Derek Robinson on ‘Piece of Cake’

4 Oct

If you’re anything like me, you’ll agree that one piece of cake is never quite enough. It always leaves you wanting more. So it is with great pleasure that I offer you another slice, courtesy of the author of Piece of Cake, Derek Robinson. Following my recent interview with Richard Hope, who played Skull Skelton in the 1988 LWT mini-series adapted from the novel, Derek had this to tell us about Piece of Cake and its screen adaptation.

Derek Robinson, author of 'Piece of Cake'

Richard Hope’s memories of the filming of Piece of Cake took me back to 1988. The success of the series owed a lot to the obvious things – a fine director, talented actors, memorable music – but I would also pick out three major factors. First, an excellent screenplay by Leon Griffiths. He had created Minder and he knew his stuff. He was generous enough to say that much of the dialogue was simply lifted from the pages of the novel; I felt flattered. Second, the series didn’t overdo the flying scenes. Some film-makers, having paid big money for the aircraft, show so much of them that the audience gets bored. In Cake, the airborne action is done brilliantly but briefly. You never get bored. And third, the actors were all young and almost all of them were un-famous. When you see a production with a Big Star in it, you know he’s going to be alive and acting right to the end, because (a) he cost a lot of loot, and (b) his agent demanded it. With Cake, you never knew from moment to moment whether a character was going to live or die, and this added enormously to the tension – especially as they were so young.

Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker and Helena Michell

And fighter pilots were young in 1939-40. Pilots of 20 or 21 were not uncommon, and as the losses mounted and replacements arrived, some were 19. The casting was especially good. Jeremy Northam, as Fitz, was 27 at the time but he looked and talked and behaved like 21 or 22. The following extract tells you a bit about Fitz’s background, and I think explains why Jeremy Northam was so well-cast in the part.

As a child, Jeremy Fitzgerald had been full of impish charm, but adolescence had strengthened his looks: the mouth became wider, the cheekbones firmer, the eyes steadier. He was slim and lithe, an agile and unquenchable games-player as long as size didn’t matter; not brilliant but not stupid; popular because cheerful and cheerful because popular.

His mother adored him; there were photographs all over the house. His father – something of a tycoon in the wholesale electrical supplies business – wasn’t so sure; he’d sent the boy to public school in order to get all that narcissistic nonsense knocked out of him. Girls, his father noticed gloomily, weren’t very keen on young Fitz. The good-looking ones felt upstaged and the plain ones felt humiliated. Fitz himself couldn’t understand this: he’d never considered his face to be anything special; it was so familiar that it was ordinary. Later, when he left school and began to understand, he felt cursed by his looks. One day he was flipping through a magazine when he saw a photograph of an RAF pilot. His head was completely covered by helmet, goggles and oxygen mask. Fitz’s mother was horrified, but he knew what he wanted and his father did nothing to stop him. By the time he got his wings Fitz had lost all self-consciousness. Everyone was equal in Fighter Command. He was just another golden boy.

© Derek Robinson, all rights reserved.

Fitz’s relationship with Mary Blandin also tells you quite a bit about him. You have to bear in mind that young men who had been to public school were not, in 1939, sexually experienced at all; in fact it was not uncommon for men like Fitz never to have kissed a girl, or even to have had a girl friend. And the all-male company of a fighter squadron, especially in France, was very like being at public school. Fitz wasn’t slow or clumsy with Mary; he just was new to girls.

Jeremy as Fitz Fitzgerald

I think the oldest was Tom Burlinson at 32 – but he had a very boyish look, and I would have bet he was no more than 24. Tom played Fanny Barton, who became CO of Hornet Squadron, and I think his real age gave him the touch of steel that any CO needs. Richard Hope, as Skull, was about the right age and it’s interesting that he guessed that Skull had wanted to be a pilot but his poor eyesight meant he became the squadron Intelligence Officer. Richard wasn’t far out. As a junior don at Cambridge, Skull recoiled from a disastrous love affair, joined the University Air Squadron to escape from the memories, never made it as pilot but was welcomed into Intelligence. It’s all in the novel.

Tom Burlinson as Fanny Barton

Skull is a good example of the way a book tells its own story, no matter what the author might want. I wrote in Skull as a bit-part player, someone to deliver some information and then leave the stage. But he didn’t go. He turned out to be a very important character, and he not only survived Cake but also appeared in three sequels to the novel. Skull is tougher than he looks, and I’m grateful to him for all he’s done for me.

Richard Hope as Skull Skelton

I’m grateful, too, to the television series for reviving the book when it looked dead and buried. I spent four years writing Cake, and the hardback publication was such a flop in the UK (it did a lot better in the US)  that I  reckoned it was four years down the drain. Then, by sheer luck, Andrew Holmes, who runs a production company, happened on the paperback, was intrigued by the simple fact that the good-looking pilots were not necessarily the best in the air, and  persuaded LWT to put up the money – over £5 million, which in 1988 was a lot to hang on one drama series. (My friends assumed that I got the bulk of the loot. If only.) Since then, the book has never been out of print, and a new edition will appear next year.*

I suppose Cake didn’t do any harm to the screen careers of Richard Hope and Jeremy Northam and Nathaniel Parker and some other Hornet crew, either. I’m not saying it was any kind of launch-pad, but the last episode of Cake got a UK audience of 13 million, was taken by Masterpiece Theatre in the US, and got shown all over the English-speaking world; which can’t be bad exposure. Since then, of course, they’ve made their way by sheer talent and hard work. Good luck to them.

Derek Robinson

*Piece of Cake is being re-issued next year by MacLehose Press, along with another of Derek’s WWII novels, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. A Good Clean Fight and Damned Good Show, Derek’s other WWII RAF novels, will also be published by MacLehose shortly afterwards.

You can find out more about all of Derek’s novels, including Goshawk Squadron, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, by visiting his website: http://www.derekrobinson.info/

Piece of Cake, the tv mini-series based on Derek’s novel, is available on DVD from various retailers including Amazon and Play.com.

I’d like to thank Derek very much for his wonderful contribution to The Jer Blog. If you have enjoyed this post, please leave us a comment.

19 Responses to “Derek Robinson on ‘Piece of Cake’”

  1. Ansie October 6, 2010 at 12:15 am #

    Thank you so much Mr. Robinson for sharing your memories and insights with us! I remember watching Piece of Cake on Masterpiece Theater years ago and then promptly going out to find the book. I found both to be fascinating. Recently I re-watched Piece of Cake on DVD from our local library and thoroughly enjoyed it – such an engrossing story and as you mention, the viewer/reader is on constant pins and needles wondering who will survive and who won’t. Each death of these young fighter pilots is so tragic and poignant.

    I’m happy to hear Piece of Cake will be re-issued next year and look forward to reading it again. I’m sorry to say our local library doesn’t have that particular book in its current collection although they have several of your other novels.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us!

    • henrysmummy2003 October 6, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

      Thanks Ann, I’m so glad you enjoyed Derek’s post. I watched first and read second too, and will probably return to watching with renewed enjoyment after I’ve finished the novel. Each death is indeed tragic, and it is admirable that the programme-makers felt no need to ‘romanticise’ the reality depicted so vividly in Derek’s novel.

    • Stephen April 6, 2012 at 10:45 am #

      Mr Robinson
      I’ve just watched the DVD series of your novel “Piece of Cake”. It was leant to me by a former RAF Tornado pilot, who is a friend and colleague. I’m former RCAF, (though never a fighter pilot), and have worked closely with American, British, Australian, South African and New Zealand military pilots. Your novel, and the film series is superb in its depth and accuracy of the complexities of military life, military aviation, political expediencies – you’ve hit a real home run with this. I wish the novel and the film a long run! Thank you.

  2. LauraP October 6, 2010 at 12:57 am #

    What a treat to have Derek Robinson’s thoughts and memories about Piece of Cake! It’s truly wonderful to hear from the creator of such a memorable story.

    After I saw the series in 1990, I went right out and bought the book. I wanted to know more about the memorable characters I’d gotten to know. I wasn’t disappointed! Mr. Robinson is a wonderful storyteller. As the excerpt above about Fitz shows, each character had a compelling backstory to dig into. When I finished the novel, I reread it in its entirety and then I gave it to my father to read–he’d enjoyed the series, too.

    Mr. Robinson’s PoC characters and their stories stayed with me for twenty years. They helped to feed my fascination with Britain during WWII. When I found the DVDs of the series in my library earlier this year it was like a reunion with an old friend.

    I’m glad to hear Mr. Robinson thinks Jeremy Northam was perfectly cast as Fitz. I always thought so, too! I think all the characters were very well cast, actually. The point about all the actors being relatively unknown is well taken. Since I didn’t know any of them beforehand, I was free to believe in them as their characters wholeheartedly.

    Thanks for sharing your memories with us, Mr. Robinson! And thanks for bringing them to us, Gill!

    • henrysmummy2003 October 6, 2010 at 8:13 pm #

      You’re very welcome, Laura, it was so kind of Derek to contribute, and he really could not have been more helpful.
      Like you, I was very interested by Derek’s comments about the casting, and when I read this about Fitz: ‘Girls, his father noticed gloomily, weren’t very keen on young Fitz. The good-looking ones felt upstaged and the plain ones felt humiliated. ‘, that felt very truthful. I imagine many actors, as well as fighter pilots, can empathise with Fitz on that one!
      I was also very interested to hear about how Skull grew, from Derek’s original intention that he would be a bit-player, into a major and very resilient character.

  3. jules October 7, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    Great blog/interview HM – thanks.

    I only found this series a few months ago but absolutely love it and the way the characters all mesh to make a very moving story.
    Skull, Moggy and Rex really stand out for me (as well as Fitz, of course!), and now I know it was based on a book I will definitely look out for it when it is reissued.

    • henrysmummy2003 October 7, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

      Thanks Jules. I highly recommend the book, I feel sure you’ll enjoy it, if ‘enjoy’ is the right word for a book so full of tragedy and the visceral realities of war.

  4. Martina October 10, 2010 at 11:08 am #

    That was interesting! You`ve done a great job again, Gill. Thank you very much!
    I`m extremely grateful to Mr. Robinson, too, that he gives us here a view ‘behind the scenes” of “Piece of Cake”. For me it is and always will be a very much loved piece of TV.

    • Gill Fraser Lee October 16, 2010 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks Martina, I’m glad you enjoyed finding out more about ‘Cake’. :-)

  5. Toc December 15, 2010 at 5:01 am #

    We’ve been re-watching “Piece of Cake” and don’t remember the theme music being the same. Was this the series that had the song with the words “O death where is thy sting-a-ling-aling” in it? The music just seems different to us and we’re wondering where the song went.

    • Gill Fraser Lee December 15, 2010 at 9:40 am #

      I believe you’re thinking of ‘A Perfect Hero’, a tv series from 1991 about a Battle of Britain pilot who is shot down and suffers terrible burns. It starred Nigel Havers and was based on a novel by Christopher Matthew, and included that song. I hope that helps!

  6. Graham Summers August 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    I thought that Jeremy Northam, together with all of the actors as well as the film crew were brilliant in Piece of cake. I have an advantage over some of the people writing in this blog as I was involved in the filming, thanks to my museum’s refuelling tanker being used in various scenes, including the airfield at Friston, on the cliffs. I even had my picture taken in front of one of the Spitfires at Friston, and the picture appears in the book of the making of the series. But most of all I would like to thank Derek Robinson for writing such a wonderful story in the first place.

  7. Oded Breda November 2, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Can someone tell me where i can find the tv music?

  8. Alison September 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    I saw the television series on ITV when I was a girl and fell in love with half of Hornet Squadron. Then I read the book and quizzed my father about the RAF (he was too late for WWII though!) and later read Mr. Robinson’s other aviation novels. I think of them as the RFC/RAF equivalent of O’Brian’s naval books and, like them, they have inspired me to write. I wrote a letter to Mr. R. after reading ‘A Good Clean Fight’ and he sent a charming, robust and informative reply. All best wishes to him, Mr. Northam and all the cast and crew.

  9. weetam November 3, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    I love Piece Of Cake… as a 12 year old boy, who had serious airfix addiction, a fixation with the spitfire and all things “battle of Britain” i cant tell you how much this drama shaped my adult life.

    I taped the original series (all but the penultimate episode) and watched it over and over till the tape eventually wore out in the late 90′s. Shortly after, i found my grampa owned a copy of the book, and thus i set forth to read and digest it. Having seen the drama, i was already well aware of the story and the outcome, but i was thoroughly hooked and drawn in by what was one of the finest books i have ever read (when gramps died, i kept his copy of the book, and to this day make sure i read it at least once a year)

    I have since bought the DVD, and have rectified the fact that i missed the penultimate episode so many years ago and often put it on whilst i am working on my models (i have kept my serious modeling addiction but have managed to move on from airfix and manage to make a living from it now, due, in no small part to Derek’s brilliant writing and the brilliance of the tv series)

    The series itself was a remarkable achievement, and the moans and groans that Richard Hope mentioned, about not having the right mark spitfire, or not being hurricanes is spot on. I’m guessing spitfires were only used because there aren’t that many airworthy hurricanes flying, ergo, it was more necessity than artistic licence per se.

    For me, its one of the last truly great drama series ever made, and the crew and actors should be rightly proud of themselves for what was achieved, both artistically, and logistically, and of course, Derek too, for writing such a masterpiece in the first place

    • Gill Fraser Lee November 3, 2013 at 11:47 pm #

      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree with you entirely, Piece of Cake was a truly great achievement, based on a wonderful book. I hope you will continue to enjoy both book and tv series, as I do. Thank you again

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