Recently my family presented this 1987 BBC television adaptation of Olivia Manning's cycle of novels Fortunes of War starring Kenneth Branagh as Guy Pringle, lecturer in English Literature in Bucharest (Romania) during the early part of WWII, and Emma Thompson as his wife Harriet. The series stays relatively faithful to the original novels, with no notable departures from their plot.
For my late father's generation and therefore mine in the next, WWII held us all in its fix. Our lives were shaped to some extent by the war and its aftermath. My father a farmer went for a working holiday after the war to find a wife, and my mother was in the Land Arm,y in Batlow where they met. Us three kids were post war baby boomers.
Olivia Manning's six-volume work The Fortunes of War presents an unusual and thus fascinating perspective of the war, telling the story of British civilians fleeing before the German forces in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It is grouped into two trilogies. The Balkan Trilogy consists of The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962) and Friends and Heroes (1965), and tells the story of the series's central couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, as they make their way out of increasingly Nazi-friendly Romania and into Greece.
The Levant Trilogy -The Danger Tree (1977), The Battle Lost and Won (1978) and The Sum of Things (1980) follows the Pringles to Egypt, and later follows Harriet on a journey to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, and also adds the character of Simon Boulderstone, a young lieutenant with the British forces who takes part in the battle to repel Rommel's forces from North Africa.
Fortunes of War
The television series Fortunes of War had such an impact upon me in 1988 as it again did when I watched in again recently, was that this the war behind the lines, this was the war in the every day lives of professional people working in a foreign city. War was all around them in a sense but hardly touched them.
During the 1938 summer Guy Pringle married Harriet and she accompanied him to Bucharest with is job as a lecturer for the British Council travelling back there by train in the fall of 1939. The war has only just been announced and all is confusion. On the train are refugees who are not quite certain what they are running from, or to, and the staff is nervous and unfriendly.
When Harriet and Guy arrive in Bucharest life is still, for the most part, moving along its familiar grooves. They quickly immerse themselves in the city's society of British ex-pats, meeting at bars and restaurants, dimly observing subtle changes in the country around them. Guy is a brilliant, vivacious, gregarious man, an idealist who believes in the coming Communist utopia and who greets every person as a friend. Harriet is more reserved and, as we soon discover, more observant.
As the war gets closer to Romania Guy puts on a production of Troilus and Cressida, as a way of showing the British colours even as British forces retreat from the continent at Dunkirk and the German army advances on Paris. He manages to recruit the entire ex-pat community and their hangers-on and transforms them, for a single night, into a company that gives a dazzling performance.
The Fortunes of War is autobiographical work, like Harriet, Manning married shortly before the war and followed her husband to Bucharest, Athens, Egypt, and eventually Jerusalem. There are specific scenes worth re-telling to illustrate some of the mores to shed light on why I found this series so enthralling to human experiences.
The social network of these British expats is portrayed as though we the viewer is part of the picture. A retired British military boffin, Commander Sheppey, turns up and gathers these British academic non-combatant types with an astonishing plan to blow up several dams along the Danube.
Only Aristocratic types need apply
Pringle's boss, the aristocratic Professor Inchcape, accidentally learns of this military adventure from none other than Harriet Pringle, and he immediately sets about to put an end to such escapades and I quote: "There is a very important matter of principle here". His academic staff had a legal authority to be in Romania lecturing English on a strict agreed formal arrangement and deemed non-combatants 'along with a degree of immunity'.
They were not permitted to engage in any military involvement, that was another branch of the British Government's activities (Army, Navy and Air Force) and these were separated by a great gulf of Principle. These ambassadorial rules were sacrosanct and functioned providing decades of cultural exchanges. Professor Inchcape met with this military man Commander Sheppey and made it abundantly clear that his authority, whatever it was, did not include his academic personnel who could not and would not be involved in his military objectives.
Professor Inchcape then fronted each and every one of his academic personnel including Guy Pringle and laid down the Principle and that such military activities were strictly forbidden. As he explained, he Professor Inchcape gave the orders, and you, Guy Pringle, was required to follow them.
In another scene Romanian Iron Guardists smashed the office windows and Inchcape was badly cut and refused to be taken to hospital. The British newspaperman was told he suffered a glancing blow with the portrait of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill – the epitome of the stiff upper lip.
Prince Yakimov a refugee aristocrat thoughtlessly tells his German friend about a blueprint he found in Guy's papers, without even realising the significance of his actions. Yakimov gives Guy's name to the Gestapo as a possible spy. Yet Yakimov has a learned helplessness, his incurable naivety, potentially destructive, innocence sees one of the Legation's offices killed. They were all in grave danger as a result of this.
Having escaped to Athens two of Guy's part times lecturers get the jump on him and get the prime teaching roles and Guy is left providing Shakespeare plays for the troops. And so the story goes on, escaping to Egypt and again a host of dramas associated with a backdrop of the war.
Manning's unique take on the war, and her intimate, bemused, and infinitely compassionate portraits of Guy, Harriet, and the people they meet, should not be missed. They do what so many war novels fail to do, make the experience of living through terrible upheavals, helpless to affect the events directing your life, an immediate and familiar one, and one that resonates even after all these years since the war's end.
In my view after 36 years in Christian ministry, this series should be part of every seminarians required study. For Ministers, it's a must for get a feel for life under the threat of conflict outside their control.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html