It’s the most ambitious radio drama project embarked on by the BBC for half a century.

More than 600 episodes of a Radio 4 series are being recorded to reflect life in Britain during the First World War.

Instead of focusing on the trenches, Home Front will follow the families left behind.

Every day it goes out will reflect what happened on that day exactly 100 years previously. The first episode is broadcast on August 4, the day war broke out in 1914, and the last will be on Armistice Day, November 11 in 2018.

So where would the BBC turn to fulfil such a major undertaking? Birmingham, naturally.

The city is well equipped for radio drama as it produces The Archers. The Home Front team will be sharing the Mailbox studio with the folk from Ambridge for the next four years.

Home Front will be broadcast Monday to Friday on Radio 4 at noon, with podcasts and an omnibus on Fridays.

Each episode lasts 12 minutes. It will run for 15 seasons of approximately eight weeks, setting a pattern of eight weeks on, eight weeks off, for four and a half years. The first series runs for 45 episodes.

There is a cast of 65, with a core of 30 returning characters.

Actors taking part include John Woodvine and Dame Harriet Walter, who makes a guest appearance as suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Warwickshire cricket captain Jim Troughton makes his drama debut as Colin Blythe, who was captain of Kent in 1914. Colin went to Folkestone in December 1914 to recruit.

The production team thought Jim, also a slow left arm bowler and the son of actor David Troughton (the new Tony Archer in The Archers) would be the ideal celebrity to play him.

Boardwalk Empire and Downton Abbey star Patrick Kennedy plays Lord Alfred Douglas, lover of Oscar Wilde, who passes through Folkestone, the setting of the first two series.

Claire Rushbrook, who’s appeared in The Mill, Mrs Biggs and Whitechapel, plays Florrie Wilson, the wife of signalman Albert.

Their daughter Kitty (Ami Metcalf) is a maid to the vicar and his wife, and is in love with Dieter the waiter. His German background causes much consternation when war breaks out.

Radio Four World War One production 'Home Front II' producer Lucy Collingwood.
Radio Four World War One production 'Home Front II' producer Lucy Collingwood.

The upper class family in the town are the Grahams, with Councillor Gabriel (Michael Bertenshaw), his wife Sylvia (Deborah Findlay) and their children Isabel, the Sunday School teacher (Keely Beresford) and Freddie (Freddie Fox, star of The Three Musketeers and The Shadow Line) who signs up to fight in the first series.

Producer Lucy Collingwood, who also shares directing duties with Jessica Dromgoole, says: “Home Front is the biggest commission for radio drama since The Archers and we’re very chuffed to be making it in Birmingham.

“There are lots of programmes on this year about the centenary of 1914 but we are proud that our project continues throughout the duration of the war.

“It’s a complete treat to work on this, with a combination of top writers and a wonderful cast.

“And learning all the history has been just fascinating. I’ve got completely addicted to it.

“There isn’t that much out there about life on the home front. Mention World War One and people think of soldiers in muddy trenches but there was so much more going on.

“We hope to capture the audience’s imaginations.

“It’s very humorous in parts but there are a few tears, too.”

A production team of just six control this epic project. They fit in recording around The Archers, making five episodes every two days.

Sitting in on a recording session, it’s clear there is no time to hang around.

They are on to season two already, the theme of which is recruitment.

The first series theme is The Lost Boys, as two seven-year-old boys go missing from a Sunday School picnic. A search for them continues throughout the series, while the theme also refers to the boys lost to the war.

Folkestone was chosen as the first location as there was plenty going on at the seaside town at the start of the war, with troops leaving from the harbour and Belgian refugees arriving.

The third series is set in industrial Newcastle while the fourth is in Devon for its farming and a hospital for reconstructive surgery.

The episode they are recording when I arrive is all about recruitment. Drunken layabout Bill Macknade (Ben Crowe) is lured to a recruitment drive at the local theatre, where he gets carried away and takes the King’s Shilling.

The Sergeant Major turns up at his house the next day to take him off to war, despite his claims he was drunk when he signed up.

His put-upon wife Alice (Claire-Louise Cordwell, last seen in The Honourable Woman) isn’t sorry to see the back of him, especially as he will be sending home money.

The script for Radio Four World War One production 'Home Front II'.
The script for Radio Four World War One production 'Home Front II'.

His son can’t wait to sign up. He’s been turned down because of his bad teeth but the army is going to give him free dental treatment as a Patriotic Patient.

“Here we go then, death or glory,” says Bill as he marches off to fight for King and Country.

Lucy, who has moved from Brighton to Birmingham to work on Home Front, says: “Recruitment drives were a big thing in 1914. Musical hall actress Vesta Tilley wore men’s uniform, sang songs and got men to sign up, promising them a kiss if they did.

“Although our characters are, for the most part, fictional, a lot of research has gone into our storylines. We try to have significant history in every episode, which centres on a different character every time.

“We do feature some real people. Dame Harriet Walter plays Emmeline Pankhurst, who comes to Folkestone to tell women to give up the suffragette movement and support the war effort while it’s on.

“Also a man called Admiral Fitzgerald, played by John Woodvine, started the White Feather movement in Folkestone. He organised a group of 30 women to hand out white feathers to men not in uniform, implying they were cowards. The campaign spread nationwide and led to the introduction of badges for civilians occupied in war work.

“We are showing just how much the country was affected by the war.

“There are so many stories to tell, about the propaganda, the patriotism, the telegrams arriving saying families had lost four sons in one swoop.

“There were many social changes, and the effect on women was huge. They were taking over men’s jobs, allowed to work in the factories, they started wearing trousers and smoking, learning to ride bicycles and even drive.

“In the second season, one of our women learns to drive and volunteers as an ambulance driver at the front.

“Amazingly, women would buy their own ambulances and supplies, from Bovril to bandages, and just set off to the front on their own. It was extraordinary.

“There was also a temperance movement and the Defence of the Realm Act, passed on August 8 1914, limited a lot of activities. It changed the licensing laws, restricting opening hours and making it illegal to buy someone a drink, and gave the army power to commander property.

“In Home Front we are trying to show a cross-section of society – the local councillor, the vicar, a maid, a railway station signalman, a Sunday school teacher and a very poor family, the Macknades.

“We have had a lot of help from our consultant historian, Professor Maggie Andrews from Worcester University.

“I find the history very interesting in terms of language. There are phrases we’ve had to change because people wouldn’t have used them. Shell-shocked didn’t come in until much later on.

“A little girl we have called Jessie is raising money for Belgian refugees and goes round shouting ‘Spend a penny for a Belgian’. But it turns out they didn’t use spend a penny for going to the toilet until the 1940s, so we had to change it to ‘penny for a Belgian!’ which wasn’t as funny. Also ‘going down the pan’ wasn’t used, we had to change it to ‘everything’s gone to pigs and whistles’.”

Warwickshire Cricket captain Jim Troughton, appearing as 1914 Kent cricket captain Colin Blythe, with actors Matthew Tennyson, Lloyd Thomas and Will Howard, for Radio 4 drama Home Front.
Warwickshire Cricket captain Jim Troughton, appearing as 1914 Kent cricket captain Colin Blythe, with actors Matthew Tennyson, Lloyd Thomas and Will Howard, for Radio 4 drama Home Front.
 

Cultural historian Professor Andrews says: “The Home Front researchers have been very diligent so it’s usually a nuance or emphasis that I’ve changed.

“For example, there’s really not much evidence of people going round saying ‘It’ll all be over by Christmas’. They didn’t think that and the war didn’t really get going until 1915.

“Also there’s this idea of soldiers being permanently in the trenches, Blackadder-style. But they were shipped around a lot, often returning home for training or to be treated for injuries, and some spent hardly any time at the front.

“Home Front is a mammoth, fascinating project. What’s so good is that it isn’t in a great rush, like television often is, to tell the stories. They can build up a richer picture.

“It has so many characters and covers a broad range of society. We tend to get very simplistic, traditional tropes about the First World War, with the men on the front and the woman working in munitions or as nurses. It was far more complicated than that.

“And situations changed as the war went on.

“For example, at the start of the war people were stockpiling and hoarding food. Then as the submarine war gets going, Germany and Britain were trying to starve each other out.

“The government banned fresh bread, to stop people eating it too fast. Prices rose dramatically in 1915 and by 1917 there were terrible food queues, with people waiting all day to buy a tub of margarine. Then rationing came in in 1918.”

Writer Shaun McKenna, who has also worked on Heartbeat and the Complete Smiley, reveals 12 minutes of airtime means writing 2,250 words.

The episode they are recording is only coming in at 11 minutes, though, so he is having to come up with more dialogue.

In the studio we can hear the pre-recorded rain effects, as December 1914 was a cold and wet winter.

Shaun says: “I keep coming across all these really interesting nuggets of information. Did you know they had terrible frostbite in the trenches in 1914?

“It’s quite challenging to get the right balance of serious and comedy. By 1916 things were really grim, but there’s still humour to be had and we hope the audience will engage with the characters.

“The actors bring qualities to the characters we weren’t expecting, so we write for them now.

“We were going to kill off a major character at the end of season two, but we all fell in love with her so we’re keeping her alive.”

* Home Front begins on Radio 4 on August 4 at 12pm. For more information, go to www.bbc.co.uk/homefront