Reappreciation Society: Piece of Cake

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Author Derek Robinson credits LWT’s 1988 adaptation of his WWII RAF novel Piece Of Cake with reviving a work he felt he had put four years work into for little return. The excellent novel has remained in print ever since, yet perversely, I’m sure few now remember this piece of television brilliance.

Piece Of Cake tells the tale of Hornet Squadron through the Phoney war, the fall of France, and the Battle Of Britain. The squadron pilots, flight commanders, and intelligence officers aren’t the square-jawed cliches of old though, which provoked a few splutters of outrage from the establishment. Every character has their own faults and foibles; they squabble, bicker, are vain or foolish; bad and middling shots who believe their own press. The only glamour boys are the gorgeous Spitfires they fly. The serial got a lot of stick for this, as only Hurricanes flew in France, as the novel correctly stated. However, there simply weren’t enough airworthy Hurricanes that could be used.

Because of the pilots flaws, their bravery is all the more apparent, and the stress they are gradually increasingly subjected to hits home all the harder. Two actors shared familial connections with the days they portrayed. A young Nathaniel Parker (“Flash” Gordon) had two uncles who died flying Spitfires during the war. Richard Hope, who played cerebral and cynical Intelligence Officer “Skull” Skelton, also had an uncle who served in the RAF during WWII. Hope said “The sense of history (in the serial) 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 their boredom between forays.”

What follows is an article from the TV Times in 1988 to accompany the original transmission.

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An airfield in Wiltshire on a drowsily warm afternoon. The ground crew kick footballs around or drift by on sit-up-and-beg bicycles, while the pilots of Hornet Squadron laze on the grass and gossip. Beside them a row of Spitfires stands nose-high under a clear sky. Over in the production offices of Piece Of Cake, the new drama series beginning this Sunday on ITV, there is a briefing. “The date, ” says associate producer Adrian Bate, “is Autumn 1939, the time of the “phoney war”, and this is Kingsmere (in reality South Cerney), the first posting for Hornet Squadron. Our story will follow them from here into the battle for France, and back to England in the year leading up to the Battle Of Britain. We fly with them on their first kill, and we see them becoming very differnet men as they begin fighting in anger and as their comrades die. We see the newcomers join as our own pilots are depleted. Some of these newcomers are very young, with only a few hours in a Spitfire before being sent up on a mission. We follow the Squadron through the sun-drenched summer of 1940. We see them learning from their mistakes…”

A voice crackles over a walkie-talkie: “The Spitfires will definitely fly this afternoon if there’s a cloud cover for continuity. And the Messerchmitt?” “It’s coming in from Basingstoke.” “OK. What about the bullet holes” “They’re fixed,” says Bate.  Out on the airfield  comes the first of many roars which will break the piece of this delightful day. An old Triumph Bonneville motorbike swerves to a stop outside the control tower. Tim Woodward climbs off and saunters across to join the other pilots.

“They say riding a bike is the second best thing to flying – not that they’ve let me go up in a Spitfire yet, ” he drawls, throwing himself down on the grass. Woodward, the actor son of Edward Woodward, plays Squadron Leader Rex, whose task is to shape his young pilots into a fighting unit. “Rex,” says Woodward, “is a landed gent, slightly arrogant. He’s a professional RAF man at the outbreak of war, and at first he’s respected by the young pilots, if not particularly liked.But he follows the rules too rigidly, going by the book and insisting on the tight formations approved by the powers that be. Yet all through that year, thinking on formations and tactics was changing almost every week. I’m afraid Rex doesn’t keep pace.”

Rex is a wine lover, so Woodward has introduced the rest of the young cast to the joys of Champagne and to the restaurants and pubs in Wiltshire. Thrown together for months on location, they have lived together almost as a Squadron, addressing each other by their characters nicknames, attending farewells and “funerals” of those who have been written out, and warily welcoming the new boys coming in. In fact, they’ve fallen so much into their roles that Gordon Lovitt, who plays the youngest pilot, “Sticky” Stickwell, has even found himself throwing serviettes at people in restaurants.  “It’s the sort of yobbish thing Sticky would do but which I would never dream of doing, “ he says. “It’s very confusing.” “All boys together,” says Tom Burlinson, making his British TV debut as the Australian pilot “Fanny” Barton. “That’s what we are. But we haven’t broken anything and there haven’t been any complaints. Yet.” 

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“It’s not a cast anymore, it’s a Squadron you see,” adds Nathaniel Parker, who plays pilot “Flash” Gordon.” Parker doesn’t smoke, but here he is lounging on the grass, puffing at a Player’s Navy Cut. “Everyone feels he is his character. I remember when Tim Woodward first arrived. He had long hair and a beard, he was riding his motorbike and wearing black leathers, and I thought, “No, no, no, they can’t use this as Rex.” But the next time I saw him he had the neat moustache, short hair and an air of natural authority, and I realised he was perfect.” Parker strolls along the line of Spitfires. “This is mine,” he says, “the one with the bullet holes in the fuselage. I’ve never felt strongly about engines or cars or planes or anything like that before, but Spitfires are different. When one flies low overhead, everybody, man or woman, yong or old, lets out a primeval grunt: ooooaaahh.”  

At 1600 hours four of the Spitfires scramble with an ear-shattering roar, bumping away across the grass to take off in tight formation. This causes a certain amount of confusion on the A419, which runs past the the airfield, as traffic slows and halts, and people climb out of their cars to watch. The planes circle the field wing tip to wing tip, before one peels away and screams towards the cameras, lands on one wheel, bounces drunkenly along and then roars up again into the sky. Three times it performs the manoeuvre and each time there comes that grunt from cast and crew and the watchers on the A419.

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Strutting somewhat bow-leggedly in their flying suits, the genuine stunt pilots are perhaps the true stars of the series. They are led by Ray Hannah, former leader of the Red Arrows, in a Spitfire which has a couple of wartime kills to its name. Among the other Spitfire pilots are Hannah’s son Mark, who normally flies RAF Phantoms, and a British Airways pilot, having fun in his pare time. From the United States, a grizzled American veteran and his young English copilot have brought in an old B-25 bomber to act as the camera platform for the aerial fight sequences. All in all, the series will be nothing if not spectacular. But it is by no means a wallow in gun-ho nostalgia.

It is based on a book by Derek Robinson and has already upset some of the Fighter Command wallahs. “I have had letters from former Battle of Britain pilots accusing me of “destroying the myth”,” says Robinson, “and in that respect they are absolutely right. I wrote the book because I felt that the truth had not been told, and that the truth reflects greater credit on the pilots than the myth does. Legend says these were golden boys who went up and knocked down a few Huns before breakfast. The truth of the matter is that a fighter pilot was a very difficult job performed by men who were just men, often with inadequate training and little experience, flying imperfect aircraft backed up by imperfect systems. They were very young – some as young as 18 – and mostly very frightened, and with reason. If you were in a fighter squadron at the beginning of the war, you were probably dead by the time the Battle of Britain ended a year later. The statistics are as simple as that.”

One of those statistics is being prepared even now. A replica Spitfire, powered by a Yamaha motorbike engine, is being pushed across the tarmac to its flaming nemesis. Aboard is Nat Parker. This is a poignant moment. His father, former British Rail chief Sir Peter Parker, lost two brothers flying Spitfires during the war. ” My uncles Alan and Mickey both copped it at about the age of 21,” says Parker. “My father is terribly proud of me doing this series. Last Christmas, soon after I got the role, he put a present for me under the tree. He said, “Just before you open it, I want you to know it’s the real thing.” I opened it and found a white flying scarf. “Yes,” said dad, “it was Alan’s.”

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Originally posted 2013-12-01 19:37:17. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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