lives of ordinary people caught up in the conflict.
Ahead of the show's release on BBC One in autumn 2019, we reveal everything we know so far about the cast and characters of World on Fire.
BT TV customers can watch World on Fire on Sunday nights on BBC One. Never miss an episode with the BBC iPlayer app - under Players & Apps on BT TV.
Helen Hunt as Nancy Campbell
World on Fire stars Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets, Mad About You) as Nancy Campbell, a US war correspondent who can’t find peace unless her life is at risk.
According to The Guardian, Hunt’s character is a victim of sexual violence, loosely based on the trailblazing British journalist Clare Hollingworth, who broke the news of the outbreak of the Second World War.
Helen Zielger, an executive producer on World on Fire, confirmed the inspiration for the character of Nancy Campbell at the launch of the show: “She’s based on an amalgamation of a few journalists writing at the time including [the Telegraph’s] Clare Hollingworth and [Vogue’s] Lee Miller.”
Of her female war correspondent character in the series, Hunt told the Guardian interviewer: “I remember feeling that Campbell was contemporary. She’s ahead of everybody in the story and knows what’s coming before other people do. It all seemed very immediate to me, and relevant.”
Speaking of casting Helen Hunt in the role, the show’s creator Peter Bowker said: “That’s always slightly surreal. It’s Hollywood!”
He continued: “She was very, very forensic about the scripts. She’s great. She’d ask ‘do I smoke?’ and I’d say ‘yeah I think maybe you could’ and she’d go ‘I’ll hand roll my cigarettes’.”
Lesley Manville as Robina Chase
Academy Award-nominated and Olivier Award-winning actress Lesley Manville (Mum, Phantom Thread) plays matriarch Robina Chase in World on Fire - the mother of Harry Chase (played by Jonah Hauer-King).
The show’s creator Peter Bowker confirmed that Manville was always ‘at the top of the list’ for the role.
He confessed: “I didn’t think we’d get her, in fact there was a strong chance we wouldn’t get her. She’s just astonishing. I bored Lesley to death because all I ever did was tell her how great she was in [sitcom] Mum.”
Jonah Hauer-King, who plays Manville’s character’s son Harry in the show, says Robina Chase is very much “aspiring to be very affluent”
Hauer-King and Manville filmed scenes together for around six months in both Prague and Manchester. Of working with Manville, he told us: “She was a very generous person and actor, with her time. She’s so experienced, and aware for many of us that this is a big undertaking, and she reached out to us and said she was there for any advice she’s there.”
He added: “I worked with Lesley before I watched Mum, then got very friendly with her, then watched Mum. She’s so good in Mum, and so kind and loving, and she’s very different in this. Seeing the range she had to go from totally opposites was really cool.”
Sean Bean as Douglas Bennett
Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones actor Sean Bean is also part of the cast. He plays Mancunian Douglas Bennett, who from the trailer we know is the father of Lois Bennett (played by Julia Brown).
Of joining the cast, Bean said: “I am thrilled to be part of this ambitious drama. Peter Bowker’s study of the human stories that thread through this huge global conflict is fascinating and something I look forward to being part of on screen.”
Talking about casting Bean in the role of the troubled former soldier, Bowker said: “I think Sean [Bean] was pretty much always there. I knew I wanted to write somebody who had PTSD, or shell shock as it was known at the time.
“I was interested in a character who you’re asking big questions of. I wanted somebody who we felt had immense power, and partly because Sean has that, and because of seeing him in Broken… his main concern when I rang him was that he didn’t die.”
Of his role as 'brave but ostracised' First World War veteran Douglas Bennett, Bean (Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings) said he’s ‘not really played a character like that before’.
Bean said at the launch of the show: “[Bennett’s] got horrible nightmares that won’t go out of his head, and he’s dealing with it all on his own. Men like that were considered to be weak, but they were actually so strong.
“I read up [about PTSD] and watched documentaries, but I’ve always had an interest in history, and I’ve played a lot of soldiers over the year and spoken to a lot of people involved in war.”
He continued: “He views war as horrific and brutal, and unnecessary.. the First World War was about politics. Young men were used as cannon fodder and didn’t understand why or what they were fighting for. They were just all rolled up in this euphoria about fighting for your country, obviously unaware of the horrors that were to come.
“He’s got a very good case for not going to war, but he’s very much ostracised by his community and by people in general. He’s very much against what the country feels. He’s a very brave man.”
Jonah Hauer-King as Harry Chase
Rising British star Jonah Hauer-King (Little Women, Howard’s End) is one of the show’s stars, playing young English translator Harry Chase - son of Robina Chase (Nancy Campbell). He’s caught up in negotiations with the Nazis in Warsaw and trying to smuggle his Polish lover Kasia (played by Zofia Wichlacz) out of the country, while caught up with Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) at home.
Actor Jonah Hauer-King confirmed that Harry Chase is a young man from Manchester who is sent to Warsaw to work in the British Embassy as a translator, where he ends up caught in quite the love triangle across Europe.
He explained: “Pretty early on we find out that he’s got himself into a difficult situation of falling in love with two people and all the difficulties and challenges that come with that.
“Harry at the beginning of the series has a lot of love to give and he’s very compassionate, kind and well-meaning, but he’s also reckless, selfish and deeply flawed. It’s a genuine struggle for him that he’s in love with these two people, but he also doesn’t behave well. He hurts people.
“He has a lot to learn, and he goes on a journey in the series. He’s not a hero, he’s so, so flawed. As the series goes on, you understand him to a degree.”
Julia Brown as Lois Bennett
Another rising British actor, Julia Brown (The Last Kingdom, Shetland), is one of the show’s young stars. She plays Lois Bennett, a young Mancunian factory worker who is waiting for Harry (Jonah Hauer-King) at home and who takes all the opportunities the war can offer her to live a different kind of life. From the trailer we also know she is close to Connie (Yrsa Daley-Ward).
Director Adam Smith confirmed at the launch of the show that Lois Bennett is based on creator Peter Bowker’s grandmother, a former singer in the war, while Connie is based on his grandmother's wartime best friend.
Julia Brown, who plays Lois Bennett, said Lois juggles a lot in the show: “She has to look after her dad [Sean Bean’s character] who has PTSD, and her brother who gets in a bit of trouble.
“She’s in a love triangle with Harry, and she is also juggling being a performer and has two jobs at home. There are so many things that she has to deal with and also the face of World War II and what was going to happen to her hometown, and her family and her loved ones.
“But she manages to do it all. I think it was her strength and vulnerability [that appealed to me]. I would love to be able to be like her.
"It really helped me speaking to Peter before we started, and he showed me pictures of the ‘real life Lois’ [who my character is based on] and her best friend. It was two girls who bonded over their passion for music.”
Brown added that the ‘class divide’ between her working class family, and Harry’s aspiring-to-be-middle-class family, became something of a further hindrance in their love affair.
She explained: “When the war starts, their class divide becomes quite obvious, she’s working class so she has to look after his family, that’s her number one priority, whereas he has duties as a diplomat in Poland."
Zofia Wichłacz as Kasia Tomaszeski
Zofia Wichłacz (Warsaw 44, Amok) is an award-winning actress in her native Poland. She plays Polish waitress Kasia Tomaszeski, who gets involved with Harry (Jonah Hauer-King), who tries to smuggle her out of the country.
Of her character, Wichłacz explained: “Kasia is a young, independent woman who’s working as a waitress in one of Warsaw’s cafes. She’s got this great family, and she’s in love with Harry.
“She’s full of life, young and happy... she’s going to have to change very quickly into a real fighter. Then throughout the series she wants to fight. She wants to fight for people she likes, for freedom, for survival.
“It was a great character and a great arc. She is very strong, that’s for sure.”
Blake Harrison as Stan
Comedy fans will instantly recognise Blake Harrison from his recurring role as Neil in The Inbetweeners and its two spin-off movies, as well as his recent role in award-winning series A Very English Scandal. He plays Sergeant Stan, a soldier in the British Armed Forces.
Speaking at the launch of the show, Harrison revealed further details about his character, and Stan's relationship with Jonah Hauer-King’s character, Harry Chase.
Harrison explained: “He’s very much the right hand man of Harry Chase when he joins the army. They get on well to begin with, and Stan is very much the buffer between Harry Chase and the rest of the unit, who don’t necessarily think that Harry has earnt his place in being a superior officer in the army.
“Stan can see that Harry is desperate to prove that, but Stan’s primary motivation in France is to get the boys safety. Harry, according to Stan, has got a bit of a hero complex and wants to save as many people as possible, which Stan thinks will lead to the death of his men, which causes some conflict between them.”
Harrison added that it was Stan’s ‘no-nonsense’ attitude that appealed to him, whilst the fact his character was also a ‘bit of a joker at the same time’.
He explained: “He’s got a lot of emotional intelligence, and that means he’s very conscious of the morale of the troops and when that needs lifting, but at the same time he’s so concerned about the safety and wellbeing of everyone that he’s very much a leader.
“Stan in a weird way is a combination of a lot of stereotypes. He’s a leader, and a hard man, and a joker. I really liked that about Stan.”
Yrsa Daley-Ward as Connie
British talent Yrsa Daley-Ward is known mainly for her spoken-word poetry and for her debut book, Bone. Her character is called Connie, and we see her with Lois (Julia Brown) in the trailer, so we suspect they are friends.
We now know that the pairs’ characters are based on Peter Bowker’s grandmother and her best friend during the war.
Speaking about the character of Connie, Daley-Ward said: “She’s a woman who wanted a passport to see the world. [These women] were spirited, and they wanted to make a difference in the war effort, and they did so by being entertainers in ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association).
“I thought that that was fantastic because they didn’t have those opportunities at the time so World War II provided them with that opportunity.”
Parker Sawyers as Albert
American actor Parker Sawyers is perhaps best known for starring as a young Barack Obama in Southside With You. In World on Fire, he plays Albert, a French jazz saxophonist musician, who plays at a club in Paris.
Parker Sawyers said of his character: “The first time we see Albert he meets Webster, an American doctor, who he ends up falling in love with who’s in town working at a hospital in Paris.
“We see their relationship develop as the war does. We see Albert very conscious of the conflict in the air, and Webster brushing it off.”
Sawyers also told us that he had to learn the saxophone for the role. He explained: “When I went up for the role, they told me my character was a pianist, I play piano nearly every day.
“Then I got the final shooting draft through and it said ‘and then Albert plays a saxaphone!’ I rushed out and got one because I said I played! So I did get to perform a little bit, but I’m not sure if they used it, I think they used it more as a guide.”
Also in the stellar cast is Ewan Mitchell (The Last Kingdom), Brian J. Smith (Sense8), Tomasz Kot (Gods, Cold War), Bruno Alexander (Eden, Der Verlorene Bruder), Johannes Zeiler (Faust, Codename Holec) and Eugénie Derouand (Genius, Beatrice).
World on Fire continues Sundays at 9pm on BBC One. Catch up on BBC iPlayer - via the Players & Apps tab on BT TV.
Images: Rex Features / BBC