sat 25/10/2014

First Light, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews

First Light, BBC Two

A very fine Spitfire drama takes to the skies

Reach for the sky: Sam Heughan as Geoffrey Wellum prepares to intercept Battle of Britain cliches
Reach for the sky: Sam Heughan as Geoffrey Wellum prepares to intercept Battle of Britain cliches
How do you rescue a drama about Spitfire pilots from over half a century of cliché and pastiche, from Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky to Armstrong and Miller’s street-talking RAF officers? After all, put an actor in a flying jacket and a cravat, get him to smoke a pipe and read the paper as he awaits the call to scramble, and you’ve got a 24-carat stereotype. The answer, as the wholly admirable First Light illustrates, is to go back to basics – to find the authentic details amidst the stock scenarios, and the emotional truth behind the stiff upper lips.

It helps if you have first-rate source material from which to work, such as Geoffrey Wellum’s best-selling memoirs, First Light. Not originally intended for publication (a friend at Penguin persuaded him otherwise), which helps to explain its emotional honesty, Wellum’s 2002 account of his time as the youngest fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain is an evocative and deeply moving account of what it actually meant to be one of “the few”.

Posted to the legendary 92 Squadron, his first Commanding Officer was Roger Bushell (later immortalised in The Great Escape), who was shot down with two others the day after Wellum's arrival, covering the evacuation of Dunkirk. Wellum’s nickname in 92 Squadron was “Boy”, and his basic training in flying a Spitfire was laid out in fascinating detail, the sort of minutiae usually overlooked by war-movie hacks. But then the drama rings true in so many ways, and not just because you can’t imagine Kenneth More’s Douglas Bader exclaiming, “Shit... fuck... fuck... get off!” as he is pursued by a Messerschmitt 109.


Photographed in a subtly washed-out colour that seems entirely right for the period, without being "period" in that gauzily nostalgic way of so many Second World War films, and with aerial footage that mixes real Spitfires with economically used CGI graphics – special effects that actually feel authentic for a change - the whole film was a testament to the virtues of keeping things focused and simple.

This extended to the performances – a refreshingly unfamiliar cast delivering quietly touching performances, none more so than the charmingly named Tuppence Middleton as Wellum’s fiancée, Grace. Sam Heughan played the chiselled, blue-eyed Wellum – perhaps a tad too heroic-looking – and Wellum himself appeared at the beginning, and his voiceover punctuated the drama. The sprightly 89-year-old told us of the “relentless ritual” of scrambling, engaging the enemy, and returning to base for another day; of how tiredness was to be avoided at all cost, because you stopped caring whether you lived or died; and how, when finally taken off "ops" because of his obvious fatigue, “I felt the peak of my life was behind me.”

Indeed, a post-script told of how Wellum returned to combat in 1942, his tour ending during the siege of Malta when he suffered a complete nervous breakdown. He was 20 years old. He married Grace, although what the film doesn’t disclose is that their marriage collapsed in the 1970s, along with his business, and writing First Light was a cathartic exercise, asking himself whether he had made a worthwhile contribution, and whether such a waste of young lives had been worth it. The answer, delivered at the end of the film, was bracingly equivocal.
You can’t imagine Kenneth More’s Douglas Bader exclaiming, “Shit... fuck... fuck... get off!” as he is pursued by a Messerschmitt 109

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Comments

I would like to obtain the words to the poem recited at the end of the movie. I have been unsuccessful to date as the movie has not yet been released on DVD in Australia.
I would just like to thank everybody for their kind comments about First Light - and to you, Gerard, for such an intelligent take on my film. Matthew Whiteman, writer, producer and director, 'First Light'

Some fans of Outlander, Sam

Some fans of Outlander, Sam Heughan and Gary Lewis will be doing a live tweet of First Light on 14 Sep at 12:30pm US east coast time. Basically, it's a bunch of fans watching the movie at the same time and commenting on twitter. Should you be interested in participating, we welcome your comments and thoughts. You can find comments under #HHTwitParty (Heughan's Heughligans Twitter Party). Here is a link to the countdown clock for the "event" http://www.timeanddate.com/countdown/generic?iso=20130914T1230&p0=212&ms.... Thank you for creating this fine piece of storytelling! -Jenny (@JennyC10VA)
This was one of the best programmes I have seen for many years.It should be included in the national curriculum to remind young Boys and Girls that as in Afghanistan today ,the real heroes are not the Wayne Rooney's ,Ashley Cole or any other overpaid and pampered footballer.We should never forget the sacrifice these Men and Women made to keep our freedom and liberty
Excellent programme. I too wondred what the choral piece was - been nagging at me... sounded Holst-esque and vaguely familiar - what was it please?
I must say I thought this was exceptionally good. The sheer terror of air combat was brought home more vividly than I can remember, as well as the gradual and remorseless psychological impact on the pilots involved. All this was underlined by the words of Geoffrey Wellum himself. I hope there will be a DVD release, perhaps with some extras such as an extended interview with Mr.Wellum and perhaps more background on the Battle of Britain.
an amazing programme more people should watch this to realise what The Battle of Britain was actually like, well done to the bbc and everyone else involved will definately be buying this when it comes out! R.I.P to all the people who gave their lives(and who had them taken) for our way of life, Freedom
Robert, the composer is Gabriel Currington. He has his own site: www.gcscores.com. We are hoping to get a full list of credits on our site.
First Light, the best BBC programme in years Terrific. Can you tell me the name of the piece of choral background music and the composer. I think it was towards the end of the programme.

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