Thousands of fighter pilots flew in World War 2. But this one lived in my street.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve met and talked to someone and thought ‘this could make a good documentary’. But when I discovered I had an amiable and able-bodied ex-Spitfire pilot living just 10 doors down from my flat in London, I felt like I had an obligation to make a film about him. An obligation to take advantage of the filmmaking opportunity dropped in my lap; and an obligation to capture the history of someone who was part of World War 2, while he’s still around.
The journey from chat in the street to finished film has been a huge learning curve about the pitfalls of personal projects and procrastination. But now here it is; finished at last.
The first commandment of documentary is "Story”, but I felt if I did the usual route of top-line research and developing a shooting script, I could lose that raw first-time-told quality. So I went in ‘cold’ with camera in hand. But despite hours of interviewing and many cups of tea, a narrative hook never emerged.
Jack had many, many quirky experiences and close escapes, but seemingly went through the war without a single traumatic experience.
Showing an initial cut of the film in a film festival workshop, I was told to bring out the tears and the horror of war. Make the audience feel his pain. But as far as I could tell,* he simply doesn’t have any!
This makes Jack an intriguing character in his own way of course, but it set me on a kind of procrastination and perfectionism loop. With corporate films there is always a brief and a purpose, not to mention a deadline. With this project lacking any obvious narrative, yet laden with hours of intriguing – but disconnected – anecdotes, I wrestled with the balance of doing justice to Jack’s story, yet making something short and watchable for the average (non-aviation-buff) viewer. In the end, I believe I've struck that balance well but it's been far too long a road. Thankfully, Jack, now aged 93, is still around see his final film (and just before I left the UK, seemed as full of life as the day I met him).
I had many positive experiences making this film too of course. From a producing aspect, orchestrating a flight with the North London Flying School at the same airfield where Jack flew in the war was a great bit of visual content. Being given stills and footage from the RAF Museum archives (instead of ripping from YouTube) has made the film something that I know has been done properly and professionally.
As a director, I’ve learned the hard way about the reality of self-shooting: simultaneously maintaining your personal connection with the interviewee, listening for themes and plotting the next question in your mind, and keeping an eye on the camera, lighting, and audio.
And from a personal point of view, it’s gratifying to know I gave an old pilot a chance to take to the air again and tell his stories. I'm an aviation buff myself, and Jack and I shared a mutual affection for the Wellington bomber – which he eventually got to fly after the war, albeit an unarmed version just for training navigators.
I must say a big thank you to my friends and flatmates for all the encouragement and patience, and especially to fellow filmmaker Dagmara, who helped with logistics and camerawork on the day of Jack’s flight.
Lastly, like any film release these days, I’ve also put together a few extra clips that didn’t make the final cut – great little stories in their own right. Tally Ho!
* Of course this could be ‘stiff upper lip’ or the reluctance of his generation to open up, but as far as I could tell from multiple interviews, two trips to the airfield and many, many cups of tea, this really is Jack’s nature.
If you know your planes, you may notice that there are shots of various different models of Spitfire and different markings/eras. As a fan of aviation, and accuracy, it was a compromise I had to simply endure because of the limited archive footage available. However at least in the clip at 01:12, the aircraft are Mark V Spitfires – just like Jack flew.
Panshanger Aerodrome sadly was sold off to property developers after making this film; so I feel doubly privileged to have captured a bit of history of that place, too. North London Flying School is still going however, operating from a new airfield.