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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.