15 of the best British TV period dramas set in World War 2

As we approach the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War next year, we’ve picked out some of TV’s best period drama series set during the conflict.

World War II took place from September 1939 until September 1945 and all these dramas, listed here in alphabetical order, are set during that period.

 

The Cazalets

What’s it about?

Based on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels The Light Years and Marking Time, BBC One’s six-part drama from 2001 is the moving story of a large privileged family in London and on their estate in Sussex between the years of 1937 and 1947.

Who’s in it?

The Cazalets stars Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) and Anna Chancellor (The Crown).

What did the reviews say?

“With its escape into a plummy historical world, The Cazalets is the sort of family saga American audiences have loved since Upstairs, Downstairs. But what is best and most unusual about the series is how its escapist frivolity slowly turns darker with the approach of war.” – The New York Times

 

Close to the Enemy

What’s it about?

Written and directed by the acclaimed Stephen Poliakoff, this seven-part mini-series was broadcast on BBC Two in 2016.

As World War II ends, Captain Callum Ferguson is assigned one final task for the Army: to ensure that a captured German scientist, Dieter, helps the British to develop the jet engine.

Who’s in it?

Jim Sturgess (Cloud Atlas) is joined by Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel), Charlotte Riley (Peaky Blinders), Alfred Molina (Feud), Lindsay Duncan (Rome) and Robert Glenister (Hustle).

What did the reviews say?

“It’s bold, and beautiful, haunting, clever and original. The small-screen maestro’s latest has all his hallmarks: stunning locations, strange dialogue and, of course, jazz.” – The Guardian

 

Colditz

What’s it about?

Telling the stories of a number of prisoners of war and their attempts to escape Colditz in Saxony, one of the most noted German Army prisoner-of-war camps in World War II, ITV’s two-part drama aired in 2005 and is written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan.

Who’s in it?

Homeland actor Damian Lewis and a young Tom Hardy (Dunkirk) are joined by Sophia Myles (Spooks) and Laurence Fox (Lewis).

What did the reviews say?

“You had to keep your eye on Colditz or it threatened to get up and run off without you, but careful study was rewarded.” – The Guardian

 

The Diary of Anne Frank

What’s it about?

BBC One’s five-part adaptation of Anne Frank’s famous wartime diaries aired in 2009.

Who’s in it?

Ellie Kendrick played Anne Frank, with Iain Glen (Downton Abbey) as Otto Frank, Tamsin Greig (Episodes) as Edith Frank and Felicity Jones (Star Wars) as Margot Frank.

What did the reviews say?

“Deborah Moggach’s five-part adaptation … focuses not on the fear but on the practicalities and confusions Frank was presented with by her new hermit-like existence. Ellie Kendrick is brilliant in the title role.” – The Telegraph

 

Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond

What’s it about?

This fictionalised four-part account of James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s military career, romances and espionage for the Royal Navy is set in 1938-1952 and was broadcast on Sky in 2014.

Who’s in it?

Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!) stars as Ian Fleming, with Lara Pulver (Sherlock) as love interest Ann O’Neill.

What did the reviews say?

“What fuels Fleming are the riveting performances by Cooper and Pulver, who manage to take as much passion and pulp as possible and run with it. A miniseries that’s more intellectual in its approach than most Bond films needed two characters to take the words and escalate the drama. Cooper and Pulver are magnetic as they do just that.” – The Hollywood Reporter

 

Foyle’s War

What’s it about?

Created by Midsomer Murders writer Anthony Horowitz, ITV’s long-running crime drama series ran for eight seasons between 2002 and 2015.

The first six seasons are set during World War II in Hastings, England.

Who’s in it?

Michael Kitchen (GoldenEye) stars as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle.

What did the reviews say?

“…you can revel in the twists and turns of well-researched scripts – and acting that is entirely convincing.” – The Telegraph

 

The Halcyon

What’s it about?

ITV’s short-lived 2017 drama series was set in a bustling and glamorous five star hotel at the centre of London society during the Second World War.

Who’s in it?

The ensemble cast includes Steven Mackintosh (Luther), Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense), Kara Tointon (Mr Selfridge), Alex Jennings (The Queen) and Matt Ryan (Arrow).

What did the reviews say?

“It clearly ticks a lot of boxes on the Downton Abbey replacement checklist.” – Sunday Express

 

Home Fires

What’s it about?

Inspired by Julie Summers’ book Jambusters, this much-loved drama series about the life of Women’s Institute members on the Home Front in rural Cheshire during World War II aired for two seasons from 2015-2016.

Who’s in it?

Downton Abbey star Samantha Bond plays WI leader Frances, alongside Frances Grey (Messiah), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Peter Pan) and Claire Rushbrook (My Mad Fat Diary).

What did the reviews say?

“It’s beautifully played, and notable for how unglamorous everyone looks, in a way that you would seldom see in an American production.” – Variety

 

Island at War

What’s it about?

Telling the story of the German occupation of the Channel Islands, Island at War focuses on three local families.

The six-part series was first shown on ITV in 2004.

Who’s in it?

James Wilby (Poldark) and Clare Holman (Inspector Morse) are joined by a number of pre-fame stars, including Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey), Philip Glenister (Life on Mars) and Laurence Fox (Lewis).

What did the reviews say?

“You can call Island at War a soap opera, as some British television critics have, but if that’s true this soap opera is a gripping, poetic one – about moral courage in many guises. You might also call it a drama of manners.” – New York Times

 

Land Girls

What’s it about?

BBC One’s daytime drama ran for three seasons from 2009 to 2011 and followed the lives and loves of four girls in the Women’s Land Army.

The girls must balance their working lives at the run-down Pasture Farm and the opulent Hoxley Manor.

Who’s in it?

Summer Strallen, Christine Bottomley, Jo Woodcock and Becci Gemmell led the cast, alongside Nathaniel Parker (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) and Mark Benton (Waterloo Road).

What did the reviews say?

“It looks sumptuous, the acting is good, and there are some nice touches, as when Nancy and Joyce got the giggles after surviving the attack of the rogue German plane. Hysteria, I imagine, quite often took that form.” – The Independent

 

Monsignor Renard

What’s it about?

Set in occupied France in 1940, ITV’s four-part drama aired in 2000 and tells the story of a French priest who is drawn into the Resistance movement when he returns to his hometown after 20 years away.

Who’s in it?

Inspector Morse star John Thaw plays the titular Monsignor Augustine Renard, alongside a young, pre-Lord of the Rings Dominic Monaghan.

What did the reviews say?

“Is that John Thaw as a Frenchman? My god, yes it is. Wheeling his bicyclette over the brow of the hill, Monsignor Renard is coming to ville to save the buxom peasant girls from the Nazis. A cross between The Seventh Samurai and Rene from ‘Allo ‘Allo.” – The Guardian

 

My Mother and Other Strangers

What’s it about?

Set in in a small village in Northern Ireland in 1943, BBC One’s five-part drama series from 2016 follows the Coyne family and their neighbours as they struggle to maintain a normal life after a US Army Air Force base is set up in the middle of their rural parish.

Who’s in it?

Hattie Morahan (The Bletchley Circle) and Owen McDonnell (Killing Eve) head up the Coyne family.

What did the reviews say?

“It’s in the classic tradition of offering a child’s eye view of adult events, evoking a sense of wide-eyed wonder tinged with a gradual loss of innocence.” – Radio Times

 

P.O.W.

What’s it about?

Written by Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham and inspired by true stories, ITV’s 2003 drama series sees Flight Sergeant James Caddon captured when his plane is shot down on a bombing raid in Germany, 1940. Upon his arrival at a P.O.W. camp, where he discovers that a daring escape is already being planned.

Who’s in it?

James D’Arcy (Broadchurch), Joe Absolom (EastEnders) and Patrick Baladi (The Office) lead the cast.

What did the reviews say?

“There was suspense, laughter, joy, sadness, love and relief all in this. I recommend this to all war film fans.” – Amazon

 

Restless

What’s it about?

Scottish author William Boyd adapted his own espionage novel as a two-part mini-series for BBC One in 2012.

The story sees a young woman discover that her mother has been living a double life – she is actually a spy for the British Secret Service who has been on the run for 30 years.

Who’s in it?

The all-star cast includes Hayley Atwell (Any Human Heart), Rufus Sewell (Victoria), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) and Charlotte Rampling (London Spy).

What did the reviews say?

“A stellar cast, perfect pacing and a fresh take on the British spy genre make this great.” – The Hollywood Reporter

 

Tenko

What’s it about?

A co-production between the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation between 1981 and 1984, Tenko followed the fictional experiences of British, Australian and Dutch women who were captured after the Japanese invasion of Singapore in 1942 and held in a Japanese internment camp on an island between Singapore and Australia.

Who’s in it?

Amongst the large ensemble cast were Stephanie Cole (Open All Hours), Stephanie Beacham (Dynasty), Burt Kwouk (Pink Panther) and Louise Jameson (Doctor Who).

What did the reviews say?

“The series is not depressing as you might expect, but you see how women of different personalities and backgrounds eventually become united through common hardship and experience.” – Amazon

 

Take a look at 16 of the best TV period dramas set in World War 1 here.