World on Fire: From script to screen with Julia Brown

Being able to relate to a character is one of the essential ingredients that keeps us going back to our favourite shows.

So what process does an actor go through to bring us a convincing, authentic character from a different time, that we can still relate to in 2019?

Julia Brown, 22, one of the lead actors of BBC One's ambitious World War Two drama, World on Fire, told us about how immersing herself in jazz singing and real-life stories contributed to the detailed process she undertook to take her character from script to screen.

Julia plays Lois Bennet, a 21-year-old Mancunian factory worker

World on Fire tells the story of the first 12 months of World War Two through the lives of ordinary people from all sides of the global conflict.

Lois' story begins in Manchester, but her passion for singing takes her away from home when the war breaks out and she joins ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association that provided entertainment for British armed forces during World War Two.

Inspired by real people

We asked Julia if there is anything she does differently when preparing to play a character in a period piece like World on Fire.

“Yeah, definitely, especially for this one because it’s going to mean so much to so many people who lived through it, or their families lived through it. It’s really important to get the facts correct,” she told BBC Bitesize.

Lois was based on writer Peter Bowker’s grandmother, Rowena, and it meant a lot to Julia that her character was inspired by a real person.

“I was really fortunate to get to sit down with him as soon as I was cast in the role. To see photos of her and hear a little about her was really helpful in forming the role,” she told Bitesize.

Songs of my grandmother

“It was important to read up on stories of people who went to join ENSA,” said Julia.

Although Julia had loved singing when she was younger, she never considered she would do it as part of an acting role. She had never sung jazz before so spent a month training before ending up singing with a live jazz band, and then in front of 300 extras.

Julia said singing in front of three hundred extras was quite daunting

“We didn’t want Lois to sound too trained because she would have been a working class girl who just sung for fun,” said Julia.

Watching jazz singers from the time helped Julia capture an authentic on-stage demeanour.

“I found YouTube videos of jazz singers at the time, because the movements were very contained; Lois is still having fun on stage but it’s definitely not like today’s pop stars or dancing around,” she said.

The musical elements to the role meant even more to Julia because her own grandmother who lived through World War Two was a singer as well.

“She used to sing me songs, so when they came to me with the songs that we were going to be singing it had a personal meaning to me which was really special,” said Julia.

Saying goodbye

Playing Lois meant Julia started to think about the stories her grandparents had told her of the war.

“When I was putting myself in the position of being on rations and thinking where the nearest shelter was and air raids, I thought, this is what my grandparents all went through.”

Julia said it meant a lot to reconnect with what her grandparents experienced.

The strength of all the people who had to get on with life and earn a living not knowing when their brother or father would come home, or when an air raid would go off, was something Julia took inspiration from.

Ewan Mitchell plays Lois' brother, Tom, who joins the navy

“It was a big thing when I was doing a scene with Ewan Mitchell, who plays my brother, considering what it must have been like to say goodbye to him and not know if I’m going to see him again, and thinking if I had to do that to my brother,” she told Bitesize.

Head over heart

Even though the story is set in a different world to now, Julia still found aspects of the character she could relate to.

“I think that through the whole story there are scenes that everyone can relate to in modern day, and I think that’s so important for my generation and people younger than me to be reconnected with history,” she said.

Lois begins the series in Manchester with her boyfriend, Harry (Jonah Hauer-King). When war breaks out they are pulled apart and Lois has to decide what path she wishes to take.

“You might not be able to connect to seeing people on rations, or the bombs falling, but it’s easy to look at a love story and think: 'oh yeah, I might have had that with a boy', especially just having to think with your head rather than your heart, ” she said.

Lois starts the series with boyfriend Harry, played by Jonah Hauer-King

'She became a big part of me'

Julia hopes she won’t need to say goodbye to Lois quite yet.

“On the final day I took lots of photos in the costume, made a time-lapse of me being transformed from Julia to Lois in the make-up truck, stuff I can look back on.

“She became a big part of me, and especially because it was a completely different accent that I had learnt, there were a few tears. It was a funny feeling after four months of being with her,” she said.

Julia believes it is the power of connecting with the characters that brings the incredible history of World War Two to life in World on Fire:

“You fall in love with the people, it’s not like a history lesson, but you get that along the way."

Watch World On Fire continues on BBC iPlayer.

World On Fire: What was life like for young people in World War Two?
More about World War Two
GCSE Drama: Developing characters