First Light: Dramatising the real Battle of Britain

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In a way this was a dream come true - getting the chance to dramatise for BBC Two Geoffrey Wellum's stunning First Light on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

The book is his memoir of what it was like to be an 18-year-old Spitfire pilot thrust into the gut-wrenching, ear-deafening, life and death struggle of the most violent aerial combat ever.

And it deals with his mental disintegration in 18 relentless months on the frontline.

It was always going to be challenging.

This was one film where we had to get not just the emotional thrust right, but also the historical detail. There are a lot of people out there for whom this really matters - and I am one of them.

The conversations started early about getting Spitfires airborne. But what is it they say? Never work with animals, children... or vintage aircraft!

We were discussing a scene in which 'Boy Wellum', the hero of our story, makes his first flight in a Spitfire and our actor, Sam Heughan, couldn't wait to get into the air.

The problem was how to convince the audience he was actually at the controls of a Spitfire rocketing through the clouds. The big snag was that there was no way we could get Sam airborne in a real Spitfire.

This scene was crucial to the story, appearing little more than 10 minutes after the opening of the film. We had to produce a sequence breath-taking enough to make the audience believe that flying the Spitfire was love at first sight for Boy.

We had access to a real Spitfire - and the budget for maybe 45 minutes flying time - but the Spit is a single-seater and there was no question of anybody but a very experienced pilot taking the controls of several million pounds' worth of vintage aeroplane.

We had access to a replica Spitfire, which could be shoved about on the ground but had no proper cockpit interior.

We soon decided that rather than shooting costly air to air footage, we would use outtakes from the Battle of Britain movie - and enhance it with CGI.

This was a huge task in itself, going through around 50 hours worth of unused and unseen material, but it was great that we could give some of this footage the light of day at last!

It is lovely stuff but the registration numbers on the side of Spit in the movie footage didn't begin to match our real or replica planes.

One plane was brown and green, the other brown and grey. And the real one was based at Wycombe air park and our replica was 80 miles away on the drama set outside Dunstable.

Bringing the replica down would nuke what little was left of the budget, but if we didn't, Sam could be walking in the rain to the replica on one location and then climbing into the cockpit in bright sunshine on the other.

It was quite a headache!

Somehow we wangled it in the end. The owner of the replica was persuaded to bring his baby to stand side-by-side with the real McCoy.

Then we found a friendly pilot, prepared to have the back cockpit of his two-seater Russian YAK trainer converted to look like a Spitfire cockpit interior.

Sam leapt in, surrounded by high defintion (HD) mini-cams and took to the sky with his script taped to the instrument panel.

Meantime, our real Spit took off with the pilot delivering Boy Wellum's point of view (by way of a specially designed camera mounting on his flying helmet).

When we got into the edit, the whole story came together. Combining Sam walking to the replica Spitfire, the real thing taxiing, then Sam in close-up in the back seat of the YAK. Then cutting to his point of view shot in the real Spit, we get the hair-raising images of take-off.

And once he's airborne, we start to inter-cut Sam in the cockpit with the footage from the Battle of Britain movie.

That was the easiest of the flying sequences in the film!

Then we had to work out how to create a full-blooded dogfight, and a nightmare flight in torrential rain over the channel - during which Boy shoots down a German bomber. These scenes were whole other cans of worms...

Looking back on it all now, I can't believe we shot the whole drama, including the flying, in just nine days. We couldn't have done it without the orchestration of the first assistant director Chris Carreras, whose experience spans the Bourne movies and United 93.

He was dead right when he took one last long look at the schedule just before we began the shoot and, having considered the weather and all the other infinitely frightening variables, commented dryly: "We're going to have to be 100% lucky on this one!".

Geoffrey Wellum didn't have time to visit us on set - but before the shoot, as I was scripting, we spent a huge amount of time together. And afterwards, during post-production, Geoff worked very closely with the CGI artists to make sure we got the tracer fire absolutely correct in the air battles.

Working so closely with Geoffrey has made First Light a unique experience both for me as a director and I think, for the audience.

The combination of Geoff's expert eye-witness guidance and actually getting Sam up in the air - instead of in some faked up studio cockpit - has made the film an incredibly rich experience for everybody.

And, I guess, is just about as close as any of us would want to get to the nerve-jangling terrors of air combat, Battle of Britain style.

For me, creating the tension on the ground was just as important as in the air. I love the waiting scene in dispersal before Geoff's first combat - the tinkling of teaspoons in cups, the rustle of a magazine, Kingcome chewing on his match... and then the sudden shrill ringing of the phone - scramble!

Geoff watched these scenes with great interest and said that he felt the film perfectly caught the mood and emotions he felt at the time, both on the ground and in the air.

The war literally tore Geoff's emotions apart. If he had not been rested from flying before going back for a second tour of combat, I think he would be the first to say he would no longer be with us now.

But at that time, I'm sure, as he reflects in the film, he was desperate to fight on until the bitter end.

This was the truth for many soldiers - the feeling that they had been taken off the line before the 'job was done' and now were to be left to watch others die whom they could no longer help or protect.

Geoff still carries a sense of guilt that he survived when so many he knew died.

Geoff hates to be called a hero but his effort and that of those all around him 70 years ago, saved us from the terrors of Nazi occupation. I believe that his war - the Battle of Britain - was the key turning point of World War Two.

If England had fallen to Germany, the country could not have been used as the launching point for the D-Day landings and the liberation of Europe.

I salute you, Geoff - however reluctant you are to be called a hero. I salute you and all those that fought alongside you. And I'm sure the audience will, too.

First Light is on BBC Two at 9pm and BBC HD at 10.30pm on Tuesday, 14 September.

First Light is part of the BBC Battle of Britain season.

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  • Comment number 52. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 24 Feb 2011 19:07

    Hello Alexanderthegrate #51 - good news. I've just done a web search and on the major retailers' sites, First Light seems to be available to pre-order for 6 June.
    Hope that cheers your friends up! Thanks.

  • Comment number 51. Posted by Alexanderthegrate

    on 18 Feb 2011 12:08

    Fiona - please keep up the pressure for a DVD of this programme. It is an excellent way in to those times for both very old and young alike. Many of my friends are annoyed there isn't a DVD of it. I hope this is not down to petty squabbling about the money...

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  • Comment number 50. Posted by Slap3

    on 22 Jan 2011 16:51

    Please can we have "First light" on DVD format. I belong to a large flying community who have a special interest in WWII aviation and specifically the BOB.

    Thank you Fiona for asking Lion Telivision. I canot seem to find an email address for them to get in contact in person...Can you help?



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  • Comment number 49. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 12 Oct 2010 10:58

    Hello again,
    Olek #8, KJHedges #22 and everyone else interested in a DVD release - I've asked this end and it's not confirmed yet. The programme was made for the BBC by Lion Television (part of All3Media) so their discussions are ongoing. Lion have been sent the link to this blog post though - so they will have read your comments!

    Fiona, TV blog editor

  • Comment number 48. Posted by Pancake

    on 5 Oct 2010 19:49

    What a breath of fresh air ! A wonderful doc - drama. In a world of diminishing values a truly and moving inspirational piece of work. I have now purchased the book "First Light" along with "A willingness to die" by Brian Kingcome. It's so refreshing to stumble across and find out about these characters as opposed to the usual commonplace historical figures.


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  • Comment number 47. Posted by Jeremy Vevers

    on 3 Oct 2010 17:44

    I missed this film and just reading these postings only rubs salt in the wounds. Are you planning to show it again? or is the DVD going to actually happen?

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  • Comment number 46. Posted by Sailor

    on 23 Sept 2010 16:33

    There's talk of releasing the programme on dvd, which will be good as it was excellent. The book is also one of the finest BofB memoirs out there. I met Geoffrey Wellum at a book signing at Duxford, he's every bit as impressive in 'real life' as he was in that programme.
    I watched it and got so engrossed that I was shocked and saddened when the enigmatic CO, Brian Kingcome, goes missing. I nearly cheered when he turned up alive at the end of the day's fighting.... I knew he survived the war because I've read the book, that's how compelling the drama was!
    One of the most poignant scenes was the blackboard in the 'White Hart' and Geoff's pal telling him, once on your name's on it... it's never rubbed off.

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 23 Sept 2010 11:08

    Hello all - just to explain Matthew's comment at #43 came through twice, so the moderators have removed the duplicate copy at #44.
    Thanks for all your comments on the programme.

    Fiona, TV blog editor

  • Comment number 44. Posted by matthew whiteman

    on 22 Sept 2010 13:57

    This comment was removed because it broke the house rules. Explain

  • Comment number 43. Posted by matthew whiteman

    on 22 Sept 2010 13:47

    Dear all, I am so thrilled that First Light has generated so much spirited comment - and most of it thankfully positive! This was the hardest film I have ever undertaken - logistically and certainly budget-wise! And I am my own worst critic - so for all you so-called 'anoraks' let me say I am at one with you all!

    I do wish I could have only used Battle of Britain Spitfires; I am quite obsessive about this kind of detail - just as I am about the emotional authenticity of a story - but early Spits are in very short supply and we simply could not get our hands on anything that was affordable or available. We tried to make up for this by having our replica look as accurate as possible for the sequences on the ground - but again, it was frustrating not to be able to paint up this machine with the correct markings for Geoff's 'plane... But we had to make sure we matched the aerial footage from the Battle of Britain aerial unit.

    I was certainly a bit nervous when I showed the film to Geoff but he - as always - was deeply understanding of the enormous challenges we faced on what must have been less than a hundredth of the budget Hollywood would give to a film like this... Except that these days Hollywood would never make a film about the Battle of Britain, would they? We did try so very hard to make the film as authentic as possible - the mask, goggles and helmet that 'Boy' wore, were all made for the film (and Geoff was really delighted with this great effort) the uniforms were all original and the sets were built with a great deal of attention to detail. Geoff loved the interior and exterior of dispersal and felt the same about the pub and the billet - he thought these were all 'dead-on'. And so, I think you must forgive the odd four-bladed prop! After all, the Spitfires were not the whole story. There was far more to the world of 1940 that we had to get right.

    Gabriel Gurrington was the composer of all the music in the film - and I think it was his music that the Beeb used for the season teaser. I don't know when a dvd might be released - sometime, soon, I hope.

    We shot at Wycombe Air Park for all the flying sequences and Twinwood (an old RAF base near Bedford)for all the air base drama. The pub and surrounding countryside were found in the Chilterns.

    The cricket match does not appear in the book and nor do Boy's moments with Grace - but wherever I had to stray form Geoff's book in order to make the film work as an adaptation, Geoff was always there to validate/authenticate my words. The pilots often played cricket and Geoff loved this scene in the film - - as much as he hated the convoy patrol sequences; not because these were bad but because he felt he didn't need reminding about what bloody awful weather he had flown in that day!

    As noted elsewhere, Brian Kingcome has no b in his surname - so I am glad to say that this was one little detail we got right! I am sorry that a few people have felt the script a 'bit preachy' - this was the last thing I wanted. I strove with Geoff and then with the actors to make the film as naturalistic as possible. I deliberately chose to use some modern phrases in order to hold the attention of the younger audience. Anybody around my age needs no reminding of how significant the battle was to our very existence but I really wanted young people to be affected by the film, too - and I needed to drive home the message that without people like Geoff we would be living in a very different world right now. If I had stuck rigidly to RAF speak from the 1940s, I think I would have struggled to stop the film feeling cliched. The true language of the period has been cruelly parodied by generations of comics - and the last thing I wanted was to alienate a modern audience. Forensic detail is one thing but losing a large part of your audience is quite another! When you think about it, language is one of those classic dilemmas for any filmmaker. 'Gladiator' hardly sounded like it was coming straight out of the mouths of ancient Rome - but the story was wonderfully compelling all the same!

    The 'poem' at the end of the film is actually a quote from 'Sagittarius Rising' by Cecil Lewis. This book is a kind of World War One version of Geoff's memoir. I thoroughly recommend this book to everybody - and I know Geoff loved it as a boy before the war.

    Anyways, again let me thank you all for taking the time to write. Matthew Whiteman, writer, producer & director, First Light.

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