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.
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. . .).
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.