Written by John Finch

Directed by June Howson

Cast: Colin Douglas (Edwin Ashton), Shelagh Fraser (Jean Ashton), Colin Campbell (David Ashton), Coral Atkins (Sheila Ashton), Lesley Nunnerley (Margaret Porter), Ian Thompson (John Porter), Keith Drinkel (Philip Ashton), Barbara Flynn (Freda Ashton), John McKelvey (Sefton Briggs), Trevor Bowen (Tony Briggs), Amelia Taylor (Peggy Drake), John Alkin (Frank Cox), Rosalind Ayres (May), Bill Dean (Alan Mills), Tony Milner (1st Airman), Brian Miller (Bannister) Diana Davies (Evacuee Mother)

August 1939.

Synopsis: In Oxfordshire David has found himself a local girlfriend, Peggy. He is horrified when she reveals she’s expecting his baby and hopes to marry him. The Germans invade Poland and the first blackouts begin at once. John is called up much sooner than expected and Philip decides not to return to Oxford. Meanwhile Sheila has to make the decision without any input from David about whether or not to follow Government advice and have the children evacuated from Liverpool. She decides to keep them with her for now. Britain goes to war with Germany…

Review: This is a much more densely packed episode than it seems. We haven’t really spent that much time at home with the Ashtons yet, so it’s a shock to find how accustomed we’ve become to what’s ‘normal’ for them – which we discover through a succession of new adjustments they make, as a family, to the coming war. These are subtly introduced: streetlamps switched off overnight, torches dimmed for anyone having to venture outside, panic buying, curtains pinned to window frames at night… but the cumulative effect is startling due to its sheer ordinariness 

When Jean worries that her brother is becoming estranged from Tony, it highlights what an extremely perceptive character  she is, far more so than she often feels able to express. And of course she is correct: Sefton is already an increasingly lonely man for all his wealth. This is hardly an original notion in fiction but performance and writing once again protect the character from any hint of clichĂ©. The scenes in which the two Briggs men clash are played with restrained intensity by John McKelvey and Trevor Bowen in another example of the emotional literacy that is so rapidly becoming the hallmark of this series.

David’s character becomes crystallised here. He reacts to the news of Peg’s pregnancy and her subsequent discovery that he is a married father as though he is chief victim. It’s a brilliant study in tawdry self-pity by Colin Campbell, in which he’s helped a great deal by Amelia Taylor as the naive and tormented Peg and by John Alkin as his best mate Frank. Decent, thoughtful and content within himself, Frank Cox represents everything David is not. It’s telling when he says to Frank: “They look up to you, women. A woman makes you feel somebody” David is a man who feels he should have been somebody but that the world has conspired to make him feel like a nobody.

From bedrooms to pubs and offices, a great many new sets feature in this episode in addition to the usual Ashton and Briggs homes. Alan Price’s design work is excellent and nowhere more so than in the washrooms and dormitories he creates for the Air Force base. The dankness and everyday grime in these sets is palpable; the attention to detail quite stunning.

Margaret is still expressing doubt that war will really come right until the last moment. She is marshalling child evacuees at her school when John appears in full uniform to let her know he has been called up to train at a barracks in Formby, but it’s not just because they’re in public that their scene together is so full of sang-froid. This is her overdue realisation that she can no longer deny what is coming and it is yet more outstanding work from Nunnerley and Thompson. Freda, too, is forced to confront just what being at war is likely to mean. “Have you been out in the gloom yet?” she asks, Barbara Flynn making her sound almost cheerful even while she appears to age five years, “It’s like the end of the world…”

The grimmest moment of truth comes as Sheila tries to reassure Jean (and herself) that she is doing the right thing keeping Janet and Peter at home with her. Jean’s eyes blaze kindly with all the things she has no intention of putting into words and then Sheila asks, in scornful and desperate denial: “Who’s going to drop bombs on children?” …before a sudden cut to David and Frank polishing their belts at the airbase gives us the silent and terrible answer. It’s a shocking and brave piece of direction by June Howson, the strength of whose work continues to be overlooked to this day.

By the end of this episode, as Edwin and Philip listen to Chamberlain’s famous announcement of the beginning of war, almost every character’s life has undergone a profound change. That these all happen well before that notorious broadcast reinforces the sense that world history is only the cloud of dust seen from a distance, thrown up by the actions and reactions of countless individual people.

Original Tx 5th May 1970