[Warning: this recap of Home Fires includes spoilers!]
Masterpiece has picked up yet another historical drama for the fall season, and Home Fires seems to fit well. August of 1939 in Cheshire, England is the setting for Home Fires. Rumors of war are on the horizon, and the women of the small, rural area of Cheshire have found commonality and friendship through their Women’s Institute (WI). At the beginning, the proposition before the WI is whether to close the group since a war seems imminent. Joyce Cameron (Francesca Annis), the group’s longtime president, is accustomed to running things her own way and tries to unfairly force the proposition to pass, which is instantly challenged by Frances Barden (Samantha Bond), another leader in the group. The argument becomes heated, and in the end, Joyce resigns, taking most of the membership with her. The challenge for the remaining members is how to rebuild the WI. Frances is still keen to keep it open, and as she makes plans, friendships abound, new women are brought in, and the audience becomes acquainted with the WI’s members and their families and struggles.
An instantly enjoyable element of this drama is the variety of characters, and I thought it’d be helpful to specifically introduce them, as this opening episode focuses on allowing the audience to get to know them a bit.
The Brindsley Family:
Bryn (Daniel Ryan) and Miriam (Claire Price) Brindsley own a butcher shop and are parents to an only son, David (Will Attenborough). The episode opens with David returning from a medical exam that would help determine whether he could enlist. Soon after this, he tells Miriam that he’s decided to enlist in the navy if he can. David is clearly her pride and joy, so Miriam is greatly distressed at his announcement, especially since he has asthma, and tries to persuade her husband to intervene, but Bryn can’t agree, though he’s concerned too. He gently points out,
“Young men are drawn to war like a moth to a flame; it’s their chance to prove themselves”
The Campbell Family:
Will Campbell (Ed Stoppard) is the local doctor and married to Erica (Frances Grey), and they have two daughters, Kate (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Laura (Leila Mimmack). They seem like a very happy family that love each other well. At the beginning, we find out that Will did not pass the medical that would let him enlist because of a “slight irregularity” in his breathing. Soon, it’s clear that he’s hiding the severity of the condition.
Frances is immediately a clear leader in the community and her overriding flaw is that she can speak her mind too forcefully. She has wonderful support from her husband and the close-knit group of women who remain after Joyce resigns and the old WI dissolves. At the meetings that follow, she suggests building the new WI around making jam from the abundant fruit on Cheshire’s extensive and rural land. The project takes a bit of time to get started, but by the end, it seems to be taking off.
Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) is Frances’ younger sister and also a respected leader in the community. While she is also strong and willing to openly challenge Joyce, she’s a bit more level-headed than Frances and can smooth over the ruffles she causes. Sarah is married to Reverend Adam Collingborne and active in the WI.
Joyce immediately comes off as snobbish and self-important. She’s the longtime president of the Women’s Institute and represents the old class distinctions of England. She looks down on those “beneath” her and obviously wants the classes preserved. When Frances challenges her on the injustice of the voting for closing the WI, she resigns and later scorns their efforts to reopen it. In her view, reform is undignified and unproductive.
We meet Teresa (Leanne Best) as she’s interviewing for a teacher’s position with the local school. She has come from Liverpool, saying that since her father died there was no reason for her to remain there. She also mentions there were other “personal reasons” that made her decide to leave. Though Joyce looks down on her for being too “working class,” she is obviously qualified and gets the job.
Alison (Fenella Woolgar) was widowed when her husband died in the Great War. In a touching scene, she plays an old love song and dances with her husband’s uniform, showing us that she misses her husband. But at the same time, she seems content with her position and bears the solitude well.
A plucky young working class girl, Claire (Daisy Badger) starts out as Joyce’s housemaid, but is promptly sacked when she openly speaks in opposition to Joyce’s proposition to close the WI. She also isn’t afraid to speak her mind and is active in the WI, and Frances quickly hires her after she loses the job with Joyce. She catches the eye of a young mailman in the community…
…Whose name is Spencer (Mike Noble). He’s a good-looking mailman who helps Claire after a bike accident and then repairs her bike. They flirt openly and companionably, but he appears to be a bit of a player by the end of this first episode, as a young blond suddenly interrupts a conversation he’s having with Claire and leads him off to have a drink he had apparently promised her. Claire is unimpressed and haughtily dismisses him.
The Farrows consist of Stanley (Chris Coghill), his wife Steph (Claire Calbraith), and their son, young Stan (Brian Fletcher). Stanley is a cow farmer and Steph has clearly done farm work for much of her life. She’s tough, hardworking, and focused, and she at first is reluctant to try things outside of the farm. Stanley, however, encourages her to try the WI. When she receives the WI flyer advertising the jam-making venture, she goes to the first meeting to tell them about the large supply of fruit on her and her husband’s land. This opens the door to great opportunity to make and sell more jam, and the ladies eagerly go out with her to pick the berries they need. By the end of this first episode, Steph seems to blossom in the company of the other women and brings several friends to the first official WI meeting. I’m guessing she could become one of the most active members there!
Bob and Pat Simms:
This is a struggling couple. Bob (Mark Bazeley) is a journalist who has difficulty finding enough work, and Pat (Claire Rushbrook) struggles through days with him. He’s wrapped up in his work and emotionally abusive to her. Most of her days are spent cooking for him and struggling through his insults and demands. She obviously needs the company of the WI ladies, but I just hope she can get it right now.
Talk about an ensemble! I’m excited to get to know all these ladies and their families and personalities better. At the moment, Frances Barden, Steph Farrow, and the Campbell family might be my favorites. The jam-making excitement is infectious even on the screen, and the closing meeting of the new WI was full of enthusiasm and promise for good ideas to come. This meeting at the end of the episode was the first official meeting of the new WI, and Teresa, the new teacher came, as well as Steph with all her friends from her farming side of town. But we couldn’t have everything go well at the end, as is the case with many shows like this. When Erica Campbell arrives home from the meeting, her husband, Dr. Will Campbell, tells her sadly that he has lung cancer. It is clearly devastating for Erica to hear, but their moment together is as genuine as its tender. This will be a sure test for their family in the days ahead, especially as Will has begged for them to try to continue as normal for as long as possible. Kate and Laura will have to find out eventually, but not yet, he insists.
That’s all for the first episode of Home Fires! Tune in again next week for more jam-making and ladies chat and undoubtedly more serious news of the coming war. Watch Home Fires next week at 8/7c on PBS.1 of 1