Speaking about “My Grandparents’ War,” the new documentary series coming PBS this spring, executive producer Tom Anstiss described World War II as a “prism.” The upcoming four-part season not only looks at that period of time and its lasting impact on different communities around the world, but does it with the help of some very recognizable faces from the acting world.
“We looked at actors that we admired and began researching their family history. With some, we found quite a lot. With others, we found just a snippet,” Anstiss said. “Then it was our job to really structure a journey, in collaboration with all the actors, about the unanswered questions that they had about their grandparents’ lives.”
“My Grandparents’ War” focuses on that time period surrounding World War II and how the family of each episode’s main subject was involved. Individual episodes follow the family histories of Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Rylance, Carey Mulligan, and Kristin Scott Thomas.
PBS presented the series at Thursday’s session as part of the ongoing Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. The series, which first aired on British network Channel 4 in late 2019, is a kind of kindred spirit to “Finding Your Roots,” the long-running genealogy series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
For Bonham Carter, who headlines the season premiere, participating was an invaluable chance to interact with her grandmother as someone other than an elder.
“I had a vague sort of an approximation, myths almost, of both my grandparents that we followed. This just filled in a lot of the detail and bought them very vividly to me,” Bonham Carter said. “Violet, my grandmother, I would have been her age when the Second World War happened. So I met them almost as peers. It was really extraordinary.”
The extensive amount of research for the series meant that it yielded plenty of information relevant to more than just the marquee names in each episode. Rylance explained that he was able to share these revelations alongside another member of his family.
“I asked if I could bring my father with me. Though he only appears for a moment in the film, he was there with me at every occasion. We were able to speak and weep together and laugh together and talk together during the whole thing. So, who wouldn’t like that kind of experience in your life? It was very, very rich. The film’s just the kind of top part of the richness of it for me,” Rylance said.
Part of the inherent appeal of “My Grandparents’ War” is seeing how these individual tales come to intersect with the lives of so many others.
“Our research team were amazing. They found Helena’s grandfather saved a whole family, and the daughter went on to found UNICEF. That just shows how shows our history, from that period, still shapes the world we live in today. It really does,” Anstiss said.
Anstiss said that, as the series progresses, there may be a chance to expand the format to include other historical periods and different featured subjects. “We’re in the process of making a second series. We’re certainly not wedded to the format being solely about World War II. It’s a prism to explore lots of really interesting chapters of social history. That could be anything from the civil rights movement to the Korean War to the Vietnam War. It’s a format that can be expanded,” Anstiss said.
“My Grandparents’ War” airs Sundays on PBS, beginning April 4.