At the Albert Hall, for one night only

Pic: Delfi/Wikimedia Commons

I have realised that I haven’t yet written about the gala showing of The Dam Busters at the Albert Hall on 17 May, even though it’s now more than three weeks after the event. I had a very small walk-on role in the preliminary festivities, and I hope the fact that the composite picture of all 133 men from 617 Squadron was projected onto the screen behind me while I spoke was enough of a tribute to all of the men who took part in the raid.

It was great pleasure to meet members of several Dambuster families for the first time, and I hope that this network will grow in strength. Many more families also made contact with me during the other events of that week. It was also a pleasure to meet Sally Scott, the granddaughter of Michael Anderson, who read an extract from his memoirs about the making of the 1955 film.

Revelation of the night for me was Elizabeth Gaunt, née Wallis, saying that she had actually played a small non-credited speaking part in the 1955 film, as a laboratory technician in the sequence at the giant water tanks in the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Her appearance, when it came round 40 minutes or so into the film itself, drew a big cheer from the audience.

A bucket collection was taken for the RAF Benevolent Fund as the audience left the hall.

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Michael Anderson dies at 98

It’s sad to have to report that the film director Michael Anderson died on Wednesday night, at the age of 98. He was best known to readers of this blog as the director of the 1955 film, The Dam Busters, but this was just part of his long career in the film business. At the time of his death he was the oldest living Oscar nominee for best director.

Anderson was born in London on 30 January 1920, and started work before the war as a runner and office boy at Elstree studios. He worked as an assistant director on several films, including Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, where he also acted in a small role. He then served in the Royal Signals. When peace came, he returned to the film business and gained a reputation for being able to work with some of the industry’s ‘difficult’ characters, such as Peter Ustinov and Robert Newton.

By the early 1950s, he was under contract as a director to Britain’s biggest film studio, Associated British Pictures, for whom he would eventually produce five films. ABP had bought the rights to Paul Brickhill’s best-selling book, The Dam Busters and commissioned a script from the writer of Journey’s End, R C Sherriff. Anderson was selected as director. ABP also had one of the country’s famous actors, Richard Todd, under contract and his physical resemblance to Guy Gibson made him an obvious choice for the part. Many other actors were also chosen for their similarity to their real-life counterparts, including the other main star of the film, Michael Redgrave, who was handed the part of Barnes Wallis.

Anderson chose to tell the story in a straightforward documentary style, reflecting the script which Sherriff had written with his usual understated economy. Brickhill’s original 1951 book had been prevented by government censors from revealing how Barnes Wallis’s weapon really worked. But four years later, the censors permitted the bouncing bomb to be shown on screen. This led to Barnes Wallis’s actual films being used in the scenes where he is trying to convince service and Air Ministry chiefs that his idea will work. A collective ‘Wow’ must have swept through the nation’s cinemas as the general public saw for the first time the big secret behind the successful attacks.

What is not widely known, however, is that the film was nearly scuppered by a contractual dispute with Guy Gibson’s widow, Eve, after the shooting was completed. She maintained that Brickhill had used material sourced from her husband’s book Enemy Coast Ahead in his own book The Dam Busters without permission. ABP were furious that their film project was at risk and demanded that Brickhill sort it out, and if he didn’t they would sue him for all the production costs.

The production company’s records are lost, so exactly how the matter was settled is not clear. It appears that Brickhill never paid any money to Eve Gibson but it was agreed that Enemy Coast Ahead would be credited in the opening sequence. More remarkably, it appears that it was also agreed that two more short sequences would be shot to appear in the final film. These are the cockpit scenes which take place after Gibson’s AJ-G has crossed the Dutch coast. In the original edited version of the film, all that Richard Todd as Gibson says here is ‘Stand by front gunner, we’re going over.’ This is allowed by a scene where Wallis, Bomber Harris and others are shown waiting tensely. But in the final cut, instead of going on to show the progress through Holland, two rather odd scenes then follow. The first shows the cockpit of Melvin Young, leading the second group of three in AJ-A. His navigator then says ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’. An external shot is then followed by a scene in Henry Maudslay’s AJ-Z, where the pilot fastens his oxygen mask and says ‘Enemy Coast Ahead.’

The double use of the title of Gibson’s book seems to have been enough to placate Eve Gibson, and she called off her legal action. More importantly the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the film ensured that The Dam Busters took a permanent place in British cinema history. Anderson was always proud of the film and its continuing influence. In a 2013 TV interview he described the first time that he had heard composer Eric Coates play the Dam Busters March and knew instantly that this was the music for the film. He also praised R C Sherriff’s script, a ‘masterpiece of understatement’, something that he was keen to preserve in his direction. And he confessed that he was still moved by the final scene, where Gibson tells Barnes Wallis, distraught at the loss of 56 men, that even if all the men had known that they wouldn’t be coming back, ‘they’d have gone for it just the same. I knew them all and I know that’s true.’

To the wider world, Anderson is known for his direction of the winner of the 1956 Oscar for best film, Around the World in Eighty Days, where he was also nominated for best director. He went on to direct several more war films, and a host of other features.

Time has not been kind to some 1950s British war films. However, this is not the case with The Dam Busters, which many critics have now taken to re-evaluating. It appears regularly in lists of important British films (No. 68 in the one published by the BFI) and is widely seen as an important influence (in Star Wars, George Lucas based the sequence showing the attack on the Death Star on The Dam Busters.) It will remain Michael Anderson’s greatest legacy, and for that alone, he should be saluted.

The new high definition print of The Dam Busters will be shown at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday 17 May, the 75th anniversary of the Dams Raid, and simulcast in more than 300 cinemas nationwide.

Sources:
John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003
Stephen Dando-Colins, The Hero Maker, Vintage Australia, 2016

Obituary in The Times (paywall)

Obituary in Daily Telegraph

New Dam Busters print rolls out on Lincoln red carpet

The brand new high-definition restoration of the classic Dam Busters film is being premiered as one of the official opening events for the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln on Saturday 14 April. It will be an outdoor screening, so you might need to wrap up in warm clothing.

For the restoration, STUDIOCANAL went back to the original 1954 camera negative and sound negative. They have produced a 4K DCP, UHD version and a new HD version to the same high technological standards as today’s biggest international film releases. It is this print which will be shown for the first time on 14 April.

A number of other events are taking place that week to mark the opening of the Centre, in Canwick Hill, Lincoln. You can get full details at the IBCC site here.

If you can’t get to Lincoln for this showing of the film, it will be screened again in a cinema near you on Thursday 17 May, in a simulcast with the event that night at the Royal Albert Hall. Full details here.

And if you can’t get to one of those screenings, then you will be able to get a new version on DVD/Blu-ray/EST on STUDIOCANAL’S Vintage Classics label from 4 June, with extras including an exclusive ‘Making of The Dam Busters’ documentary (in which the editor of this blog makes a special appearance). Watch this space!

Filming the Dam Busters

Pic: Jan Kmiecik

Michael Anderson’s 1955 film The Dam Busters is being shown again on ITV4 this afternoon – the second screening on this channel in the last six days!

Experience shows that this will result in a number of first time visitors reading this blog, so if this is you, welcome aboard. This is the one-stop shop for all Dambuster-related news and information, coming to you regularly for almost ten years. I try to publish several items every month so please check back regularly. You can ensure you see every post by clicking the “Follow blog by email” button in the right hand column.

If you are searching today for information on when Peter Jackson’s much delayed remake of the 1955 film will appear, the news is simply that there is no news. Jackson bought the rights to remake the film back in 2006. Since then he has announced that a director has been appointed and a script commissioned and that a number of life size model Lancasters have been built. But since that time, he has been very busy making three Hobbit films and is now working on a number of other projects, including another series of fantasy films, these based on the Mortal Engines books. It is notable that the Dambusters remake no longer appears in Jackson’s IMDB listing.

The reshowing of the 1955 film does however give me a good excuse to show this picture again, kindly sent to me by Jan Kmiecik, whose father was Flt Sgt Joe Kmiecik, a Second World war veteran who took part in the filming of The Dam Busters in 1954.

The picture shows the three Lancasters used in the film flying together probably for the last time. This was taken at a Battle of Britain Day tribute at Silloth in Cumbria, probably in 1955. Note that only two of the aircraft have been modified to the “Dambuster” configuration, with a dummy “bouncing bomb” and no mid upper turret. The central Lancaster must be NX782, which was left as standard and used in an early sequence in the film where Gibson is completing his final flight as CO of 106 Squadron.

Note also how low the three Lancasters are flying, and how close they are to the members of the public wandering across the runway. Modern air displays have much stricter health and safety rules!

Television Toppers under the spotlight

It has recently emerged that the musical theatre sequence in the 1955 film The Dam Busters was performed by the Television Toppers dance troupe and filmed in the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith.

The information comes from one of the dancers, Jackie Lee, whose daughter Susie Ball has recently posted some comments on an earlier post on this blog. Jackie is seen second from the right at the start of the routine and second from the left at the end. Unfortunately she can’t now recall the name of the singer.

The whole routine was filmed in a day: the dancers were given their routine to learn when they arrived. They shot the first half before lunch, and the other half afterwards. They were introduced to Richard Todd, playing Guy Gibson, who is seen in the film in the audience. During the song and dance routine, Gibson notices how the spotlight operators on each side of the stage move their lights to follow the singer as she moves from side to side. This is supposed to give him the idea for using intersecting spotlights on the Dams Raid aircraft to keep to a fixed height while approaching their targets. In truth, the idea of using spotlights came from a scientist at the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and they had been installed several weeks before the raid.

In the 1950s, the Television Toppers were one of Britain’s best known female dance troupes and were contracted to the BBC. They first appeared on television in 1953 and are probably best remembered for their appearances on BBC TV’s Black and White Minstrel Show, which ran from 1958 until 1978. The Toppers were also much in demand for personal appearances and openings. Jackie Lee left them in 1958 when she got married.

Jackie also remembers that the soldier-style costumes worn by the dancers were borrowed from the Empire Leicester Square and made by the well known West End wardrobe suppliers, Berman’s. Costumes in this style were very popular during the war, and would have complemented the music used in the sequence. Earlier research published by this blog has revealed the song to be “Sing, Everybody Sing” by John P Long.

[Thanks to Jackie Lee and Susie Ball for their help.]

Dam Busters in six sheets

Pic: Ray Hepner Collection

A giant six-sheet size poster for the 1955 film The Dam Busters recently came onto the market, and was bought by our old friend, the collector Ray Hepner. He is now having it professionally mounted on linen so that it can be displayed.
Although the size (approx 81 inches square) is known in the poster trade as a ‘six sheet’, the poster was in fact printed in four parts with overlaps (which you can see in the picture above). Because most posters this size were displayed on outside hoardings, and then pasted over the following week, they are quite rare and much sought after by collectors. You do, however, need a pretty big wall on which to display something this size. Clear that space, Jeeves!

BBC repeats interview with Michael Anderson

BBC4 WarFilms

Somehow I missed this BBC4 documentary the first time it was aired in 2013, but I’m happy to say that I caught up with it on Monday evening. The journalist Simon Heffer, who has a longstanding interest in the British war films genre, wrote and presented a fascinating programme which looked at the plethora of 1950s films about the war.
What made it even more interesting were the interviews with the people who were involved with these films. These included the actors Donald Sinden, Virginia McKenna and Sylvia Syms, and Guy Hamilton, who directed The Colditz Story. For me, of course, the star of the show was Michael Anderson, the director of The Dam Busters.
Interviewed in his home in Canada and looking very spry, Anderson described the first time he had heard Eric Coates play the Dam Busters March and knew instantly that this was the music for the film. He also praised R C Sherriff’s script, a ‘masterpiece of understatement’, something that he was keen to preserve in his direction. And he confessed that he was still moved by the final scene, where Gibson tells Barnes Wallis, distraught at the loss of 56 men, that even if all the men had known that they wouldn’t be coming back, ‘they’d have gone for it just the same. I knew them all and I know that’s true.’ Wallis isn’t really consoled, but he accepts what Gibson says, and suggests that the CO should get some sleep. This Gibson cannot yet do, and he delivers the film’s final line of dialogue: ‘I have to write some letters first.’ Without another word, Wallis stumbles out of shot and Gibson marches towards his office, exchanging salutes with a passing sergeant. As John Ramsden remarks in his BFI monograph: ‘It is as fine a moment as actor, screenwriter or director ever managed in a film, and coming at the very end, its result is devastating.’ (John Ramsden, The Dam Busters, Tauris 2003, p.95.)
Anderson has had a long and distinguished career in the cinema. He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days (the film itself won Best Picture that year).

Fifties British War Films is being repeated on BBC4 on Friday 12 February at 0140. Or you can watch it on iPlayer for the next four weeks.