Cripes, I am a lucky Airman.
I managed to get a ticket to see the Premiere of the film ‘First Light’ last night.
This tells the story of Geoffrey ‘Boy’ Wellum, who at just 18 and 9 months found himself posted to 92 Sqn (and given to the care of the legendary Brian Kingcome) to fly Spitfires, arriving just at the on set of the Battle of Britain in 1940.
It was superb. It IS superb. It is emotional, evocative, thought-provoking and sobering. It concentrates on the human stories of the conflict, and looks at the personal toll that flying and fighting in that heady summer took on the participants.
It reminds us most of all that even though the fight over the south of England back then was fought high in the sky, in machines where the combatants could hardly see each other, it was still fought by young men. Some of whom were just out of school.
The story abridges the book of the same name – which is a fantastic read in itself – and looks at how the conflict shaped Geoff, turning him from a boy into a man, and building up, in some way, the stresses that led to his complete nervous breakdown in 1943…And it does it in a sensitive way with cutaways and voice-overs from Geoffrey himself, describing how the Battle defined him, and will always define him. The drama/documentary style is far more over to the drama side, but the cut-aways from seeing a dashing young actor jumping into a Spitfire cockpit to seeing an 89 year old man behind the wheel of a car is powerful in itself.
The terror and the fear of the experience is laid bare – we see Geoffrey lost in cloud downing an enemy aircraft almost by accident – after being selected for a sortie in appalling weather that no-one in the dispersal hut wants to think about doing…and it does a fantastic job at stripping just a tiny bit of the mystique away from the pilots. They were…still are…just men.
Yes, they are special men, but they had the same emotions as the rest of us. Fear, rage, anger, despair, love, pride… They were just ordinary men. But doing extra-ordinary things. Being pushed to the limit, to breaking point and sometimes beyond it. Flying, fighting, dying. And when they did die, men’s names were just wiped off a blackboard in an almost callous way.
But it’s the coping mechanism that they had to use to get them through. Time to grieve for fallen colleagues is nonexistent, they must continue; to think about the death of others might mean thinking about their own possible death. It is a horrifying thought. To be reminded of your own mortality every time you go to do you job, to do your duty. It’s faced people who have taken part in war all through time, of course, and it still does, but here we see a war where people simply disappear. They take off, they fly, they fight and they just don’t return.
Geoffrey’s story – and that of the rest of the Few – is defined by the time and the Battle. It makes him and the film is a powerful tool to remind us of all the things that these Few men went through to secure our country at that time. The applause at the end of the film was warm and strong, but was nothing until the director of the film stood and persuaded Geoffrey himself to stand also. Then the applause wasn’t for the film. It wasn’t for the story. The standing ovation that Geoffrey received was for himself, and for what he did. What his friends did.
And I was struck by this even more as I walked out of the venue, and across Waterloo Bridge in London, last night. I stood for a second and looked around me, over on the right was the Palace of Westminster, to my right the massive dome of St Paul’s. It was a lovely clear, warm night. London at its most beautiful. And I thought of the old man I had left behind in the reception, sipping a Spitfire beer. He, and his contemporaries had made this so. They had fought and flow and made their sacrifice – be it their lives, their sanity or even their innocence – to allow me to stand there.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been a pilot in the Battle of Britain, but the film First Light, gives me a bloody good idea of it.
(Can I just say thank you to Yvonne over at the RAF Benevolent Fund who helped me out with the tickets. I am honoured to have been there last night.
I understand that First Light will be shown on BBC 2 on the 14th September. I urge you strongly to watch it. More than urge…it’s an order…)