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Wartime Britain – Three Complete Dramas on DVD

Wartime Britain – Three Complete Dramas on DVD

Guest Review

Stories inspired by real-life events of World War Two continue to inspire dramatists and filmmakers, especially in the UK…and I never tire of watching them. Here are three solid examples recently released as a boxed DVD set by Acorn Media.

Several summers ago, my family and I visited the beautiful Isle of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. We knew nothing of its history or its role in World War Two. (I only knew the name in connection with cows, I’m afraid.) I was in for quite an education. This lovely, gentle island was occupied by the Germans for five years. The locals evacuated many of their children, and Jewish families, thinking they would return within six months. Because of its location, 30 miles from the north coast of France and 70 miles from the south coast of England, Guernsey was the perfect spot for the Germans to launch their invasion of England. Island At War tells of the first years and what the islanders began to endure under Nazi occupation. Here, the island is called St. Gregory.)

The drama stars James Wilby (of Gosford Park), Clare Holman and Laurence Fox (Inspector Lewis) and Philip Glenister (Life on Mars). This is a compassionate story portraying both the islanders and Germans as people caught up in a world not of their making. Homes are commandeered, black marketers flourish and enemies become lovers. It is a compelling story based on the incredible real-life experiences of those years.

Incidentally, when we returned from our trip overseas, I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I recommend this book to anyone interested in history. It documents the true story of life on the island and the hardships and deprivations these people faced as war and the occupation dragged on.


Based on a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, this is not a typical spy drama. With a screenplay by Harold Pinter, how could it be? Originally televised in 1989, we are treated to a sterling cast: Patricia Hodge, Michael York, Michael Gambon, Dame Peggy Ashcroft and a young Imelda Staunton. Who is the spy and who is the betrayed? Pinter wants to keep us guessing. Hodge is a widow whose lover, (York) might be a traitor; Gambon says he’s working for the Nazis. Should she believe him or question her own life choices and those of the lover? It’s all very wordy, very Pinter, and you really don’t know who anyone is, or isn’t. Staunton is fun to watch as a young woman who tries to latch on to Gambon. All in all, a very different sort of World War Two spy story.


It’s 1939 and Germany has declared war on England; this account was inspired by a wartime diary. Nella (Victoria Wood, who also wrote the screenplay) is 49 and faces the grim prospect of life with an emotionless husband (David Threlfall) as her grown children go off to fight. Shy and knowing her place in English society, she timidly starts keeping a diary for a public project and volunteers for the ladies’ auxiliary. At first rebuffed by several upper-class women, Nella blooms into a strong, competent and respected leader. She also begins to realize she cannot continue to live with a man who is joyless and just plain dull. All of this is played against the backdrop of bombs dropping and loved ones wounded and dying in a world that will never be the same. This is a simple story of one housewife and how the British “carried on” in the face of war. It is beautifully acted and shows that one can still come of age at 49.

These historical wartime dramas, on five discs (approx. 597 minute), can be found at Acorn Media.

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James Knuttel

Leonard, let me recommend two British made-for-TV dramas that are set during World War I:

"All the King's Men" (1999). This has nothing to do with the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. Instead it deals with the true story a unit of British soldiers during the Gallipoli campaign who seemed to mysteriously vanish into fog bank. The film offers a fine dramatic performance by David Jason (star of the extremely funny Britcom “Only Fools and Horses”) as the unit’s commanding officer and also Maggie Smith as the Queen.

“My Boy Jack” (2007) is an adaptation of a play of the same name by David Haig, who also co-authored the screenplay and stars in the film. In this, also a true story, he plays Rudyard Kipling, who is very much determined to see England enter the war and have his son Jack (Daniel Radcliffe, on leave from Hogsworth) serve in the military. Kipling’s patriotism and pro-war sentiment take a turn for the worse when Jack is reported missing in action. Kim Cattrall plays Kipling’s American-born wife.

I have seen these films and I think they’re both excellent.

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