‘Masterpiece’ recalls a ‘World on Fire’ with new World War II drama

Helen Hunt is among stars of new PBS ‘Masterpiece’ drama

Helen Hunt is among the stars of “World on Fire on Masterpiece,” premiering Sunday on PBS (check local listings).

Many stories have dramatized World War II, but familiar faces and age-appropriate actors can bring that event into fresh focus again.

“World on Fire” has both elements as the British-American co-production begins its PBS “Masterpiece” run Sunday, April 5 (check local listings). Written by Peter Bowker (“Blackpool”) and set in 1939 in several countries that were at the forefront of the conflict — including America and England — the series features Oscar and Emmy winner Helen Hunt (“Mad About You”) as a U.S. journalist covering the war. Another major plot involves a love triangle among a would-be diplomat (Jonah Hauer-King), the Polish waitress turned Resistance member he loved and supposedly lost (Zofia Wichlacz), and his more recent interest (Julia Brown).

“Phantom Thread” Oscar nominee Lesley Manville and Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones”) also star in the saga, which the BBC aired overseas last fall.

Zofia Wichlaz and Jonah Hauer-King are among the stars of “World on Fire on Masterpiece,” premiering Sunday on PBS (check local listings).

Bowker reports that “World on Fire” was inspired by the acclaimed 1970s documentary series “The World at War,” about the same time period. He recalls that when he was approached about devising something similar but fictional, he deemed it “an idiotic idea … but like most idiotic ideas, it wouldn’t go away. It was 2014, I think, when I wrote the first bible for this series. People were investing more in long-run, multi-episodic series, (changing) the way we watch television, so it seemed like a good time to tell something novelistic in its sweep.”

As the principal American in the “World on Fire” cast, Hunt explains that she liked the storytelling decision “to choose simple people doing their jobs, and follow their lives and their fears. I sort of play the audience a little bit, because I’m playing the woman who happened to look over a fence and saw 1,000 German tanks lined up after a period of rumors: ‘Is (the war) coming? When is it coming?’ And this is the woman who saw it. It was the way I would be if I discovered that the worst nightmare was coming true.”

Even before “World on Fire” starts its U.S. telecasts, it’s known there will be more of it, since a second season already has been ordered. “We do a lot of World War II homefront dramas that may take in one part of the war,” Bowker reasons, “so I just hope (this) will carry on getting recommissioned. I’m not naive enough to suppose that that’s a done deal. Hopefully, the longer it goes on, the more people will want to find out what happens next. In my head, there’s a huge series bible which I planned out for all these characters, but I take it for granted we will lose some along the way.”

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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