Piece of Cake

12 Jul

We travel back in time with Laura as she re-visits an early Jeremy Northam performance in Piece of Cake

Recently I discovered that my library has a copy of an old favorite of mine, Piece of Cake. When I say old favorite, I mean even without the Northam Factor it’s a fave. I couldn’t get enough of this series in 1990 when it first aired on PBS in the US. Watching it again now, I have to say that I love it as much as I did twenty years ago. I am not usually a fan of war stories; I have a very low tolerance for onscreen violence. But I’m fascinated with anything to do with Britain during WWII, and this is a story about the beginning of the war that reaches out and grabs you. It’s got all the ingredients for great viewing: compelling characters, a plot that builds to a crescendo, and a theme that stays with you long after the end credits roll.

Piece of Cake features some breathtaking aerial sequences

I seem to remember hearing that it got a rather frosty reception in some circles in Britain when it aired because it portrayed in an unfavorable light the great heroic figure of the Battle of Britain fighter pilot. Instead of noble, selfless heroes, these pilots are horny, smart-alecky and irreverent young men. In other words, real human beings who make mistakes and whose motives are not always honorable.

Like another favorite of mine, M*A*S*H, Piece of Cake uses humour to show that what we read in history books about war is usually far from the truth. It deflates the grandiose and gives us the absurd. Not surprisingly then, it has a strong anti-war feel.

For this viewer, it doesn’t hurt that most of the characters are good looking young men. Back then, I remember having enormous crushes on Tom Burlinson, who played Fanny Barton, and on the adorable, gorgeous actor who played Fitz Fitzgerald. I don’t know what Burlinson went on to do, but as for the other guy. . .well here we all are twenty years later.

In the first of the six episodes, Jeremy is pretty much a figure in the crowd. I don’t think he even had any lines. But it’s fun to play “Where’s Jer?” and search for him in each new scene. Having spent so much time with 48-year old Jeremy as Doctor Proctor lately, it’s interesting to see him at the beginning of his career (the series first aired in Britain in 1988). My goodness, wasn’t he young? In some scenes he looks like he hasn’t even started shaving yet! (Or maybe I’m just feeling old by comparison. . .).

Jeremy Northam as 'Fitz' Fitzgerald

The way the series is structured, we meet the Hornet Squadron of fighter pilots just as Britain declares war on Germany, for the invasion of Poland. What follows is six months of watchfulness across France’s Maginot Line. So for the pilots, and for the viewer, war is all good fun, highjinks and boyish pranks. The first encounters with death are either absurd (the CO falls out of his plane after landing and breaks his neck) or just bad luck (on a bet, a pilot tries to fly under a bridge and doesn’t quite make it). By the time we’ve gotten to know and care about the characters, the fun and games are over. The beautiful aerial shots of soaring Spitfires accompanied by inspiring music have become confusing, chaotic scenes filled with gunfire, spattered blood and fiery explosions. And the music’s changed to a minor key.

The characterizations aren’t deep. There are too many characters and not enough time for psychological studies. Rather, the pilots we do get to know represent different aspects of what it must be like to be actively fighting in a war. Their actions, and reactions, in the face of this extreme situation make them human and believable.

Knowing the basic plot from before (although there were large chunks I had forgotten) what struck me this time were the fine performances by some of the actors.

Tom Burlinson as Fanny Barton

Fanny Barton, the rule-follower who becomes a leader when he realizes that not all the rules are worth following, is played by Australian Tom Burlinson. Burlinson had already been The Man from Snowy River in two films by the time Piece of Cake came along. Although he’s from the Gary Cooper minimalist school of acting, he shines in this part. (Episode 4, in particular.)

Nathaniel Parker as 'Flash' Gordon

Nathaniel Parker, well known as Inspector Lynley these days, is amazing as “Flash” Gordon. His journey from the cheeky “boy next door” to the lunatic who shoots seagulls and flies his plane upside down is absolutely heartwrenching. To me, it seems significant that he is the character who quotes Churchill, by the way. Those oft-quoted speeches have a very different feel here. Favorite line: “I can’t go on record as saying someone who quotes the Prime Minister is insane,” says the psychiatrist brought in to examine Flash. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry at Flash’s antics–at several points I ended up doing both simultaneously.

Jeremy Northam and Helena Michell

And then there’s Fitz. I defy any woman to watch Jeremy Northam’s “Fitz” Fitzgerald and not fall in love with him. He’s very affecting and oh, so beautiful! You can tell Jeremy’s had more experience in the theater than in film at this point in his career: he’s great at creating “business” in group scenes. But the famous Northam chops we know, the subtle changes in facial expression or posture that he does better than anyone, are just forming here. There are glimpses, however, of brilliance: in the scene where Fitz and Flash are saying goodbye to their brand new wives, Fitz’s face shows all the love, fear and longing he’s feeling at that moment. Jeremy steals the scene even though we have to look past the other three actors to see him.

Fitz and Flash

A word of warning to those of you, like me, who cried at Sir Thomas More’s execution: keep the box of tissues close at hand when you view Episode 6. It’s a heartbreaker.

And by the way, the IMDb listing for Jeremy in Piece of Cake is wrong. He’s in all six episodes to one degree or another.

by LauraP

Piece of Cake first aired in UK in 1988, and is based on the best selling novel by Derek Robinson. The series is available to buy on DVD from Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

17 Responses to “Piece of Cake”

  1. missus_grace July 13, 2010 at 7:54 am #

    I loved Tom Burlinson once upon a time – The Man From Snowy River came out during my teen years so I had a big crush on him and I adored the movie.

    I have this series in my Netflix queue and can’t wait to see it!

    • LauraP July 13, 2010 at 8:33 pm #

      I know what you mean about Tom Burlinson! I was so taken with him in POC that I sought out The Man from Snowy River to see more of him.

      Enjoy the series!

  2. Ansie July 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    Thanks for your excellent review Laura! I loved this series, too, when it first aired. At that time the actor who caught my eye was Nathaniel Parker. But I thought Jeremy’s character was so sweet and endearing . . .

    Recently I rented the series and loved every minute, for all the reasons you mentioned. It’s a gem.

    • LauraP July 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm #

      Thanks Ansie!

      I’m not sure what it says about me, but Fitz was the one who stole my heart.

      But Jeremy disappeared from my radar until Emma came along and even then I didn’t make the connection! I’m embarassed to admit it was only a few years ago that I realized he was Fitz.

      • henrysmummy2003 July 14, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

        I think Jeremy might be quite pleased about that, actually!

  3. henrysmummy2003 July 13, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    Great review, thanks so much for doing this, Laura. šŸ™‚

    This series is still very watchable, 20 years on, but I don’t think anything like it would be made today, which makes it all the more precious. For a start, there wouldn’t be the money for the aerial sequences. There’s a real anti-war feel to it, I agree, but there’s also an innocence as well, which was present at the time it was both set and made, but which I think it would be impossible to replicate now. And Jeremy’s Fitz reflects and captures it best, young men just aren’t like that today, and that’s why he’s so utterly charming. The scene in the library and at the cottage where he’s having a little trouble are played so beautifully. You’re quite right, it’s impossible not to fall in love with him!

  4. Rosamond Tifft July 13, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    I thought your review was very very good. You helped me visualize the main themes and Jeremy’s role in them. I hope you do more reviews as well. I can see how we all would fall in love with Jeremy Northam from just the photos. He has charisma and warmth. He was wonderful if a trifle young in EMMA but I watch it for him period. Thank you again, you captured his signal qualities.

    • LauraP July 15, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

      Thank you for your kind words about my “piece” of Piece of Cake! I’m glad you enjoyed it, Rosamond.

  5. Martina July 14, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

    Very good work and very nice writing, Laura. You`ve spoken my thoughts. These series are moving me deeply every time I watch it. It shows the destiny of young men , may say forced into war before they even could thought about it, very realistic. (Sorry for my bad English). As a German (although not of that generation) I`m always painfully aware of our inglorious role during WW II. But there is no apportionment between the international rank and file of the war, only a demonstration what horrible harm it can do to the soul of all participants.
    Yes, and for Jeremy Northam: innocent, loveable, beautiful, reticent acting but anyway outstandig. I loved the scene in the library,too, when Fitz unburdened himself to “Skull” Skelton (Richard Hope, he`s great, too) about his “little engine-problem”.

    • Martina July 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

      I ment “apportionment of blame” of course!

      • LauraP July 16, 2010 at 12:11 am #

        Thanks, Martina! Your English is very good–a heck of a lot better than my German!

        And you’re right, POC doesn’t point the finger of blame. Instead, it shows how the cruelties and absurdities of war can affect anyone. That’s one of the things I like most about the series.

        I like the character of Skull Skelton a great deal & agree that Richard Hope was great in the role. He gets to say my very favorite line in the series. The pilots are roughousing in the library of the French chateau and have started throwing books at one another. Skull picks up a book that has landed near him and says: “That’s Voltaire. They shouldn’t throw Voltaire!” Makes me laugh every time!

    • Lori September 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

      The library scene is my favorite scene, too. I love how uncomfortable Jeremy is as he talks to Skull. I actually host this scene over on YouTube if you would like to watch it again. Richard Hope’s performance as Skull is my favorite as he is so subtle, yet conveys volumes with just his eyes!

      • henrysmummy2003 September 8, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

        I agree, it’s a great scene and Richard is wonderful throughout Piece of Cake. Thanks so much for your comment, Lori. I’ve watched the YouTube video, and very much enjoyed it, thanks for providing it. šŸ™‚

      • LauraP September 10, 2010 at 12:41 am #

        Hi, Lori. That scene in the library between Fitz and Skull is a classic! Thanks for the YouTube info. It’s great to be able to see it as often as I want. šŸ˜‰

        The best thing about that scene is that it puts the spotlight on two wonderful actors. Richard Hope is marvellous as Skull! You’re right that he’s very subtle; he’s also got great comedic timing. The question he asks Fitz about starting a greengrocer’s is a good example. It could have been delivered in a very different manner, as more of a joke. It’s perfect the way Richard delivers it: conversationally. It’s still a funny line, but it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the scene. Very nicely done.

        Wouldn’t it be great to see Richard and Jeremy act together again now? With all the experience the two have garnered over the years there would be some serious acting chops in the room if they ever did!

  6. Jennythenipper July 21, 2010 at 3:32 pm #

    I’ve never seen Piece of Cake. I have found many a JN treasure at the library though. Fatal Inversion, thank you very much! That old episode of Poirot, as well.

    I was struck by how much the young JN looks like the young Cary Grant in some of these pictures.

  7. Alison September 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    I could reminisce about this all day, but having read Derek R, Richard H and now this post I really must do some work! Thank you for the memories. Makes me want to re re-read the book and re-watch the series.


  1. Gerrys Blog » Blog Archive » Top Affiliate Marketing Program Tips - July 18, 2010

    […] Piece of Cake Ā« The Jer Blog, all about Jeremy Northam […]

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