Tag Archives: Spitfires

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.

Richard Hope remembers Piece of Cake

28 Sep

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.

Richard Hope as Skull Skelton in 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.

'Piece of Cake' features spectacular aerial sequences

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/

Richard and his Blog Manager Lori

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.

by henrysmummy2003

Jeremy Northam fans rock, it’s official

9 Sep

In a day that’s seen me threatened by an enormous rabid motorcyclist who would rather I squashed an innocent and utterly brainless pheasant rather than delay his journey by 10 seconds, it occurred to me that one of the best things about all this blogging malarkey is that you ‘meet’ some really interesting and lovely people. It’s true, there are plenty of wing nuts lurking in dimly lit corners of the internet as well as on the road between Withersfield and West Wickham, and a goodly number of people out to get what they can at your expense, but on the whole, I’ve found admiring Jeremy’s work  has introduced me to friendly, generous, genuine folks with more than their fair share of intelligence, and I’d like to thank everyone who has so far contributed to, read and commented on this blog.  It’s deeply appreciated and I’m sure if Jeremy were to know about our existence, he might allow himself to feel a little proud that he has such great fans.

So it was with pleasure that I received an email today from Lori, who very kindly took the time and trouble to get in touch to say she’d read and enjoyed the blog. Regular Jer Blog readers will remember Laura’s excellent post about Piece of Cake in which Jeremy played handsome, naive airman Fitz Fitzgerald. Lori runs a blog about Jeremy’s co-star in Piece of Cake, Richard Hope (who played Skull Skelton).

Here’s a link to Lori’s blog: A Richard Hope Acclamation. Do go and have a look around and leave Lori a comment. Lori is extremely lucky in that she is in direct contact with Richard, so she has all the latest news about his work. This is in contrast to Jeremy’s fans who employ a crack team of private detectives to try to find out what his next project might be … (I’m joking … actually, we read tea leaves).

Here is a clip from Piece of Cake, uploaded by Lori to YouTube, and which features Jeremy and Richard.

The day was further improved by Alex Sharp of Suite101 name-checking this blog’s sister site Jeremy Northam Chat and its members in her article about yesterday’s Guardian/Audible free download of Jeremy’s audiobook Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.

If you’re a UK resident, the free download is available until September 16th by following this link: The Guardian.

In other news, this week’s Jeremy Northam Night movie is An Ideal Husband. Don’t forget to watch tomorrow night and report back!


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