On 19 September this year, a fly past by Spitfires and Hurricanes took place over Westminster Abbey in London as part of a series of events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The bravery of ‘The Few’ RAF fighter pilots, during the three and a half months of intense aerial combat with the Luftwaffe that raged over English skies, ensured that the Nazis were unable to invade Britain. The Guardian reported that Flight Lieutenant William Walker, now 97, spoke to Prince Charles after the service in the Abbey, and explained that he’d received only five hours of training in a Spitfire before being sent into battle. He also recalled how they had ‘lost 10 in 10 days’.
Piece of Cake, based on Derek Robinson’s novel, follows a group of fighter pilots in the early years of WWII. The pilots are not portrayed as comic book heroes, but as real men caught up in terrible times, and in so doing their bravery is exposed all the more clearly. The London Weekend Television mini-series was made in 1988, and shot all its own aerial footage. Jeremy played naive young pilot Fitz Fitzgerald, and amongst his co-stars was Richard Hope, who played one of Piece of Cake‘s most memorable characters, Hornet Squadron’s intelligence officer, ‘Skull’ Skelton.
Richard is a versatile character actor who has worked extensively on tv and in theatre since the 1970′s. He has appeared in Brideshead Revisited, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Holby City on tv, and in War and Peace, Cymbeline and Anna Karenina on stage, to name but a few. He is currently appearing in Dirty Dancing at the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End, as Max Kellerman. I was delighted when Richard found time between performances to talk to me about his memories of Piece of Cake.
In 1988, you starred as Skull Skelton in the wonderful and fondly remembered tv mini-series about WWII pilots, Piece of Cake. Can you tell us how you came to be involved?
I think it was an interview that came up via my agent and having read the scripts I knew I wanted to be involved. This was the ultimate tv show for the fighter squadron elite with five planes actually in the air at times. I jumped at the chance to join this project as it was an era of history that had fascinated me. My father was in the Second World War in the army and I had an uncle who was in the RAF but had been badly wounded and had to have his face remastered. I felt I joined the show with some inside knowledge.
Skull doesn’t actually fly, and seems to be a very different man to the arrogant young pilots. He’s a fascinating character, how would you describe him, and how did you approach the part?
Skull is a cerebral character who finds it difficult to express his own emotion but is ready to join the flow when he can. He is able to give the youngsters the benefit of his limited experience and ready to party in his own way; he always enjoys the dinners knowing that some of those there may not return after the next mission.
I had the idea of basing the character on someone I met who had been to Cambridge and Harvard and then joined the Navy. He was so intelligent; you felt they burnt themselves out before they were 30. He wore those period glasses. He was quite different from the average person and you could feel his mind racing ahead.
Intelligence was the key to many battles at the time of the Battle of Britain. The declaration of war was regarded as a phoney war as nothing really happened. Once Britain lost at Dunkirk and Hitler threatened to engage, the hostilities became potent and immediate. Skull knew the danger but tried to reassure his family of pilots. I always felt he wanted to fly but had been turned down because of his eyesight.
Of course, Piece of Cake features an early performance by Jeremy Northam, and Skull has a wonderful scene with Fitz, Jeremy’s character, in the library. It’s funny and very sweet and the two of you play it beautifully. Can you tell us about your memories of filming that scene?
I remember it was filmed very quickly and in the corner of a beautiful library room in our location house. By then any scenes without the timetable of planes were a luxury. I enjoyed working with Jeremy and felt very pleased with the scene. As it was winter I think it was extremely cold outside and doing an interior location, and a two-hander, was good.
Piece of Cake was light-hearted to begin with but became bleaker and more tragic as it progressed. Can you tell us about how Skull changed as a result of the horrors of war?
As I have said already no one thought the war would last long and could be over by Christmas 1939. The story shows how the country became threatened to its limits as the actual airfields became the targets for the Luftwaffe. We filmed some exterior scenes at South Cerney in Wiltshire, an airfield that still had original hangers at the time as well as a period control tower. The sense of history was overpowering. Skull was a survivor and didn’t have to face the horrors of aerial combat but he suffered the cost of making friendships that could be gone in the morning. Life was raw and immediate. The crews survived by developing their own sense of humour and finding ways to alleviate the boredom between forays.
Seeing a Spitfire fly four feet off the ground and then pull out to 100 feet right in front of you is an unforgettable experience. The hum of the Merlin engine was hypnotic.
When Piece of Cake first aired, I believe there were some negative rumblings about how WWII pilots were being portrayed. What are your thoughts about what the series set out to do?
This was the first attempt to do a flying series with the actual planes, including a Flying Fortress after the Americans joined the war, while they still were airworthy and the pilots were available. I felt it was an honour and major achievement to pull all of it together. At the time there was talk that we had used Hurricanes or the wrong sort of Spitfire but I don’t think those critics were aware of the logistics of what had actually been assembled and achieved.
The flying sequences were later used by other series including Foyle’s War. The Flying Fortress had been converted to take several cameras up and be an aerial flying filming platform that shot unique footage of Spitfires up close and in action. Those pilots flew the plane to the same extremes as the original pilots, except for firing live ammunition.
I remember reading Fighter Pilot* which was a known period authority of the time. We all felt we were pretty close to the real thing. People will always be looking for anomalies as to cap badges, etc, but that is par for the course. Treat it as a drama and you’ll learn a great deal about the time and what people suffered.
Richard, we’d love to hear about any other memories of Piece of Cake (funny, serious or otherwise!) you feel able to share!
Being up close to live flying machines is fascinating for any boy. I returned to my childhood and was in awe of the machines.
I do remember filming a dinner sequence when a bomb explodes outside the building and special effects loaded in too much explosive. It was something you couldn’t do twice. We all hurriedly started wiping down the walls and pictures covered in the remains of our dinner. I hope the owner who lent us the house never noticed any remains of the party!
Skull sings ‘The Foggy Dew’ at Flash and Fitz’s double wedding and is interrupted by an explosion!
Where can we see you at the moment, and is there anything coming up that we should look out for?
I’m in London at the Aldwych Theatre performing Max Kellerman in Eleanor Bergstein’s Dirty Dancing until May 2011. My blog has updates on new projects.
Richard’s official blog: http://www.richard-hope.com/
I would like to thank Richard very much for speaking to me, and wish him continued success. If you are in London and would like to see Richard in Dirty Dancing, you can find out more and get tickets from the Aldwych Theatre website. I would also like to thank Lori Randolph, who runs Richard’s official blog, very much for her great help in setting up this interview.
If you enjoyed this post about Piece of Cake, please do read Laura’s excellent post about it too.
*Fighter Pilot, by Wing Commander Paul Richey, was the first personal account of life as a WWII pilot during exactly the period of time covered by Piece of Cake. Based on Richey’s journal of his own experiences, it was first published anonymously in 1941. It is still possible to find copies via Amazon and other booksellers.
You may also be interested in How They Made Piece of Cake by Robert Eagle and Herbie Knott.