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Love in a Colditz Climate

26 March - 1 April 2005   |   Written by Benji Wilson

Easter’s big drama isn’t just the same old PoW escape adventure, but can you really weave a love story into Colditz? Benji Wilson does some digging …

It’s a witheringly hot summer’s day at London’s Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and yet all around us are men and women in thick woollen Army uniforms. Sophia Myles nurses a cup of tea and sits very still, flicking through a dog-eared script. Although it’s 30°C and she’s wearing a wig, along with a dress that may well have been a fire blanket in a former life, she remains serene: “You get the devil’s BO. We just accept it.”

It’s a suitably stoical stance for an actress who’s just done a street scene in an air raid. We’re in the final stages of filming Colditz, a two-part wartime drama who meticulous sets, vast crew and cavernous catering tent all suggest that something big is in the offing. You would be pushed to find a TV production these days where the executive producers are prepared to admit that the budget is even adequate, let alone ample, but both Andy Harries and Justin Bodle talk freely of the investment that has gone in to the production, “so that audiences get something more exceptional than they would ordinarily expect from TV”.

They’re talking about the kind of attention to detail that is customarily preserve of film land, and these days is only available to TV through co-productions with global partners (in this case, with Power, which also co-produced Henry VIII last year). Filming for Colditz has been going on for more than three months now in the Czech Republic and London (although not, intriguingly, at Colditz itself, which is now a tourist look-see and hence somewhat less forbidding). The cast list – Damian Lewis, Tomy Hardy, James Fox, his son Lawrence Fox, Sophia Myles, Jason Priestley, Timothy West – is long and strong. More than 600 extras were used and costumes, props, and sets were all assiduously researched, sourced and constructed. It shows: bar the odd mobil phone and the occasional errant gaffer in T-shirt and jeans, this might as well be wartime London. The Royal Military Academy is home to several Colditz sets. One exterior looks like a bomb site – aptly, in fact, because it is meant to to be a bomb site. Next to that is an air-raid shelter. Inside resides that fictitious headquarters of MI9, the secret service agency that was dedicated to helping PoW escape attempts. Banks of oak desks with Bakelite phones and enamelled mugs lead us to a room stuffed to the rafters with the ephemera of Britain in the early 1940s: tins of Colman’s mustard, wooden tennis rackets in head clamps, dusty 78s and a host of other seemingly perfunctory objects that will turn out, in the form of disguised gizmos sent to prisoners, to be central to the drama.

Having the name ‘Colditz’ in a drama’s title gives it a heady provenance that is both a blessing and a curse. The 1954 feature film The Colditz Story, the classic BBC series that followed and a slew of board games, card games and video games ever since have all served to create a Boys’ Own mythology around the famous prison castle that can inevitably lapse into cliche: stern Germans telling redoubtably chipper chaps that for them, ze war is over; men on bunk beds pulling on endless fags; wizard plans to build aeroplanes out of cutlery, and so on.

Though this new version does contain enough elements of that mythology to keep the boys happy – the looming Gothic fortress immune to escape, the inevitable escape attempts by the endlessly enterprising inmates, the elaborate escape aids snuck in to the camp by the secret service aces back in Blightly – it has been refreshed and renewed by the addition of a turbulent love story.

Three young British soldiers, Nick McGrade (Damian Lewis), Jack Rose (Tom Hardy) and Tom Willis (Laurence Fox), escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp. Rose and Willis are recaptured and sent to Colditz, the notorious stronghold reserved for persistent escapees; uppity sergeant McGrade, however, makes it across the Swiss border to freedom. Back in Britain, he’s given a commission and drafted into MI9 to put his knowledge of prisoner camps to good use. One of McGrade’s first tasks is to keep a promise made when he and Rose were separated, and inform Rose’s girlfriend, Lizzie (Myles), that her beau has been captured but intends to come home to her soon. But McGrade falls for Lizzie himself, and soon his obsession has him lying to her about Rose’s fate. All the while, of course, Rose, Willis and a host of international cell-hoppers are all gamely attempting to escape from Colditz, playing cat and mouse with the “goons” as they chutzpah and sanity slowly ebb away.

Lewis, whose character makes up one corner of Colditz’s tempestuous love triangle, is waiting for his next take. He is wearing a beret with a pom-pom that, with his red hair, gives him an unfortunate air of Russ Abbot circa 1986. Lewis is pacing around singing Foreigner’s Cold as Ice, occasionally fiddling with Myles’s wig before returning to a nearby window for a spot of saluting practice.