‘Today it would be mental illness, then they thought you were weak’

Sean Bean as Douglas Bennett and Lesley Manville as Robina Chase. Picture: PA Photo/BBC/Mammoth Screen/Ben Blackall
Sean Bean as Douglas Bennett and Lesley Manville as Robina Chase. Picture: PA Photo/BBC/Mammoth Screen/Ben Blackall
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Sean Bean has an unlucky track record when it comes to the fate of his characters on screen.

From Ned Stark in Game Of Thrones to Boromir in Lord Of The Rings and Alec Trevelyan in GoldenEye, the Sheffield-born actor is famed for roles which end in an untimely death.

So, it’s understandable that for his latest show, World On Fire, he was keen to check with the writer – Bafta-winning Peter Bowker – that he would survive the first series.

“I think I did have a telephone conversation; ‘I don’t die, do I?’,” the 60-year-old recalls with a light chuckle.

“And they said, ‘No, no, no, you’re alright!’”

In the seven-part BBC1 war drama, Bean plays working-class man Douglas Bennett, who he says is unlike any character he’s played in the past.

Now a bus conductor living in Manchester with his two grown-up kids, Douglas witnessed horror and bloodshed during the First World War.

As a result, when the Second World War begins, he is “a conscientious objector, a pacifist”.

He is also, Bean suggests, “a man who was suffering really psychologically from the past, trying to keep a hold on his life.

“These flashbacks come upon him, these memories, these horrible nightmares that he just can’t get out of his head, and he’s trying to deal with it himself, on his own really, as many men did after the First World War.”

He adds, “Today it would be mental illness; it’s well documented and it’s addressed. But then, they just thought you were weak, you weren’t strong, you weren’t a man.”

The series looks at how the first year of the war affected ordinary people in countries including Britain, Poland, France, Germany and the United States.

Other intertwining stories we follow include those of Douglas’s children, Lois (played by Julia Brown) and Tom (Ewan Mitchell).

“He was a loving father, loving husband,” says Bean, who married his fifth wife in 2017, and has three children from his previous marriages.

“The war threw that everywhere; his wife died soon after and he was kind of living with it on his own. He wasn’t getting any help and he’s going through these emotions, these horrific experiences. He has to live with them for the rest of his life.”

What research did he do for the part?

“Well, I read up about it and I watched documentaries. But I suppose I’ve always had an interest in it, the First and Second World War.

“I’ve played a lot of soldiers over the years and I’ve talked to a lot of people involved especially in the Falklands.

“In the series Sharpe, I remember we had men from the Falklands who had lost legs and we used them for a scene we shot in the hospital in Greenwich, in the Peninsular War. That was over a period of time, and we were chatting.”

Bean, whose other recent TV roles include Broken, Medici and Curfew, admits the filming process for World On Fire was intense.

“It wasn’t where you went to work and said, ‘Hi’ with other characters,” he says, imitating a cheerful voice.

“It was a man who was kind of trapped in his house, in his kitchen with his family, and he’s claustrophobic and it was intense, and he was putting on this front. He was trying to be alright for his kids – he was really falling apart inside. That was very interesting to play. Not necessarily enjoyable, but fascinating to explore.”

As well as Bean, other big names on the cast list include Hollywood star Helen Hunt and Oscar-nominee Lesley Manville.

“Douglas and Robina [Lesley’s character] struck up quite a friendship. [They’re] from totally different backgrounds and walks of life – he’s a working class bus conductor who’s served in the First World War, she’s a rather posh, gentrified lady of the manner.

“Because of the relationship between my daughter and her son, we’re thrown together and that’s quite a fascinating relationship.”

Discussing the appeal of the project, Bean affirms he was really pleased with how the story deals with people from different countries, walks of life and classes.

“It just gives it a bigger feel, in Warsaw, in Berlin in the snow, in Paris... All these people come together in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

“I suppose it’s the first time that all the European people have become so close, because of this common enemy, and had to be thrown together, and how well we all seem to like each other. Now, we don’t!”

As for reprising the role of Douglas in the future, (the plan is to do a different series for each year of the war), it’s definitely something he’d be up for.

“It’s such a good series,” he says.

“It’s just unfolding at the moment, and all doors are left open. There’s a lot more story to tell.”

World On Fire continues on BBC1 on Sundays at 9pm.