First Light, BBC Two | TV reviews, news & interviews
First Light, BBC Two
A very fine Spitfire drama takes to the skies
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.
- Watch First Light on BBC iPlayer
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