Last week’s VE day celebrations didn’t quite go to plan in our house. The only thing that happened how it should – and when it should, was the cream tea, thanks to Wanda the Wonder Cook. I’m not going to say too much about Wanda, or you’ll all be seeking her out and knocking on her door – just suffice it to say she knows her way round an oven!
The first thing that went awry was the two minutes silence at 11am. All set to do that, when the phone rang, I answered it, and by the time I hung up the call – the two minutes had been and gone. So, we had our two minutes at 11.23 am. The other two major happening was the repeat of Churchill’s victory speech, which we did see, but by sheer fluke. And the last event was at 9pm when the whole nation would sing ‘We’ll Meet Again.’ Now this wasn’t going to slip through my grasp. There would be no distractions and we’d give it full voice. You know when your parents always you used to say, “Have you read the instructions?” “Yeah, course I have.” “Have you read them properly?” “Yeah – I’ve read them properly!” But course in the case of the mass sing-along … I hadn’t. For some reason I was convinced it was going to be like ‘Clap for the NHS.’ Everybody out there giving it full throttle. So, there we were 9 o’clock, out on our road, complete with Nika, our daughter’s dog, and not a soul in sight. Not one person! I just cursed the entire road, disappointed in their lack of respect for the occasion and launched into the opening lyrics as if I were on the stage at Drury Lane. I suppose the luck here was that everyone was actually inside their houses, as per the instructions, watching Vera Lynn, Katherine Jenkins and a variety of the proletariat giving their rendition of the World War Two classic on TV. I’ve since seen it on You Tube.
Now quite honestly, I’m an absolute sucker for anything like that. I know to those hardened Marxists World War Two was just a capitalist plot to squash further advancement of a new type of democracy, which dispensed with both the rich and the poor and gave us all an equal share of the goodies. I also read that “The glorification of the second world war has led us to an easier acceptance of ‘liberal interventionism’.” I see where they’re going, but are they also saying we shouldn’t celebrate and reflect about what happened between 1939 and 1945. I have no doubt that the world would not have been the same if we had not honoured our agreement with Poland and mobilised in their defence. The idea of it being a better place I don’t get. If you’re a raving anti-Semite, then you might like the idea. Personally, I have a lot of Jewish friends who have enriched my life.
My wife remarked the other day that when we were growing up very little was said about the War. We’d play in bomb shelters and find the odd tin helmet half buried in rubble, and apart from knowing my father was in the Navy and my mother in the ATS, I knew precious little else. I knew nothing about the length of the war, I knew it was against the Germans and the USA got involved, but I knew nothing about the holocaust, knew nothing about the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war and knew nothing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We weren’t taught about it in school, well not until we were studying for GCEs, and our parents kept it very much to themselves.
Was this right? I don’t know, I hadn’t lived through it. What would I have done? Not a clue. I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like on those D-Day landings and I can’t. When I did find out what had happened, I was shocked to the core. I thought Europe was civilised and here’s Germany invading countries and exterminating people for what I could see was very little reason. And as time went on, I realised the extermination programme wasn’t just the Jews, it was the gypsies, the disabled, the homosexuals.
The nearest I’ve been to any of this is through my work. In the early eighties I directed a play by Martin Sherman called Bent. Bent is set in the 1930s and revolves around gays in Nazi Germany. The play was relatively new when I directed this fringe version in Tufnell Park Tavern theatre, which is no longer there. It had been performed at the Royal Court in 1979, so it was hot off the blocks. The chap that ran the theatre had asked if I’d direct it and I immediately jumped at the chance. There was one proviso which was he played the part of Max – a homosexual who is placed in the concentration camps and through his relationship with another inmate, comes to terms with who he is. Rehearsals began and I very quickly realised that the chap that ran the joint, wasn’t up to the job. He simply was totally wrong. I’ve sacked very few people in my life and having to sack the man who was basically my employer was a tough call. Obviously, I had to be more than prepared to walk away from the job, but he was very gracious, accepted what I said, and I recast.
But directing a play about concentration camps hardly qualifies me to claim I’m au fait with war.
I suppose I got a little nearer when I did the film A Bridge Too Far. At the time I was an actor in my mid-twenties. I’d recently landed a new agent – the Richard Stone Agency which was a big deal for me. They were topflight and I felt quite positive about the future, despite the fact we were broke, our second child was on her way and we were having to live apart while I tried to source somewhere for us all to live in London, but apart from that, life was a dream. I got a couple of small jobs with my new agent and then A Bridge Too Far came up. The story revolved around a real-life character called Colonel Frost, who was played by Anthony Hopkins, who along with a small group of his men, took a bridge at Arnhem in Holland, the idea being to hold it until the allied troops advanced and pushed on from there into Germany. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t quite work out as intended, they met with unexpected German resistance and the main body of the Allied Division were halted, which is why only a small group made it to the bridge. They held out for four days, then the Germans overwhelmed them. The whole offensive failed in its objectives, hence A Bridge Too Far. I was part of that group that held the bridge, so we were used a lot.
After a couple of auditions during which I literally prayed to get cast, I just knew the job would solve all our immediate financial problems, I ended up flying out to a place called Deventer which had a bridge virtually identical to the one that was at Arnhem during the war. Then to make us look more like soldiers, and less like a bunch of actors in some new frocks, we underwent military training., after which they marched us through Deventer town centre and the Dutch came out and cheered – many of them actually remembered being liberated. This was the nearest I came to experiencing what it was like to go to war.
The tales from that movie are endless and no doubt I’ll touch on more of them in future blogs. However, in this blog I thought I ought to talk about my death scene – because for a brief moment I felt I was in the middle of a conflict and I was about to die.
Some of the other guys would be vying every day to get themselves on camera – I wasn’t. I wasn’t there because I thought this was going to be the role that launched me into stardom, because I knew it wasn’t. I was there to make up for spending virtually four years continuous in rep theatre. I loved rep theatre, I loved the variety of roles, I loved the loyalty and support of the audiences and the various people in each town who valued there being a working professional theatre company. There can’t be a better example of this, than Ivy who along with her husband Cliff, ran a little café right opposite the stage door at the Civic Theatre in Chesterfield. I would go in and grab tea and toast for breakfast, then I would return after rehearsals and would have beans and egg on toast, and each day when I went to pay, she would always say the same thing – “Pay me at the end of the week.” When the end of the week came, much to Cliff’s displeasure, she would take a couple of pounds off me – and that was it. My food bill was a couple of quid a week – I really think I might have developed malnutrition if hadn’t have been for Ivy. So, it was years of struggling on the breadline, with a wife who never questioned why I was compelled to follow this slightly insane career path, that I hoped A Bridge Too Far would go some way to financially redress. I knew that – so I didn’t actually care if I was ever seen in the film or not. The chances were the sooner you were featured, the sooner you were killed. If it had been a great role – then it would have been different. But hey, I was hardly going to take the limelight when everyone from Robert Redford to Laurence Olivier to Sean Connery to Dirk Bogart were in the film. For me this was about the money, it had nothing to do with my art (yeah – and I know how pretentious that sounds.) But amazingly it became about something else entirely. It became probably the biggest learning curve of my career.
A Bridge Too Far at the time was one of the most expensive movies ever made. It was huge not just in the sheer number of ‘stars’ but also in the epic scale of the picture. It cost around $22 million, which in the mid 70s was huge and there at the helm was the highly successful Richard Attenborough, one of the good guys. When they weren’t doing our scenes, I would go on set and just sit and watch this gigantic circus in motion. I learned so much, all of which was made easier by Richard Attenborough. I was invited to see rushes (the rough cut of the previous day’s filming), I was privy to the organisation of some of the biggest battle scenes ever filmed and I listened as Attenborough directed his actors. So much of that time has stuck with me and I’ve used over the years. But the best piece of advice Attenborough gave me just came out of the blue. The crew were setting up for a mammoth shot of German tanks coming over the Bridge, a complex shot involving many different elements. Attenborough sat there totally calm and unflustered as the minutes rushed by, then he suddenly said, referring to the activity: “You know I don‘t know the first thing about cameras or lenses and all that sort of thing, I just get the best people I can around me.” I took that and ran with it – get the best people around you, it makes your job so much easier.
Back to the death scene. This was all to do with defending the area at the end of the Bridge as the Germans broke through with their tanks. Part of the action was I dashed across a square, got hit by gunfire, fell down behind a pile of rubble, and was subsequently run over by a marauding tank. In reality once I’d fallen behind the rubble, out of sight of the camera I’d scurry away on my hands and knees to safety, by the side of one of the houses which were part of the set. Now at the time there was conscription in the Dutch Army, and it was the Dutch Army that were driving the tanks. I approached the tank driver who was to supposedly run over me and asked him how fast he’d be going. He had long hair tied up and was sipping from a can of beer. He replied: “I go … 50 … 60 miles per hour.” “Fuck me – you what?!!!” Then he said: “No – I joke … 20 … 30 miles an hour.” I said that was fast enough. So, everything was set up and we went a for a take. If you’ve ever been in close proximity to a moving tank you’ll know how terrifying they are. The sound is deafening, and the ground literally shakes. I got shot, I went down behind the rubble, the tank came towards me … I scurried away to the side of the house. Take one. Take two … three … four … we’d done five takes and I couldn’t help think I was getting slower and the tank was getting faster. I needed this to be over. This was my death shot and tomorrow I’d be on a plane homeward to my heavily pregnant wife, who was about to give birth to our daughter Sally. What I didn’t want was to be going back in a box. Take six – I got shot, I went down behind the rubble, the tank came towards me … I scurried away to the side of the house praying this had to be the last take, when something hit me on the head. I looked up just in time to see the whole side of the house collapsing. I make a dash for it, having avoided being run over by a tank, I didn’t want to end up under a pile of rubble. As I ran, clutching my Bren gun, I’d been trained never to leave my weapon – through the collapsing house came a tank. Apparently, beer wasn’t the only substance being consumed by the army that day – ‘weed’ was also readily available. Now I may be doing the Dutch Army tank driver a huge disservice, but to miss a turn in a tank and to destroy a house in the process, you get the feel that maybe ‘substances’ were involved.
Whatever that was the last take of the day, the shot ended up not only making the film, but also formed part of the trailer – it was never meant to happen, but sometimes those are the most exciting moments.
I have often thought what if that hadn’t been a film set, what if that had been for real. I was in a relatively safe environment, nobody was trying to kill me, and yet the sound of the tank alone terrified me. If it had been for real, if those had been part of a German Panzer Division and they had been trying to kill me, not trying to miss me, how would I have felt? I think it’s essential we always remember the true bravery so many people showed in the war and how all our lives would not be the same without their courage. To pretend is one thing, to actually be confronted by that horror is something most of us can’t imagine – thank god. Which is why I will always try and give due time and respect to days like VE Day, even when I do it badly.