Are the characters in World on Fire based on real people?

The truth behind the stories portrayed in the BBC drama starring Lesley Manville, Sean Bean and Helen Hunt

When watching World on Fire – BBC One’s explosive wartime drama starring Sean Bean, Helen Hunt and Jonah Hauer-King – you might have one big question on your mind: how historically accurate is the series?


Well, we really hate to break it to you, but the Second World War did actually happen – Britain really went to war with Nazi Germany over their invasion of Poland. Crazy, we know.

But what about the show’s characters? Are they based on real people that lived in 1939 Europe, the setting of the seven-part series? Here’s all you need to know…

Were the characters in World on Fire real people?

In short: no.

In a bit longer: although the historical events they live through are real, the characters in World on Fire didn’t exist in real life – they were created by writer Peter Bowker. However, many are influenced by people who were alive at the outbreak of war.

For instance, factory workers Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) and Connie Knight (Yrsa Daley-Ward) were based on people with different names.

As Daley-Ward explained to “Peter Bowker had a grandma and an auntie who were like Connie and Lois. It’s been really nice to see this brought to life, this interracial, deep friendship of the time.

“They’re really spirited – they want to see the world, they want to make a difference and as part of the war effort, they decide to perform for ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association]. They want to get out of Manchester and do something else.”

Screen Shot 2019-09-27 at 14.41.01
L-R: Lois Bennett (Julia Brown) and Connie Knight (Yrsa Daley-Ward)

This isn’t to say that Bowker didn’t heavily research what the characters living in 1939 might have been like. To capture what thoughts and feelings they may have had, the writer revealed he worked closely with renowned historian Richard Overy and the Imperial War Museum.

Diaries from the time, he found, were essential to discovering how normal the people caught in the conflict were.

“It was so refreshing that their entries are generally about where they could get good coffee and their boyfriends. This is while the living daylights are being bombed out of the city every day,” he said.

“Our fundamental human preoccupations don’t change. They just happen to be interrupted by bombing raids and death and destruction.

“[There was also] the diary of a gunner who described that below deck you don’t know if you’re winning or losing. The main things he wrote about were being given double rations and eating biscuits all the way through the battle.

“There’s a humanity and a joy to that detail that you can embrace as you start to understand the character.”

This article was originally published in autumn 2019


World on Fire starts on PBS Masterpiece in the US on Sunday 4th April 2021 at 10/9c and episodes air weekly