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John Doyle: Home Fires and the death of cozy U.K. drama

They make a lot of TV in Britain. Some of it is awful, some of it brilliant. A lot of it is in the middle – mildly entertaining, cozy TV.

Right now, Britain is going through some kind of existential cultural crisis. It's about Brexit and Britishness. And television is part of that.

There is a first-rate British drama coming here to Super Channel in April. It's the four-part National Treasure, and in it Robbie Coltrane plays Paul Finchley, a beloved comedian and TV star accused of rape. One allegation leads to many more, and Finchley's struggle to clear his name means battalions of expensive lawyers and countless lies to the media and TV executives, all while his family tries to comprehend what has happened.

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The series was clearly inspired by the case of the late Jimmy Savile, disgraced in death by multiple accusations and evidence that he was a sexual predator, and by many other accusations and even charges against aging, once-beloved British celebrities.

They do this sort of thing well in Britain, creating drama from what is still raw in the culture. It is part of the country's theatrical tradition to turn current events into compelling, provocative television.

They are still making period dramas – toffs in costumes, though. The latest sensation is Harlots, made with the Hulu streaming service. "Harlots is the thinking-person's shag fest," The Guardian said.

Meanwhile, there has also been a small, incendiary fuss in Britain about a beloved television series. It's all very revealing.

Home Fires (Sunday, Masterpiece, 8 p.m.) airs on PBS for its second season. However, after the first season was shown on this side of the Atlantic, where it was wildly popular, the show was cancelled. And that caused conniptions that are still playing out in Britain.

Why the fuss? Well, Home Fires is about life at home in England during the Second World War. Specifically it is about the lives, loves and labours of the village Women's Institute in a little place called Great Paxford. Thus, it has a war setting, which always goes over well in Britain, and it is emphatically about women. There are very few men featured in it. The predominantly female cast includes Francesca Annis, Samantha Bond, Claire Rushbrook, Fenella Woolgar and Leanne Best. All are excellent actors, and a few, such as Annis, were well-known in their youth but are now at an age when few leading roles are on offer.

What happens on Home Fires is mostly mundane drama. Frances (Samantha Bond) is the leader of the pack, a strong-willed, fiercely intelligent woman who likes to be in charge and dominate proceedings. Joyce (Francesca Annis) is well-off and a snob and resents Frances, who is, to her, just a blustering middle-class novice. But Joyce is lonely, too, and there are issues with her husband. Pat (Claire Rushbrook) is one of those quiet women who blossoms when her husband, a jerk, goes off to war. There are several other, similar female characters.

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The drama and antics don't amount to much. The Women's Institute works to help the war effort. They make jam and teach each other how to cope with wartime rationing and the absence of the usual luxuries. They squabble sometimes. They support each other. But mostly they grow into themselves, transcending the roles they had before the war. It is wartime feminism.

The affection for the show is deep and abiding. It hit a nostalgic nerve with many viewers in Britain. Even those too young to remember life on the home front during the Second World War loved it. Here and in the United States there is a huge appetite for such shows and for characters who are exotic because they don't look like film or TV stars.

Home Fires has never burst into flames with passion and intrigue, though. It has always been cozy and comforting. That might be why it was cancelled by ITV. It was well reviewed and usually won its time slot, so the angry reaction, postcancellation, underlines the ardour of its viewers.

Perhaps, in the context of a TV culture that is changing inside a changing Britain, Home Fires is just too quiet, too subdued and unglamorous. There isn't enough violent death and titillation. There will always be cozy, period-piece British drama, one suspects, but it will never be as quiet – and quietly feminist – as Home Fires. Enjoy it on PBS while you can. The death of mildly entertaining, cozy British TV may be looming.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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