Their Finest Hour began its theatrical journey back in March 2019 as we workshopped our way through the rehearsal process.
The writer Steve Darlow is one of the most knowledgeable and respected experts on the RAF campaigns of the Second World War and has met and interviewed a large number of the veterans featured in the play, whose words inspired him to write Their Finest Hour. Together with Director Joe Malyan, who has such an incredible enthusiasm for the subject matter and gave such energy to Their Finest Hour, along with our fantastic Cast and Production Team, the whole thing was imagined beautifully.
Director Joe Malyan: ‘When Steve first showed me the script, he emphasised the importance of telling the emotional story of the people behind the text. This is not a history play, he told me. It is not about dates, times and figures. I soon discovered that it is a play about real people. Real moments. Real memories. Real tragedy. Real joy and everything else in between. I will be forever grateful to Steve throughout the process, his enthusiasm for the piece has been invaluable, constantly reassuring me that my ‘conceptual’ staging works, and does the piece justice. This is an exceptionally challenging production, with a cast of 9 portraying over 100 roles, each with their own piece of history to tell. Our beautiful cast brought so many wonderful ideas to the piece and they deserve as much credit as I do with the end result.’
Producer Auriole: ‘These are not just wartime anecdotes we are telling, but real human stories of epic proportions. Extraordinary endeavours performed by ordinary people, woven through with the music and poetry of the time. Our Parent’s, Grand Parent’s and Great Grand Parent’s generation, all stood together when it was most needed. The look and feel of the production was incredibly important, it needed to draw the audience in to the period, so the use of props and costumes coupled with an amazing sound and lighting design, by our team of Joe Malyan, Lyndon Baines, Anne Thomson, Viv Baines and Tim Cumper, made it pretty special.’
In 2019 and 2020 we staged two short runs of the show at South Hill Park, Bracknell. Then in 2023 we began rehearsing for our March run at Waterloo East Theatre.
From 8th to 26th March we staged 20 shows, receiving excellent reviews, and are now all set to take the show on tour.
Writing Their Finest Hour – Steve Darlow (from the 2023 programme)
Veteran Calton Younger had a wonderful smile. A gentle, humble, and intelligent man who wrote what I consider the best Second World War prisoner-of-war memoir No Flight From The Cage, which I had the privilege to publish. I will never forget, when interviewing ‘Cal’, his dramatic and emotional recollection of the night he was shot down in his Wellington bomber, retold in Their Finest Hour.
I will never forget the time I sat across the table from Hurricane fighter pilot John Ellacombe when writing my book Five of the Few, as he told me of a combat he fought during one of the most significant and perilous moments in British history, the Battle of Britain. I had seen the films, I had read the stories, but now I was hearing it direct from someone who was there. I watched him closely as he relived his aerial, deathly, duel, and as he recalled the moment his cockpit burst into flame.
I will never forget the time I sat with Bomber Command pilot Reg Barker as he told me of the night he was shot down in a Lancaster, and, with his burning aircraft screaming towards the earth, the serenity he felt when thinking, ‘so this is the end of Reggie Barker’.
Cal, John and Reggie are just three from the hundred or more veterans I have had the privilege to meet and interview in my 25 years as a Second World War author and publisher. My purpose? To capture their stories and bring them to public attention. Until a few years ago I did this through the medium of books and documentaries, but, when working on a Musical project, I came up with the idea of putting these stories on the stage, as a piece of verbatim theatre. I was fortunate to be working with singer, actress, and dramaturg Janet Mooney at the time, and when I presented the concept to Janet she willingly gave her time to shape the idea and help with the initial drafts of the script.
The next key step in realising the project was a chance meeting with Auriole Wells at White Waltham Airfield. Auriole, clearly passionate about the subject, had considerable theatrical experience and links so we decided to team up to take ‘Their Finest Hour’ from page to stage. This we did in 2019 and early 2020 at South Hill Park, Bracknell, having also signed up the brilliant Joe Malyan to workshop and direct our show. Joe’s research into the subject, attention to detail, and directorial insight, coupled with Auriole’s experience and producing oversight resulted in what I consider an extraordinary and unique piece of theatre, but I would say that wouldn’t I.
Such was the audience response to our Bracknell performances, we started to make plans to take our production further. But then, of course, we all went into lockdown. When restrictions were finally lifted, myself, Auriole and Joe, got our heads together to relaunch Their Finest Hour, and here we are.
The biggest challenge when developing the script and workshopping the show was how to lift such wonderful and intriguing stories off the page in an entertaining way, yet not lose the authenticity and integrity of the first-hand accounts. Rather than a series of monologues we came up with the idea of dramatising everything through the experience of a group of grandchildren venturing into their grandfather’s, Bert’s, attic and discovering his, and his contemporaries, accounts for the first time. (It is a standard response from the families of veterans to say that he or she, ‘never really spoke about it’. As an author, once you have built trust, the veterans will open up, but you are frequently up against ‘British reserve’ in trying to extract stories.) The grandchildren in our play, dressing up and creatively using items found in the attic, would become the respective characters and voice the stories.
We also introduced period songs and poems to add to the mood and sense of time and place. To act as our narrator, we enlisted ‘Jamie’. He will act as your guide during the show, setting the scene and introducing the myriad of characters.
Jamie is based upon a real-life Bomber Command pilot called Jamie Dunlop, whose story I came across when authoring the book about the Bomber Command Memorial in The Green Park, London. Jamie wrote one of the most moving letters I have ever read in all my years of research and writing. Hopefully you will be similarly moved.
So we arrive at the show you are about to see, and I am delighted that fellow author Sean Feast has come on board as an Executive Producer. Thank you Sean. We could not have staged this without you. And I extend that thank you to all of our creative team and the cast. The rehearsal process has been an absolute joy. Your support and application has ensured this is not only entertaining but a fitting tribute to those who fought for, and won, so many of the freedoms we enjoy today.
My hope is that Their Finest Hour, the words of Cal, John, Reggie, Jackie, Audrey, Jamie, and a hundred others, not only entertain and intrigue you but also act as a reminder of what the Second World War generation went through and achieved. Their willingness to defy evil must never be forgotten. Similarly the sacrifice in lives lost, and the grief felt by the hundreds of thousands of colleagues, friends and relatives, must be remembered.