- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (27/5/2022)
[Reviews of Lancaster; and Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s)]
It's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is a thing again. However, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
Having outlined the history of the RAF's most iconic fighter plane in Spitfire (2018), documentarists David Fairhead and Ant Palmer turn their attention to the heavy bomber that took the fight to the Third Reich in Lancaster. Narrated by Charles Dance and replete with vivid recollections from nonagenarian veterans, as well as clips from such contemporary films as Harry Watt's Target For Tonight (1941), John Boulting's Journey Together (1945) and Cecil Musk's Flying With Prudence (1946), this is an invaluable record of one of the most controversial aspects of Britain's conduct of the Second World War.
RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire is home to one of the last two flightworthy Avro Lancaster bombers. When it was introduced in 1942, Bomber Command had to rely on less powerful aircraft like the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax and the Vickers Wellington. Hopes had been high for the twin-engine Avro Manchester. But it proved so problematic that the Air Ministry jumped at the solution provided by designer Roy Chadwick to remodel the plane and add four of the Rolls Royce Merlin engines that were already in use on the De Havilland Mosquito, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire.
Production was based at Woodford in Cheshire, where 7300 Lancasters were manufactured over the next few years. Hundreds of companies in Britain and Canada supplied the thousands of working parts and it would have been nice if the film-makers had included some of the women who had kept the production lines going to enable Prime Minister Winston Churchill to repay Germany for the blitzes on London, Liverpool and Coventry.
Given the fact that Occupied Europe was off-limits, even though the United States had just entered the war, British options for striking back at the Nazis were limited. Thus, Churchill and Bomber Command chief Arthur Harris set such store by aerial bombing and 73 Lancasters took part in the thousand-plane raid on Cologne in early 1942. The success of this mission convinced the powers that be that `area bombing' was a vital tactic in keeping Germany busy in Western Europe while the Soviet Union withstood Operation Barbarossa.
The majority of those who flew Lancs were young men who had been drawn to the RAF after its heroics during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940. Training was intense and such were the bonds formed that it was decided to let crews pick their own members to ensure they felt wholly confident in those flying with them.
Naturally, each crew felt it was the best, as is recalled by pilots Alan Biffen, George Dunn, Benny Goodman, Peter Kelsey, Jo Lancaster, Rusty Waughman, Bill Purdy and Ernie Holmes; flight engineers Bill Gould, Bob Leedham, Jack Watson and Chick Chandler; navigators Hal Gardner. Nathan Isaacs and Jack Dark; wireless operators Laurie Davis, Nick Nichols and Tony Adams; gunners David Fraser, Albert Gunn, Tom Rogers, Ken Johnson, William Judge and Gerry Norwood; bomb aimers John Bell, Charles Clarke, Ron Mayhill and Johnny Johnson; and ground crew members Arthur Duggan and Neil Flanigan.
The latter was the 39th Jamaican to volunteer for the RAF and he recalls looking back at his island home and wondering if he'd ever see it again. Airmen came from across the Empire and the sense of camaraderie is evident eight decades on, as the speakers recall the silence that fell after sorties and casualty figures could be gauged by the number of empty chairs at breakfast. Yet there was no time to dwell on the loss of friends, as there was a job to be done and the men conditioned themselves to remaining focussed on the next mission.
Many of the raids in 1942 took place over the industrial heartland of the Ruhr, which acquired the nickname, `The Happy Valley'. The veterans recall briefings at which their top secret targets would be revealed by a curtain being pulled away from giant wall maps. The most famous Lancaster mission of them all was Operation Chastise, which had been devised by Barnes Wallis, who had invented a bouncing bomb that could destroy the Eder, Möhne and Sorpe dams that stored water for the region's factories.
This was undertaken by 617 Squadron under the codename, Squadron X. However, they will forever be known as The Dam Busters and we see clips from Michael Anderson's 1955 film, as well as RAF footage of test runs being made on the Kent coastline. Johnny Johnson remembers Wing Commander Guy Gibson as being an arrogant man. But his strict sense of discipline and duty meant he was the ideal man to lead the mission that was not without its mishaps. Johnson describes the growing frustration of his crewmates, as he kept his powder dry during repeated flights over the Sorpe. But his bomb hit its target and he recalls the sight of the water cascading from the other dams after they had turned for home.
Eight aircraft were lost, while 53 men were killed and three were taken prisoner. But the mission did much to raise morale in the country and show that it was possible to strike telling blows against Adolf Hitler's increasingly stretched forces. The Luftwaffe struck back, however, by sending up radar-guided night fighter squadrons of Messerschmitt 110s and Junker 88s. But their success was short-lived, as British boffins realised that radar signals could be jammed by strips of metallic paper - a surprisingly simple secret weapon that was known as `Window'.
Later in 1943, Lancaster led the bombing of Hamburg and those involved regret the fact that the residential area was targeted, as well as the shipyards. As 40,000 Germans were killed and 1.2 million more fled the resulting firestorm, Peter Kelsey concedes that it was a morally dubious tactic. But he also recognises that war is a dirty business and that such attacks were necessary in order to save lives elsewhere.
The USAF joined the daylight raids around this time. But Lancs were chosen for the highly risky assault on the V2 development plant at Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. Recognising the threat posed by rockets that Hitler was convinced would bring Britain to its knees, Churchill ordered repeat sorties until the facility was reduced to rubble. Fortunately, the job was done in a single night under a full moon, although 40 aircraft were lost, along with 245 aircrew and 700 on the ground. The price paid was heavy, but the doodlebug programme was delayed by several vital months.
Returning from such missions, crews would down beers in the mess and reconcile themselves to the grim reality of the situation. Dances in the hangars occasionally lifted the gloom, as just about every base had its own band. Plotters Elizabeth Mortimer-Cook and Betty Tring and telegraph operator Wendy Carter recall these occasions with great fondness. Carter poignantly reflects on her whirlwind romance with pilot Bruce Smeaton, who had swept her off her feet at a dance. She was crushed when he was killed at the age of 22, but she remains convinced of the value of his sacrifice.
As the tide of the war began to turn, Harris persuaded Churchill that a sustained attack on Berlin could bring Germany to its knees. From the outset, however, casualties were high, as the eight-hour round trip was fraught with danger, even after the corkscrew technique was devised to help Lancaster pilots evade night fighters. Over a recording of Wynford Vaughan-Thomas's radio report from a 1943 mission, we see footage of the barrages that the planes encountered.
Yet, even though most had agreed that the Battle of Berlin had been lost, Harris insisted on a final symbolic tilt at the Nazi's spiritual home of Nuremberg. The raid in March 1943 cost 96 planes and 672 lives, more than Fighter Command had lost during the entire Battle of Britain. Some thought that Harris should have lost his job, but his threat to resign ensured he remained in place for D-Day on 6 June 1944.
Once Allied boots landed in Normandy, daylight raids resumed. The Lancaster again proved its versatility, as its elongated bomb bay meant it was able to accommodate the huge Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs that Wallis had designed. However, a request from the Kremlin meant that the plane had to fly deeper into Germany than ever before in February 1945 in order to neutralise Dresden.
As a native of Stoke-on-Trent, Bill Gould felt a pang about bombing the city responsible for Meissen porcelain. Ursula Van Dam, who was home from school when the raids began, recalls seeing the sky glowing red with fire from her village. She also remembers seeing charred corpses piled high in the streets. Sixteen hundred heavy bombers in 73 squadrons were used during the operation, with 796 Lancasters among the aircraft that inflicted sickening damage.
Some 25,000 perished and, in the immediate aftermath, Churchill wrote to Chief of the Air Staff, Charles Portal, to criticise the strategy of area bombing. Harris's reputation suffered as a result of the criticism and several of the interviewees believe he was hung out to dry, as Churchill tried to play politics after VE Day on 8 May 1945 in order to win the General Election.
They are also dismayed that Churchill and the country at large turned their backs on bomber crews because they were ashamed of reducing such a cultured city to rubble. Moreover, they are saddened that the Bomber Command Memorial in Piccadilly came from public donation rather than from a nation grateful for the courage of 55,573 lost RAF personnel. Eighty years after the Lancaster came into commission, it remains the poor relation of the Spitfire because of the tasks it was deputed to do at the behest of the coalition government. As a man of God, Ernie Holmes finds it hard to have so many deaths on his conscience, while others admit that it was only in later life that they took into consideration that they were targeting people as well as places. Few were willing to talk about their experiences for fear they would be branded murderers. Yet, had they put morality before duty, the war would have dragged on and millions more would have lost their lives.
Johnny Johnson has little time for judgemental historians, as he feels that anyone other than those who were directly involved or had a full grasp of the circumstances should `keep your bloody mouth shut'. Impeccably researched and compiled, this documentary confirms that it's not easy to take such staunch positions on such a divisive and emotive issue. But those who condemn from a safe vantage point, should remember that those who flew those sorties were young men who suffered loss and trauma at the time and have had a lifetime to reflect on the human and historical impact of their actions.
ELIZABETH: A PORTRAIT IN PART(S).
A lot has happened in the last 70 years. Britain is almost unrecognisable from the country shaken by a recent showdown with the continent and bearing the socio-economic brunt of the government's need to recalibrate after skirting calamity. Hold on, maybe not that much has changed after all!
One woman would know. She's seen it all. Wisely, she's kept her counsel. But, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, there's a chance to get to know her a little bit better through the late Roger Michell's documentary, Elizabeth: A Portrait in Part(s).
Although expertly edited by Joanna Crickmay, this is a difficult film to get a handle on, as it keeps switching between admiring deference and hipster sniping. Some of the footage of the royal tours is undeniably discomfiting. But, therein, lies the key to this unprecedented reign. Queen Elizabeth II has presided over a transition from empire to empathy and, therefore, deserves gratitude rather than griping. Think how much worse things might have turned out, considering some of the politicians with whom she has had to deal since 1952.
Despite touching on such major ceremonial moments as Princess Elizabeth's marriage to the Duke of Edinburgh, the funeral of her father and her Coronation in Westminster Abbey, this is not a chronological record. Michell dips in and out of the decades, as though under the influence of Adam Curtis's TV treatises and Craig Brown's book on The Beatles. The latter crop up regularly, whether they are receiving their MBEs in 1965 (to the accompaniment of `Norwegian Wood') or a Buckingham Palace functionary is showing us the filing cabinet containing the card stating that John Lennon returned his `for various reasons' in 1969.
The composer of the Abbey Road closer, `Her Majesty' (heard over the credits in an outtake), Paul McCartney has always been a fan and confides in a press conference clip that his classmates had fancied the young Elizabeth in the same way they had film stars like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. This section on regal glamour includes lots of royal premier line-ups and a smugness of celebrities describe the tittle-tattle on the red carpet.
Segments on garden parties, investitures and official engagements follow much the same pattern, as people are always too much in awe to risk being themselves. Apart from the children who present the Queen with bouquets when she's on walkabout. This turns out to be a dangerous business, as one girl gets slapped in the face by a saluting soldier. Her Majesty had already turned to leave, but it would be nice to know if she smiled when she saw the clip. If she ever did. Trying Googling oneself, Ma'am.
One suspects she will view this film with a good deal of affection, as it makes a nice audiovisual scrapbook of her 96 years. We see home movies of life with George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret and realise why she has formed attachments to places like Balmoral, Sandringham and the Royal Yacht. Britannia's decommissioning was one of the few occasions on which the Queen let her emotions slip through, although anyone training their binoculars at a racecourse will see her scurrying between TV sets and the finishing strait to cheer on her mounts.
More insights like this would have been most welcome. The BBC clearly snaffled lots of rare material for its own documentary, The Unseen Queen. But, surely, this would have been the time to allow access to Richard Cawston's 1969 film, Royal Family, which was deemed to have diminished the monarchy's mystique and has since been misfiled and left to develop Vinegar Syndrome in a cold, dank corner of the Tower of London. Apart from the leaked version that's on YouTube, of course.
Michell shrewdly avoids ogling ceremonials, with their ostentatious pageantry. However, he does muddle up the Queen's Speech and her Christmas broadcast. Actually, he ignores the former, perhaps out of sympathy for the number of duffers whose policies she has had to outline at countless State Openings of Parliament. He does remind us that the Crown is a burden, however, as Her Majesty lets slip that it's so heavy it would break her neck if she had to wear it for a prolonged period.
She can be candid when she wants to be, as in her discussion about a sun dial with David Attenborough. But she has rarely spoken from the heart to her people, with the notable exception being the ill-judgedly delayed address following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.
This tragedy is included in a section entitled `Horribilis' that rather gets carried away, as it details the failed marriages of Princess Anne and Prince Andrew, the latter's sweat glands and Prince Edward's inability to stage a royal variation on It's a Knockout. Children may be a reflection on their parents, but it's going a bit too far to crosscut these domestic disasters with footage of the Winter Palace being stormed from Sergei Eisenstein's October (1927) and the murder of the Romanovs from Franklin J. Schaffner's Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).
At least, the film-makers have the decency to be shocked by Marcus Sarjeant firing six blanks at the monarch during the Trooping of the Colour ceremony in 1981. However, they miss the chance to include the Spitting Image sketch about the Queen forgetting to Troop the Colour and promising Prince Philip kebabs for breakfast if he nips out in the middle of the night and Troops it for her. They might also have added Bobby Moore at Wembley in 1966 to the montage of handshakes. Still, they did find room for Harry Enfield dragging up for `Who Does One Think One Is' on Walliams and Friend (2016) and the soundtrack is pretty special.
The are more horses than corgis and more references to public duty than family time, but this appears to be common knowledge after The Queen (2006) and The Crown (2016-). Something on the faith that has sustained Elizabeth during her trials might have been insightful. But, while it succeeds in being both affectionate and critical, this is a documentary that concerns itself with the visible and the knowable. A little more of the impish inquisitiveness that Prunella Scales brought to Alan Bennett and John Schlesinger's A Question of Attribution (1991) might not gave gone amiss.
Thus, while it makes a suitable souvenir for the Jubilee, it rather undersells a woman who has tirelessly dedicated herself to service. More than a mere figurehead and (despite Johnny Rotten's assertion) very much a human being, she has been a model of discretion, sense and stability during often tumultuous times. Throughout it all, she has shown good grace, deceptive toughness and enviable self-awareness and even her harshest critic must begrudgingly concede at this time in her remarkable reign that, by and large, she has consistently risen above the anachronistic absurdity of her role and done a bloody good job.