Series get cancelled all the time. It’s how television works – some shows capture public imagination, soar in the ratings and executives fall over themselves to recommission. Others disappear with barely a ripple and their axing slips by, largely unnoticed and little mourned.
But then there are those shows whose abrupt demise has their fans up in arms. We’ve seen it before with Ripper Street, The Hour and In the Flesh – and this week we witnessed a similar outpouring from the viewers of Home Fires.
After two series, ITV have made the decision not to renew the period drama led by Samantha Bond and Francesca Annis. In reaction, fans took to social media and the Radio Times website in their droves to make their thoughts felt – thousands have voted in our poll, with an overwhelming 98% against ITV’s decision to cancel the drama, and we’ve received hundreds of comments from upset viewers. An online petition calling for its return has over 11,500 signatures and the Women's Institute has thrown its weight behind the campaign.
RadioTimes.com spoke to creator Simon Block and executive producer Francis Hopkinson – both of whom were surprised by ITV’s decision not to commission a third series.
“It’s always difficult to gauge how things are going to go so you don’t quite know what the criteria for whether something’s going to carry on or not,” says Block. “It had held its audience, it had won its slots, figures were strong as far as I was told so in that sense I guess it was a surprise in that it went against what we were expecting based on the criteria we were told things get judged by.”
But while disappointed by ITV’s call, Block is encouraged by the reaction among fans: “I’ve been blown away. When the news came out that it had been cancelled, suddenly everything went ballistic and you really get a sense of how passionately people feel about it. That was really a bit of a shock.”
In fact, the reaction is such that Hopkinson is actively exploring other avenues through which the drama can live on. “It’s something we’re talking about. I think the audience profile was very good – upmarket and female – and that’s an audience that a lot of advertisers want so there is some interest.”
“We’re talking to everyone,” he adds, although “it’s just initial discussions at this stage.”
There’s certainly a precedent set for axed shows finding a second life on other platforms. Take Ripper Street, for example, which was cancelled by the BBC in 2013 after two series, news that was met with uproar by the show’s considerable fan base. Two months later – armed with a swelling of support – the show struck a deal with Amazon for a revival.
With a third series all mapped out, Block is also interested in continuing Home Fires on a different channel or platform. “If somebody said we’d like to make it somewhere else then that’s what we were planning to do anyway. If ITV didn’t want it and someone else wanted it, then of course we’d be interested in pursuing that.
“What’s brilliant about the audience we’ve got is they’re certainly wanting to make their voice felt about how disappointed they are that it’s been cancelled. So on the basis that you could take them somewhere else and they would follow you to another channel then of course we’d all be interested in doing that – but whether that’s likely to happen is another question.”
Chief among many of the fans’ concerns is the gaping cliffhanger at the end of last Sunday’s series finale. The (now final) episode saw a fighter plane crash into the house of butcher Bryn Brindsley as his wife was in labour with no indication of who survived and who perished.
Hopkinson maintains there was no hesitation around the open-ended series conclusion: “we thought we were coming back so we felt we were fairly safe. Maybe that was our mistake, feeling confident about it.”
“You have to write anything with some degree of confidence in what you’re writing,” explains Block. “If you were trying to write it in a way that in any way pre-judged the possibility that it wouldn’t go again then there’s a danger that you short change the audience by half tying things up.
“I don’t think the channel encouraged us to do that at all – they wanted us to be bold and dramatic and go for things. You go into it with that spirit, not with a semi-defeated ‘well it might not go again’.”
With the possibility of a revival still out there, neither Block nor Hopkinson want to spill exact plans for series three, but both offer teasing details of what any new episodes might have in store…
“Pat doesn’t manage to escape from Bob and her romance with Marek continues at a distance,” hints Hopkinson. “We do lose a couple of much-loved characters who everyone’s grown to love and there is an illicit romance. And more WI action as well. That’s all I’m going to tell you because it might come back.”
We did, however, squeeze a few more details out of Block. “One of the characters [doctor Will] is very ill so there’s a limit to how long you can credibly continue with that character surviving,” he adds.
“We’ve got a female character who’s gay and at the end of the second series she gets married and we intend to play that out properly and show how she’s struggling to be open about her sexuality while at the same time she’s being scrutinised within a close community.
“One of the interesting things from Twitter was that a lot of people seemed to think we were marrying that character off and therefore turning her straight for the convenience of ITV and that’s the opposite of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to show and reflect how difficult it was for a gay woman at that time in a small rural community to be open about her sexuality so a lot of people got married because it’s safer, people don’t question you.”
The Home Fires creators were thinking long term, too, with plans to extend the series to VE Day – and possibly even the years afterwards. “We hoped it would keep on coming back and we hoped we’d be able to follow the characters through the war and beyond.”
But, at least for now, the Home Fires story is ending prematurely and, as its creators explore ways to move forward, they’re also enormously grateful for the wave of support from fans. After speaking on the phone, Simon Block sent me an email to that effect – a message for the show's fans:
“The audience’s reaction to the news of the cancellation has been stunning. Everyone on the show - and at the channel - has worked very hard to have the audience emotionally invest in the characters and what they’re going through, and they’ve done that fantastically week after week. They’ve genuinely taken the show to their hearts and then suddenly it’s as if they’ve received a breakup text out of the blue, simply saying, ‘Thanks. Bye’.
“What people like me forget at our peril is that without the audience a show like Home Fires doesn’t really exist, except on a shelf somewhere in an unlit room. It only truly bursts into life when it ignites an audience’s imagination, as they develop a relationship with the characters - empathising with some, identifying with others, reviling Bob! In that sense it’s the audience's show as much as ours, and that’s what I think they want to voice at the moment. And I support that 100%. For a writer who stares out of the window for 90% of his working life the reaction has been very affirming.”
The support is certainly there but the question remains – will Home Fires rise from the ashes?