When lives were plunged into chaos: Sean Bean on portraying a man with PTSD

When lives were plunged into chaos: Sean Bean on portraying a man with PTSD
Sean Bean and Lesley Manville in new wartime drama series World On Fire.

Sean Bean is one of the stars of a new series set at the start of the Second World War, writes Georgia Humphreys.

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, 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, 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 BBC One war drama, Bean plays working-class man Douglas Bennett. Now a bus conductor living in Manchester with his two grown-up kids, Douglas witnessed a lot of horror and bloodshed during the First World War. As a result, when World War Two begins, he is a conscientious objector.

He is also, Bean suggests, a man who was suffering from the past.

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.

“He is a man, and he was a strong man, until he went through this and he’s kind of broken.”

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

“He was a loving father, loving husband,” notes 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 it with it on his own. He wasn’t getting any help and he’s going through these emotions, trying to get 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.

“There were experiences that had been told to me by those guys and so it was a matter of just dredging those stories back up again, a bit of talking to the directors and writers and a bit of research.

“It’s a very personal thing, because it’s how you portray it and how you try to show the damage that has been done. So it’s a matter of choice of how far you go and how your body reacts and how your body follows your brain to demonstrate in your acting.”

Bean says the filming process for World On Fire was a particularly intense one.

“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 gushes.

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

- World On Fire starts on BBC One on Sunday

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