Lesley Manville interview: ‘Magpie Murders’ star on the return of ‘World on Fire’

World on Fire is finally back on our screens!

Returning from the first season of the BBC’s epic World War II drama is English actress Lesley Manville.

Best known for her roles in Magpie Murders and Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, the 67-year-old star is reprising her role as Harry’s mum Robina in the brand new run of World on Fire.

Manville will also be back as Princess Margaret later this year in the final season of The Crown on Netflix, before she begins filming Moonflower Murders, the follow-up to Magpie Murders.

Four years after Season 1 launched in 2019, we return to World on Fire in 1941, and the true reality of war has arrived in Britain. With RAF pilots being sent to destroy German bombers prowling the skies above Manchester, rescue operations are underway on the streets below.

World on Fire is airing now in the UK on Sunday nights at 9pm on BBC One and streaming on BBC iPlayer.

Season 2 will premiere in the US later this year on Masterpiece on PBS.

Here, Lesley Manville chats about returning as Robina, and what makes World on Fire such a special series to work on:


How important was it to do a second season of World on Fire?

“We always intended to return. Of course, we made the first series back in 2018 which screened in 2019 – and we all know what happened then!

“But we’re back and the scripts are just so lovely and rich, with new characters coming in. Robina is again holding the fort with all sorts of family problems she couldn’t possibly have foreseen.”


Robina has some fantastic lines – you must love playing her.

“I do! I think that Peter’s written her so well and he’s surpassed himself this time – she’s got some corkingly good lines that are so arch.

“Robina is so deliciously posh, eaten up by the protocol of everything. There’s also something more than a little theatrical about her. She reminds me of one of those women in a Restoration or Feydeau farce.

“I mean, obviously, I can’t play her quite that large, tempting though it is sometimes…”


Is that why you enjoy playing her, the way in which she’s suffering in silence, putting up emotional barriers?

“Peter has written some really moving scenes, but Robina is eaten up with a conviction that you mustn’t show your emotions, you’re not tactile, you can’t hug anyone, not even your own family.

“These are the unspoken rules handed down through the generations. She finds it really difficult to show her son, Harry, love and affection – but she’s broken when she sees news footage of the soldiers fighting out in Cairo, wondering if he’s dead or alive.

“It’s a very rich tapestry of emotions. There are also some lovely funny bits, which are delicious to play, because she’s steeped in class snobbery, but you can’t help liking her.

“She’s a real person with deep feelings and emotions but they’re buried, buried, buried…”


Robina is very protective of Jan and baby Vera, showing wonderful tenderness.

“Jan is now living with Robina who finds herself becoming the mother she never thought she would be.

“Obviously, she’s not young, but she realises that being a surrogate mother is as important as being a real, biological mother – and she’s also looking after her baby granddaughter, Vera.

“She might have been a terrible mother, but she’s turning into a really good grandmother and grows to love Vera.

“She also feels very strongly that Lois should not have abandoned her daughter, however much she didn’t want to be a mother. But Robina picks up that baton and takes on the challenging responsibilities of looking after a new-born baby.”


Robina is very direct and doesn’t mince her words, as is Kasia who comes to live with her. How does that work out?

“Robina doesn’t rate her daughter-in-law very highly as a woman. In her view, being married comes with lots of responsibilities, whilst Kasia just wants to go off and fight – which isn’t what women do.

“All of this is making Robina question everything – she realises that she was an unhappy wife, an unhappy mother – but now she sees these young women doing it all differently which leaves her in a state of emotional chaos.”


Tell us about Sir James, the suave, sophisticated man who arrives at Robina’s door.

“Sir James, played by Mark Bonnar, is very gently wooing Robina, and she’s not prepared for that at all. At first she’s wary – he’s a good guy who’s a bit edgy. But that makes her like him even more.

“He’s definitely a smooth operator, pulling out all the stops… he’s also a bit younger than me which makes me look really good!”


And there’s a different look to her this time around…

“Robina’s been flirted with for five minutes, so she’s let her hair down – literally!”


Can you describe the relationship between Robina and her son Harry?

“If only Robina could hold Harry and tell him: “You’re my son and I love you” – but she’s incapable of doing that. She’s also very disappointed in him because he’s got a ‘factory girl’ pregnant and a Polish wife who really doesn’t want to be married to him.

“If there was one thing Robina expected in her life, it was that it would be linear and clean, but there are frayed edges and messiness everywhere – and in her opinion, Harry is the cause of all of that chaos.”


There are lots of period dramas – what makes World on Fire special?

World on Fire is unique because it deals with so many different storylines meaning you see the war from many angles, from very personal, private, small stories to great big epic tales and you see what those people fighting on the front lines were going through.

“Characters like Robina feed in a bit of light relief which I think is needed in a drama about a horrific subject. But it’s a timely story and one we must never forget.”


World on Fire is available to watch on PBS Masterpiece.