Monday, 30 November -0001

Keeping the HOME FIRES burning

A new TV drama highlights the remarkable role of women during the war. And their jam wasn’t bad either.

Written by Melonie Clarke
Inspired by Julie Summers’s nonfiction book, Jambusters, ITV’s latest drama Home Fires follows a group of women living in rural Cheshire – in the looming shadow of war. As men and boys go off to fight, the women are left to keep the fabric of the village, and indeed the nation, intact. Banding together to form the Great Paxford Women’s Institute, they acquire new skills, make new friends and learn how to survive in a challenging new world.

And if the first episode is anything to go by, the series, starring Samantha Bond, Francesca Annis, Fenella Woolgar, Frances Grey and Ed Stoppard, is not to be missed.

‘When I got a phone call from my agent saying they were going to make a series about the Women’s Institute based on a book called Jambusters, there was a bit of my heart that fell,’ admits Samantha Bond.

Bond plays Frances Barden, one of the most active members of the Great Paxford WI. ‘I’ve been very vocal about the lack of parts for middleaged ladies,’ says Bond, ‘and then I thought, “They’re going to have us make jam.” But after I read the first two scripts I was captivated.

HomeFires-May01-02-590Frances Grey and Ed Stoppard

‘I actually can make jam,’ she continues, ‘but we used all the right props from the period. When you make jam at home on your stove with your saucepan, that’s one thing, but we had great vats of this boiling fruit, it really was incredibly hot and because of the sugar it would burn. So there was a level of high anxiety that afternoon.

‘We joke about making jam but actually there was a very strong, powerful reason why these women made it: to save lives.’

With up to two-thirds of Britain’s food being imported before the war, the government realised it needed to find ways to produce more food at home. The WI answered that call in the form of preserving surplus fruit (and vegetables). For many members of the WI, preserving was a skill they already possessed. Not only did they know where to look for fruit and how to make it into jam, but they were also keen to grab their spades and get involved with the growing and to contribute in other ways.

‘They spent a lot of time knitting socks, scarves, hats and gloves to send to soldiers. They were instructed by the government to be in charge of getting wrought iron so it could be melted down. They were consulted when it came to looking for suitable accommodation for evacuees because they had local knowledge. So it wasn’t just this trivial “let’s make jam and cakes”, it was a huge movement that gave support to the rural communities,’ explains Bond.

Of course, before filming began, not everyone knew how to make jam. But Claire Price and Daniel Ryan, who play village butchers Miriam and Bryn Brindsley, certainly picked up some new skills on set.


‘It’s very clever editing because I don’t know how to make jam or how to knit but I’m hoping that the nation will believe that I can do both once they’ve watched this series,’ says Price. ‘My beef-cutting skills are quite something, though.’

Daniel Ryan explains: ‘We spent a day with a butcher… I can do anything now.’

One cast member who didn’t get the chance to pop on an apron and make jam was Ed Stoppard, who plays the village GP, Dr Will Campbell. And he was rather disappointed about it.

‘Sadly, I wasn’t around for the jammaking scenes,’ he says. ‘We have a little plum tree in our garden and so I make plum jam. My wife’s uncle is a child of the Second World War and his mum used to make damson jam when he was a child.’

Indeed, Stoppard recently made a particularly good damson jam – with a little help from his neighbour’s fruit tree. ‘Fifty yards up the road from us, in the front yard of our neighbour’s house, is a damson tree. So I grabbed a bowl and a stepladder and walked round, only to find my neighbours were not in. And I did ring the bell.

HomeFires-May01-04-590Well preserved: there’s no shortage of jam

‘Evidently they were not interested in their damsons because they were all over the floor. So I collected several pounds and made, if I do say so myself, delicious damson jam.

‘I’m fairly convinced that the youth of today don’t know how to make a decent jam. As a jam maker myself, I can speak with authority,’ he smiles.

But jam aside, what else gives the drama its magic?

‘I think that when any of us are approached, the first thing is always the script and the story and Simon Block’s script leapt off the page… it’s been brought to life brilliantly by an extraordinary cast of actors and a spectacular crew. But it does always start with what’s written, what you’re being offered to work with,’ says Samantha Bond.

HomeFires-May01-05-590The ladies of Great Paxford WI

Fenella Woolgar, who plays local bookkeeper Alison, adds: ‘On a personal level, we did all just get on so well. We had such laughs. I can’t tell you the number of times someone would shout “cut” or “go again” because we were laughing.’

For Claire Price, it is the women’s stories: ‘They weren’t really being told so much at the time, and their stories are all bubbling to the surface now because we want to understand the whole picture more. No one talked about it then, they were all too busy making jam and running the country.’

For producer Francis Hopkinson, this television drama conveys another, bigger message.

‘I’d love people to watch it and be reminded of what community is… It’s about people having to stick together and rely on each other. We’re so sorely lacking that at the moment. I’d love people to watch it and feel that.’ 

Home Fires starts on ITV on Sunday 3 May at 9pm. 


Makes two 350g jars

500g fresh raspberries, washed
150g granulated sugar 
juice of ½ lemon


Place all the ingredients in a pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Simmer for 8-10 minutes until thick and syrupy. Pour into warm sterilised jars and cover. Leave to cool then label and store in the fridge. Use within a month. The jam will have a softer set: use it to sandwich cakes or on scones with whipped cream.

From The WI Cookbook by Mary Gwynn. 

Did you know..?

The Women’s Institute helped with the evacuation scheme at the outbreak of the Second World War, escorting children on their journeys and allocating them families. In all, 3.5 million children lived through the experience of evacuation.

During the war, the WI members felt that it was of the utmost importance to maintain their meetings, ‘thus providing for the members a centre of tranquillity and cheerfulness in a sadly troubled world’.

In 1940, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI ) set up a WI Ambulance Fund in order for them to have their own ambulances.

The Ministry of Food allocated sugar to the NFWI to help with the making of jam and preservation of food.

Between 1940 and 1945, more than 5,300 tons of fruit were preserved – nearly 12 million pounds of fruit that might otherwise have gone to waste.

In 1942, the Women’s Institute had to move its London headquarters to Hertfordshire, and then again to Surrey.

In 1943, the subscription rate was raised to two shillings and sixpence (five pence went to the National Federation and seven pence to the county federation).

Mrs Churchill visited the WI ’s Consultative Council to thank members for their help with her Aid to Russia Fur Scheme (making clothing for the Red Cross to send to Russian women displaced by the war).

As well as preserving fruit, WI members helped make wicker potato baskets for the Ministry of Agriculture and collected herbs for the pharmaceutical industry.

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