Masterpiece’s Home Fires is the rare series with healthy ratings and a strong following to be abruptly cancelled, puzzling showrunners and leaving fans with major cliffhangers.
Set in a fictional English town in 1940, Home Fires, a series built around strong female characters, focuses on members of the local Women’s Institute (WI). Just minutes before the conclusion of the final episode, which aired Sunday night on PBS, there’s a bit of levity with butcher Bryn Brindsley (Daniel Ryan) shouting into the room at Dr. William Campbell’s (Ed Stoppard) house where Bryn’s wife, Miriam (Claire Price), is giving birth. (In those days, husbands weren’t allowed in during the delivery.) Meanwhile, at the wedding reception for closeted lesbian Teresa Fenchurch (Leanne Best) and her betrothed, Nick Lucas (Mark Umbers), Pat Simms (Claire Rushbrook) leaves her abusive husband, Bob (Mark Bazeley), to find her lover, Czech soldier Marek Novotny (Alexandre Willaume). In front of her, a troubled RAF plane crashes into the doctor’s house. We’re left hearing a crying baby, wondering which characters survive.
Last month, it was announced that the characters will live on in a three-book series: The first novel, Keep the Home Fires Burning, will essentially be Season Three, since it was already mapped out when the series was cancelled. It will be a four-part e-book serial, with one part to be released each month beginning in July. The complete novel in paperback and e-book, as well as an audiobook, will be out in the fall, and Part One of the untitled second book is due in Spring 2018. Paste recently spoke to Home Fires creator and writer Simon Block about grieving the series’ cancellation, (unexpectedly) becoming a novelist and connecting with fans through Twitter.
Paste: Did you write the Season Two finale expecting a Season Three?
Simon Block: Absolutely. There was shock [on] our end that it was cancelled. We weren’t given any indication. We were still told, right up to the day before, the executive producer was given assurance. The ratings—they were strong first series and they held up in the second series. That added to the shock of it.
Paste: What was your reaction?
Block: I just said, “Ok, let it go.” It was a bit like bereavement. We’d written half of Season Three. The next day, fans of the show started a campaign. At that point I thought, if ITV didn’t want it, and people that like the show still want it, maybe we could do it in another form. My agent’s partner was a book agent, so I asked him to run it past him. I then had to write a sample opening chapter.
Paste: I would’ve thought a novel would have been a done deal.
Block: I wasn’t expecting the publisher to assume I could write a novel. The other thing, I didn’t want to write a shit book about something people felt very fondly. I only wanted to move forward in novel form if I could do a decent job.
Paste: As a fan I keep looking for any news, like a Netflix deal or crowdfunding for Season Three.
Block: The executive producers immediately started to contact networks. The landscape has changed, so networks like Netflix and Amazon are more about commissioning their own shows. It’s quite an expensive show, [so] the whole crowdfunding thing would be difficult. It’s over a million pounds an episode.
Paste: I gather you found the book Jambusters and wanted to adapt it to TV.
Block: There are no characters in Jambusters. There’s nothing in that book that you’d find in the series, apart from WI activities like making jam or raising money for ambulances and knitting things to send to soldiers. It’s a facts-and-figures book and gave us the inspiration to create a drama.
Paste: People say we’re in turbulent times, but Home Fires shows us not so long ago, German bombers flew over England during WWII and strangers ran into shelters. Do you see an importance for such shows that remind us of tougher times?
Block: I’ve certainly been intrigued about the depth of passion for it. It’s that sense of coming together. They really responded to a community. Jeopardy enhances that community. With people running into an Underground station with thousands of people, when everything is under threat, you have to rely on your neighbors. I think that’s part of the reason why period shows like Downton did so well. We were in a period of austerity here. People hearkened back to a more simple time, or they think it’s a more simple time. They were more mutually supportive and that sense of community was stronger then. A lot of people’s favorite scene was when the village goes to help Steph (Clare Calbraith). The first [season], I was on holiday. We thought, ‘Let’s go on Twitter and see if anyone’s watching.” You see all these people talking about the characters. That was fantastic. It’s as close as you can get to being in the same auditorium.
Paste: I loved the music when the village helps Steph, it was angelic.
Block: People love that communal support to one person. They loved the fact the village turns out to help her. They’d like to think that sort of situation would happen now. I’d like to think it would.
Paste: With the wedding as the ending, were you planning to continue Teresa’s struggle with being gay then?
Block: 100 percent. That’s one of the key storylines in the book.
Paste: Have you had any feedback from fans in Teresa’s situation back then?
Block: I did hear from a couple of older women who said that’s an accurate presentation. They couldn’t be open and knew people who sought sanctuary or anonymity within a marriage. There were secret channels of communicating with other lesbian women. There were book clubs. There was a form of correspondence you could enter into through an underground magazine.
Paste: Will Pat find joy and grow backbone away from Bob?
Block: That’s one of the main storylines in the book. I wrote quite a lot of it like the TV show, pushing nine lead stories. I was told by my editor, “You have to choose four main stories and save the other five for the next book.” So because we’ve got three books, that works out really well, and I can tell those stories in more depth than I could on television, because each story now gets a bit more space.
I found it really enjoyable for that reason. In television, you can’t go inside a character’s head. You see their facial expression, they can say what they feel, but oftentimes don’t say what they feel. People are going to get the same characters, the same stories and the same writer. It’s everything they would’ve liked about the TV show.
Paste: This season, Frances (Samantha Bond) takes the reins of the factory, while Joyce (Francesca Annis) becomes a more sympathetic character. Does Series Three continue their growth?
Block: Their challenges change. They’re very bright women and strong, so you have to test them, you have to give them significant obstacles to really bring out their character. As someone who’s not been able to have children, Frances is suddenly left with this orphaned boy, to decide what to do with. The same with Joyce—her development coming back in the village without her husband. How does she establish herself as a single woman and regain her status?
Paste: The accompanying music is unlike anything I’ve heard on a TV show, with female choral music.
Block: It’s one of the things I’m secretly proud of. The composer Sam Sim told me he read my first script and immediately came up with that music. He had these female voices in his head.