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Mobilising Land Girls
Roland Moore explains how he came to write Land Girls – BBC One’s first daytime period drama
There are these two cows in a field. In a clipped 1940’s voice, one cow tells the other that she’s grateful all these land army girls are on hand to milk her… It’s not the start of a joke, but a propaganda film from the start of World War Two as the War Office encouraged young girls to join the Women’s Land Army. And join it they did, in vast numbers, until by 1944 there were over 80,000 members in this non-militaristic army.
It’s a part of our history that few people seem to know about – the enormous sacrifice of a forgotten army of women during the World Wars that worked on the farms to ensure that Britain didn’t run out of food (in the face of U-boats stopping any attempt to deliver food by sea). As most of these women had never been away from their homes and loved ones before, it was a massive culture shock as girls from all backgrounds were forced to live and work together.
An idea for a drama
In terms of drama, this real-life situation offered scope for telling some great stories, while also making people aware of the role of the Women’s Land Army. I was surprised that the subject matter hadn’t already been tackled in a drama series. For myself, with an interest in ensemble dramas, the situation of a variety of characters working on a farm in wartime was irresistible.
With a subject in mind, I set about devising the main characters. Sensible Annie has acted like a mother figure to her young sister for so long that she’s forgotten to live a life of her own. Bea is Annie’s sister, headstrong and naïve; a girl who doesn’t worry too much because Annie’s always done the worrying for her. Joyce seems straight-forward; a patriotic girl with a loving marriage – but her apparent blind faith in the war effort disguises a horrific past. Nancy is a spoilt, rich girl, conscripted against her will, who views the war as an inconvenience to her social life.
Story ideas came from this mix of central characters. And while human motivation hasn’t changed much over the decades, the sociological context for that behaviour has. In the 1940s, class was obviously much more of an issue than it is now, so it made sense to capitalise on this factor by ensuring that the girls came from a mix of working and middle classes. During development of the series, Will Trotter (executive producer) suggested adding some upper class characters; so Lord and Lady Hoxley were added. This fully-fleshed out the class element of the series and enabled us to devise stories that threw a spotlight onto the great social leveller that was World War Two.
As for the main characters names, I used first names from my grandmother and great-aunts, both as a nod to my own family and as a way of ensuring that the names were authentic for the period.
Two other factors coloured my approach as I devised the series. Firstly, I wanted each episode to be set three months on from the previous one (so I could follow one particular story strand to its conclusion). This gave a unique format for the series and really stretched our storytelling – after all, it would be three months on from any cliff-hanger by the time we rejoined the story, and yet the audience would, quite rightly, want to know how, say, Annie deals with a predicament at the end of the previous episode. (As well as stretching our storytelling abilities, this device also stretched the design team – as fields would have to be ploughed out of season and crops ‘forced’ to grow during the wrong time of year.) Secondly, I wanted it to be very fast-paced. And although it’s not quite ‘24 with Pitchforks’, each of the four main characters (and some of the supporting ones) does have a storyline that twists and turns during each 45-minute episode.
Challenges of period drama
As with any historical fiction, there was a need to balance factual accuracy and the respect for the subject matter with the requirement to tell a good story. To that end, although the girls’ dramatic journeys are fictitious, I read many first hand accounts of real land girls to know that the stories were believable and ‘of the time’. It was really important to me and everyone else on the production that we respected the memory of those amazing women.
In addition to throwing an overdue spotlight on the land girls themselves, the series also shed light on other less well-known aspects of the home front – the segregation of black and white American troops (sanctioned by their own government); the use of prisoners of war as farm labourers; the dispossessed people bombed out of their homes and drifting the country looking for food and work; the internment of Italian nationals; the treatment of conscientious objectors; and the hunt for Nazi sympathisers.
The situation for the drama revolves around Pasture Farm, the Manor House on which the farm is situated and a nearby town, Helmstead (complete with period buildings, and an American barracks). With period drama, as soon as you write the words INT. you are acutely aware that each interior must be decorated and furnished according to the time period. And that involves extra not incurred by a contemporary drama. Fortunately, location manager Michael Grisewood and series producer Sam Hill secured some fantastic locations that needed little or no set dressing.
There were many benefits – some unexpected – in writing a drama set in the past. Period drama gives an in-built sense of poignancy, as we naturally wonder ‘what became of this person’; a poignancy that can be capitalised on for dramatic effect. Approaching the treatment As I honed the treatment, I was told that Will Trotter (at BBC Drama Birmingham) was considering drama ideas to pitch to Liam Keelan, the BBC Daytime Controller. In particular, he envisaged that a Second World War drama would mean that the series could be broadcast to tie in with the 70th commemoration of the outbreak of the war in September 2009. It seemed my timing was spot on.
Will liked the idea, so I worked with him and script editor Terry Barker to prepare the treatment for pitching. Dominique Moloney and Dale Overton were bought in to write the second and fourth episodes and we spent some enjoyable afternoons brainstorming various ‘story of the day’ ideas based on the characters of Annie, Bea, Joyce and Nancy. Getting the commission How did I find out? Terry left me a voicemail that started with the words “I didn’t want to do this as a message…” and I was sure that meant our pitch had been unsuccessful. My instinct was wrong – we’d got the green light.
As production geared up, we worked on the scripts. With insightful notes from Will (executive producer), John Yorke (executive producer), Erika Hossington (producer), our directors, and, of course, Terry, the scripts reached completion. At this stage, we also had great help from Ann Kramer, a published historian specialising in the Women’s Land Army. Ann was able to confirm such intriguing facts as the women having their bath water rationed.
With a few changes, the read-through scripts became shooting scripts and our gifted trio of directors (Steve Hughes, Paul Gibson, and Dan Wilson) with a seasoned Doctors’ crew and a fantastic cast started to turn script pages into TV reality.
At the end of the writing process, I found a haunting photograph. It showed two ex-land girls – now elderly women – returning to the place in which they were billeted during the war. One was holding a wheelchair, while the other stood on its seat so she could peer over the high wall. Decades on, the women were still linked by friendship and adventure. I hope that Land Girls, the series, manages to capture just some of the spirit of those two indomitable women.
Photo of Roland Moore by Krysia Opalinska