On a Saturday night, a large and expectant audience turned up to a preview screening of the BBC’s seven-part war drama World on Fire at a Polish community centre in west London. After decades of waiting to see their country’s second world war story told, Polish Londoners gathered to see whether the producers had succeeded in faithfully capturing history.
The centre – known as “Posk” – its Polish acronym – was built in the 1970s from donations made by a generation of Poles who had experienced the war first hand, and thus it made an appropriate setting. Even if slightly dated now, it remains a meeting point for Poles in Britain, and runs a busy programme of cultural events, a drop-in centre helping the community to prepare for Brexit. It offers, too, some of the best pierogi in London.
Many of those in the audience for the first episode were relatives of about 175,000 Poles who settled in the UK during and after the second world war. Wiktor Moszczyński, chairman of the Friends of Polish Veterans Association, knows their stories better than most. Born in London a year after the war, he is a tireless campaigner for greater inclusion of the Polish historical narrative and an organiser of a Polish contingent at the annual Remembrance Sunday Cenotaph march.
“For the few remaining veterans, watching supposedly realistic war films is never easy as the memory of what actually happened is painful and horrific,” he says.
Mateusz Więcławek as Grzegorz Tomaszeski, brother of Kasia Tomaszeski, in World on Fire. Photograph: Dusan Martincek/BBC/Mammoth Screen
But while Moszczyński concedes that “the Poles can be pernickety about their history” and picks up on minor errors in World on Fire, he concludes that Polish audiences “will undoubtedly take some satisfaction in the way it shows Poland’s gruesome experience and sense of betrayal by Britain”.
He is right: 80 years later, the events of 1939 still play a part in how Poles see Britain. When in 2017 both countries signed a pre-Brexit defence and security treaty, some commentators cynically remembered that they had done so just days before the outbreak of war – with little effect.
In his recent book First to Fight: The Polish War 1939, British historian Roger Moorhouse admits that Poland was left alone by Britain and France, and argues that these first weeks of the war have not been given the attention they deserve by the UK . “I don’t watch history on television, because it’s usually awful,” he warns me, jokingly, when we meet to discuss World on Fire. He’s made an exception this time.
He explains that the BBC series – while not free from inaccuracies – provides a “useful counterbalance to traditional glossing over of the Poles’ role throughout the war”.
“The history of 1939 is traditionally viewed through a very Anglocentric lens, while Poles dying in their fight against the German and Soviet invasion are reduced to a footnote,” he says.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest Polish-British wartime romance: Kasia and Harry Chase (played by Zofia Wichłacz and Jonah Hauer-King). Photograph: Gareth Gatrell/BBC/Mammoth Screen 2018
Moorhouse points in particular to Thames TV’s 1970s documentary The World at War, which, throughout 26 hour-long episodes, did not feature one interview with a Pole.
“It’s absurd: the producers were willing to fly to Moscow to interview [Soviet General Georgy] Zhukov or to Heidelberg to meet [Hitler’s ally Albert] Speer, but they didn’t get the train up to Edinburgh to speak to Polish General [Stanisław] Maczek, who settled in Britain after liberating Belgium and the Netherlands.”
The historian spotted that, ironically for a series trying to set the record straight, the producers of World on Fire failed to avoid repeating some Nazi and Soviet propaganda tropes that have coloured the way the Polish war has been presented.
“In the first episode, there is a line that the Poles only had bicycles against tanks, which is nonsense and harks back to old Nazi propaganda myths spread to ridicule the Poles,” he says. “The fact that in 2019 we’re still parroting these narratives from 1939 is faintly ridiculous.”
Another eye-catching feature of World on Fire is a star-studded Polish cast who speak in subtitled Polish, which adds to the authenticity of the story. Dr Joanna Rydzewska of Swansea University, who studies representation of Poles in British cinema, hopes this is a sign that film producers are becoming more open to including European voices.
“Despite the historical setting, the series also explores contemporary British identity and how it is being redefined by the presence of Poles and other migrants,” she says, pointing to the British-Polish marriage between Harry and Kasia, and the story of Kasia’s younger brother Jan, who is transported to Britain as a child refugee, which draws parallels to the experience of Jewish and, more recently, Syrian refugees.
However, Rydzewska argues there is “little diversity in the representation of the Poles in UK cinema”. Too often, she says, characters are stereotypes – the heroic soldier, criminals, prostitutes or poorly educated migrant labourers. She says a turning point will come only when a Polish character is written in contradiction to such stereotypes and given a leading role in a high-profile British drama.
Her view is shared by Edyta Budnik, who featured in an episode of the BBC’s Killing Eve, playing the drugged Polish girlfriend of a murdered Russian politician.
Having lived in London for 14 years now, Budnik openly talks about her concerns about the typecasting experienced by actors from Eastern Europe. “Sadly, almost all of the roles I’ve been getting are of cleaners, prostitutes or migrants who barely speak English,” she says.
“I am not sure where this comes from. It’s as if the scriptwriters couldn’t get their heads around the fact that Poles or Romanians can be portrayed as normal people; that there are Polish doctors, lawyers and other types who can play leading roles.”
Nevertheless, says Budnik, there has been some positive movement in this direction in the world of theatre. She mentions her recent work with the Middle Child Theatre in Hull, which has staged a play in which the city’s Polish population is extensively featured, with large parts of the text written in Polish.
While it may be some time before more stories of contemporary Poles make it to the big screen, World on Fire certainly cut it with the Polish audience. Two-thirds gave it five stars, with one word repeatedly coming up: “Finally”.