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A year of war: flying Spitfires in Piece of Cake

In ancient days, it was common for a home to have a single television under the absolute control of adults.  This is why I have certain blind spots regarding 80s culture - Mom wanted to watch something else.

On the positive side, I got exposed to a lot of programs on Masterpiece Theatre or Great Performances that otherwise would have eluded me.  Even after gaining a measure of independence, I'd check the show by force of habit, often finding really cool shows.

One of them was Piece of Cake, and adaptation of the novel by the same name (by Derek Robinson).

Robinson's book was published in the 80s and presented a revisionist take on the Battle of Britain and the men who fought it.  To book purports to tell the story of "Hornet Squadron," a fictitious Royal Air Force unit and its transition from peacetime to war.  Hornet Squadron flew Hawker Hurricanes, which were preponderant in RAF squadrons during the first year of the war but have since been overlooked in favor of the more effective (and attractive) Supermarine Spitfire.

The Hurricane was generally inferior in performance to the German Messerschmitt BF 109, but when used properly, it was very effective, particularly against bomber formations.  Indeed, the stereotypical scenario was for the Spitfires to tangle with the 109s, while the Hurricanes hurtled into the Heinkels and Junkers.

Anyhow, Robinson's book was popular enough that a six-episode adaptation was made and (like all British drama), it featured a bunch of familiar faces of the era.  (At some point I'll do a post on the fact that at any given moment, the UK only has a dozen or so TV actors who appear in everything.)

What set Piece of Cake apart was its decidedly cynical and negative take on the RAF.  Instead of a "valiant few," the pilots are a bunch of quarrelsome, selfish jerks.  The high command is arrogant and incompetent, and of course there are social class divisions (the British particularly obsess about this).

I have not read the book and have no desire to do so.  By all accounts, it is even worse (verging on caricature) in terms of making the pilots obnoxious and highlighting the RAF's failures.

This may therefore be one of the rare cases where the film supersedes the book.  This is likely because the actors inherently have more charisma than the characters did as written.  This is what happened when The Great Santini was adapted - Robert Duvall couldn't help but humanize the role of Bull Meechum.

Pat Conroy famously used his father as the basis for Meechum, portraying him as a complete sociopath of a father and husband, with zero redeeming features.  He's a cruel tyrant, period.

When the film was made, certain changes were made to the character - not necessarily to make him more sympathetic, but simply more believable.  The irony is that years later, Conroy admitted that he had done his father dirty and that certain details (that he insisted were completely true) had been exaggerated.  A quick (but telling) example: in the film, Meechum is portrayed as an undisciplined Marine aviator whose juvenile highjinks ensure he will never make full colonel or command a squadron of his own.  In real life, Conroy's father was both.

The same is true of "Moggy" Cattermole, a cruel, arrogant, treacherous womanizer who is also the best pilot of Hornet Squadron.    Neil Dudgeon has undeniable screen presence, which necessarily softens the character - and therefore makes him relatable.

Indeed, I think the technical advisor (a retired RAF officer) also fixed some other episodes I've heard of in the book that were totally over the top.  The result may not be as true to the book but is likely truer to the subject matter.

The story of Piece of Cake is the story of the first year of WW II for the RAF.  In September, 1939, the RAF is a peacetime entity, full of ritual and social convention.  Within weeks of hostilities breaking out, it is sent to France to support British ground forces there, but instead of fighting, it finds itself in the Phoney War, a lull which lasted from the fall of Poland until the German onslaught on Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940.

As such, it's a departure from traditional wartime dramas which focus on the people.  Instead, Piece of Cake focuses on the squadron as a whole, and the mainstays are the ground staff, who try to hold the organization together as pilots cycle through.

This is a unique perspective, but an important one.  In a certain sense, it captures the essence of modern warfare, which is largely institutional.  Individuals come and go, some without leaving a mark, others profoundly shaping the culture or events, but few remain forever.  European war films are typically more pessimistic than American ones in terms of killing off characters, but here Piece of Cake is not using artistic license - RAF losses were very heavy during the first year of the war, especially during the disastrous Battle of France and the later Battle of Britain.

Hornet Squadron would therefore have borne the brunt of the fighting and it's appropriate at few characters survive for long.

One anachronism is that the squadron flies Spitfires.  Indeed, they fly late-model Spitfires, completely inappropriate for 1939-40.  What is more, no Spitfire squadrons served in France.  They were deliberately held back to defend Great Britain (which was a sore point for the French).

Why does the show use them?  Because that's what they had.  Few Hurricanes survived the war and at the time of the filming, I don't think any were airworthy.  This was because the Hurricane was obsolete by 1942 and almost all surviving models were melted down to make Spitfires, which served throughout the war.

That inaccuracy aside the show contains lots of gratuitous footage of Spitfires warming up, taking off and soaring over the countryside.  In certain circles this is known as "Spitfire porn," and I confess it's one of the show's strengths.

Another thing I liked about it is the way the title credits change with each episode.  Pay careful attention when watching, as the very formal squadron portrait changes over time - not just because personnel are different, but the posing becomes more casual, showing how little time there is for such things.

Overall, I think the show overplays the pessimism of Fighter Command pilots, and there are plenty of gratuitous digs against Winston Churchill that imply he was not as popular as later legend made it, but one can overlook these things.  If you want a detailed look at the transformation of a military organization over time, Piece of Cake is a great place to start.




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