Sunday 27 April 2014

Len on BBC1 this morning - OWALW - redux

Sir John Mills as General Haig
[Updated content]

Watching BBC Breakfast at 0740h this morning while eating my cornflakes I was interested to see a short three minute segment on Oh! What a Lovely War and the wider controversy around the depiction of the First World War in the hundredth anniversary year.

The feature looked in particular on the 45th anniversary of the release of OWALW and its continued capacity to challenge exiting views of the experiences of the war. Len was one of the brief talking heads in the slot, and if I'm right they used part of the interview which Len gave to BBC South East last year when filmed at the Imperial War Museum. He references the fact that the key to the impact of the film and the play is that it draws upon what many of the troops at the front were saying and writing.

Also featured were short clips from interviews with Vanessa Redgrave - Sylvia Pankhurst in the film; Edward Fox - the aide de camp - who talked about the Englishman's capacity to mock tragedy and make light of it, hence the appropriateness of using song and dance to tell the story; and Sir Richard Attenborough, who talked about how the final scene, when Jack Smith walks along the cliff top and finally, realising he's back where he started at Mons, takes up his place in his grave, as a scene which still has the power to make tears well in his eyes.

More background

Information from Edward Milward-Oliver confirms that the piece was from one of series of short reports by BBC South East Today on the First World War, that were screened 22-25 April. South East Today is the regional programme for Kent and East Sussex, and Brighton - the location for much of OWALW filming - fits within that footprint.

The reports on the Tuesday and Friday were about the making of OWALW in Brighton, incorporating scenes from the film, interview clips with Len and with Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox, extras from Brighton who were in the film, and Max Hastings who provided some context.

According to Edward: "Recently, South East Today hosted a private screening of OWALW at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema – the oldest continuously operating cinema in the UK. The audience of about 200 comprised guests of the BBC, local people who had some involvement with the production in 1968 (eg. extras), and viewers of South East Today who applied for tickets. The evening kicked off with a live 20-minute broadcast from the cinema as part of South East Today's nightly 30-minute programme. For the screening they ran an original 35 mm widescreen print of OWALW, which was a rare treat.

This was followed by a short discussion and Q&A with three of the cast: Angela Thorne, Maurice Roëves and Charlotte Attenborough. The team from South East Today, in particular Vicki Berry, Polly East and Robin Gibson, organised and presented a superb event marking a film that on the evidence of Monday evening continues to have a powerful impact on cinema audiences."

Edward has let the blog reference three images from that event:

Sunday 20 April 2014

Review - New Edition - "Blood, Tears & Folly" by Len Deighton

This new UK edition of Len's 1993 history of the major military strategies of World War Two is big in concept, scope and physical size. At nearly 800 pages, this is perhaps one of Len's most personal books, reflecting his long-standing research as an amateur historian and enthusiast for all things military material.

This book is not a complete history of the conflict. Rather it focuses on the early years of the war and the set piece battles that set the stage for the latter half of the conflict. In the same vein as Fighter, Len seeks to offer a perspective on the war - "an objective look" is in the subtitles - but also to challenge established tropes about the conflict. So, in looking at the early years of the war, he is not averse to directing criticism at Churchill for his botched Norway invasion, or the relative debacle that was the BEF's experiences in facing defeat during the Blitzkrieg and being forced to evacuate via Dunkirk.

Len spends a lot of the book looking at the origins in the pre-war alliances and appeasement that allowed Hitler the space in which to re-arm and prepare the Blitzkrieg strategy which proved crucial in the first couple of years of the war in shaping Germany's multiple military victories. This is very much a view of the war through set-piece battles: there are chapters on 'The Battle of the Atlantic', 'The Mediterranean War' and 'Barbarossa: the attack on Russia', all of which are looked at by Len with his customary eye for detail and interesting twist.

The rather nice thing about this book has been the use of illustrations to accompany the text, perhaps reflecting Len's former career as an illustrator. They provide a visual commentary that helps the reader understand the complexities of strategy and the advances in technology propelled by the war.

The introduction by Len
As an internationally renowned writer and historian of some note, Len was advantaged in this book by having had access to some of the major protagonists in the war. His introduction references conversations with Montgomery's Chief of Staff, the Luftwaffe Chief Adolf Galland, and Walter Nehring, Chief of Staff to tank ace Erwin Rommel! Fascinatingly, Len recalls also meeting Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect and later Armaments Minister, a man who was less than open after the war with his views on his role in Nazi Germany. With resources like that to draw on, Len was always going to present a story that looked at things from all sides, in detail.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Review - New edition - "Fighter" by Len Deighton

While readers may not have the opportunity to read new books from Len, Harper Collins is doing its best to give readers the next best thing: new editions of old favourites.

Following the successful relaunch of all of Len's fiction works by Harper Collins' fiction team, the process of updating and reissuing his non-fiction historical works has been completed. The publisher's non-fiction team has recently published three new editions of Fighter, Blood, Tears & Folly and Blitzkrieg.

For each book, the content stays the same; however, each has a new introduction by Len and his son, Antoni, who has taken over the role from Arnold Schwartzman of designing the new covers for these three books. In reviewing these new books, that is what I'll focus on mainly.

Fighter: the true story of the Battle of Britain
The shortest of the three new books, this was originally published in hardback in 1977 by Jonathan Cape. It is a book in which Len draws on heavily his interested in the technology of war to give a new and, arguably, balanced perspective on the most famous air battle in history.

Back in 1977, this book touched many raw nerves, coming only 37 years after the battle at a time when many of the pilots who fought in it were still alive. Deighton seeks to explore the information and records from both sides, crucially, to puncture some of the stories and mythologies about the Battle that have grown up, and comes to the conclusion that the RAF survived as a fighting force largely because they made fewer mistakes than did the German Luftwaffe did!

Naturally, perhaps, this conclusion raised eyebrows with the aces who protected the memory o fthe pilots who fought in the battle. His allegations in the book that during the bombing of RAF Manston tmany RAF ground crew remained in their air raid shelters and refused to come out to carry out their duties, drew criticism. Surprisingly, as Len's normally a stickler for details, he did not provide any evidence for this.