When it comes to curating prestigious British television shows for U.S. audiences, no network is better than PBS (although BBC America could certainly give it a run for its money sometimes). Now the channel that brought Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes, and The Great British Bake-Off across the pond has another treat in store for American Anglophiles: My Mother & Other Strangers, a drama set in a 1943 North Irish town that’s beset by thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army Air Force on their way to fight in World War II. The series focuses on Rose Coyne, a wife and mother who finds herself in a love triangle with her husband and a handsome USAAF officer. But is a true story, or is it historial fiction? Is My Mother & Other Strangers a true story?
Although the small parish where the Coynes live, Moybeg, is fictional, it’s based on the real town where show writer Barry Devlin grew up, on the shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. The friendly invasion of Moybeg would have been fairly typical for 1943, too; according to the BBC, about 300,000 U.S. troops were stationed in North Ireland over the course of the war, including in Devlin’s real hometown of Abdoe. If you visit today, you can even explore many of the sites where soldiers lived on what’s known as the GI Trail.
After the war ended, the base on Ardoe was taken over by the British Royal Air Force; as he told the Irish News, he grew up “fascinated” by the airplanes and “exotic servicemen and women driving around in Jeeps and so on.” It was these memories that inspired him to create My Mother & Other Strangers. “I wanted to write a series that had an exotic love story at its heart but that was set in a place I recognize,” he said in a press release when BBC One first commissioned the series in 2015.
Similarly, while the Coyne family did not ever exist as they appear on TV, middle-child Francis Coyne was very much inspired by what Devlin remembers being like at the same age. “He's the geeky child that I was,” he also told the Irish News. “The anorak who loves aeroplanes, is slightly timid, wants to be loved by adults and is willing to get into mischief but not actually suffer any of the consequences.” In a later essay he wrote for the BBC blog, he also admitted that he made Rose Coyne a teacher because his mother was a teacher, although he “took care” to make sure his characters weren’t exactly like the people he knew growing up.
Honestly, I’m relieved that the show isn’t strictly based on a true story of a real family; it’ll make it that much easier to root for one of Rose’s love interest over another without worrying about what might have happened to an actual marriage. And even though My Mother & Other Strangers is fictional, watching it is definitely going to make me way more of a WWII buff. Who even know North Ireland was such a prominent part of the war effort?