9 of the best British period dramas set in the 1940s

We continue our look back at the best British period dramas set in each decade of the 20th Century.

Here our guest writer Elizabeth Niedbala has some recommendations of movies and TV series set in the 1940s.

 

World on Fire (1939-40)

This epic BBC series from the producers of Poldark follows a number of interconnected characters from different countries as World War II engulfs Europe.

What’s interesting about World on Fire is that, alongside the love triangles and family conflicts, it also focuses on some lesser-explored aspects of the war – Poland and the Polish Resistance, shell shock and mental health, homosexuality in the pre-war era, and the threat of diseases in Nazi Germany.

The brilliant international cast includes Jonah Hauer-King (Howards End), Julia Brown (The Last Kingdom), Helen Hunt (Mad About You) and Sean Bean (Sharpe).

 

Home Fires (1939-40)

A favourite of ours, Home Fires follows the members of the Women’s Institute in Great Paxford.

Starring Clare Calbraith (Downton Abbey), Samantha Bond (Downton Abbey), Claire Rushbrook (Whitechapel) and Francesca Annis (2006 Jane Eyre), ITV’s series focused on the relationships the women have with each other, their families, and the war.

It was unfortunately cancelled rather abruptly following its second season in 2016.

Home Fires is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

Land Girls (1939-43)

Premiering on the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II in 2009, Land Girls focuses on the Women’s Land Army of Great Britain.

The BBC drama follows four women as they support the war effort and deal with the effects of living close to soldiers, lords, and each other.

Starring Becci Gemmell (Call the Midwife), Susan Cookson (Emmerdale), Jo Woodcock (Dorian Gray) and Seline Hizli (Grantchester), the show ran for three seasons, although it was cited for numerous historical inaccuracies.

Land Girls is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

The Exception (1940)

This 2016 movie focuses on the former Kaiser Wilhem II, living in exile near The Netherlands.

Fearful of an assassination attempt, the Nazis send Stefan Brandt to organize a body guard. While there, he falls in love with Mieke, a Dutch servant. However, things get complicated when Brandt discovers she’s a spy for Allied forces.

The cast of The Exception includes Jai Courtney (The Water Diviner), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) and Lily James (Downton Abbey).

The Exception is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

Alone in Berlin (1940-43)

Set in the titular German capital in 1940, this 2016 movie stars Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as a couple grieving for their son who died in France.

Becoming disillusioned with Hitler’s propaganda, they begin writing provocative postcards denouncing his regime and putting them in public places. Daniel Brühl plays the police inspector tasked with finding them, though he too is ultimately disillusioned.

Alone in Berlin is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (1943)

A harrowing tale of the Holocaust and the power of friendship, this 2008 movie is based on John Boyne’s novel.

Bruno, the son of a Nazi commander, meets Shumel, a Jewish boy living in a concentration camp during World War II. As their friendship develops, he learns the truth of his friend’s situation and starts to see past the propaganda he has been fed. He is able to look past his friend’s differences; a lesson we all need today.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

The Man Who Never Was (1943)

A classic British film from 1956, The Man Who Never Was details Operation Mincemeat.

Using a dead body and false documents, the Allied forces tricked the Axis into thinking they were invading Greece. Instead, they launched an invasion on Sicily, opening the Italian Front.

The cast includes Clifton Webb (Cheaper by the Dozen), Gloria Grahame (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Robert Flemying (Funny Face).

The Man Who Never Was is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

Secret Army (1943-45)

Originally airing on BBC One between 1977 and 1979, this wartime drama series was set in Belgium and features the efforts made to help downed Allied airmen get back to Britain.

The undercover operations hold a high sense of danger as the Germans close in and the end of war looms.

Comedy fans may be amused to know that Secret Army was the key inspiration for the BBC’s World War II sitcom ‘Allo, ‘Allo! in the 1980s.

Secret Army is available on DVD on Amazon.

 

Traitors (1945, post-war)

Keeley Hawes (The Durrells), Luke Treadaway (The Hollow Crown) and Brandon P. Bell (Dear White People) starred in Channel 4’s 2019 spy thriller series set in London, 1945.

Feef Symonds is recruited by the Americans to spy on the British Government in order to uncover a Russian mole who is leaking information. As she becomes deeply entrenched in the spy culture, she starts to doubt everyone around her and realizes she is in over her head.