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The Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown, BBC Two, review

June 1st, 2014

There are war stories, and then there are War Stories. The subject of Britain’s Greatest Pilot: the Extraordinary Story of Captain Winkle Brown (BBC Two) was a Zelig of the Second World War and beyond, making cameo appearances in everything from the Nuremberg Rallies to the Battle of Britain, from the liberation of Belsen

to the trial of Hermann Goering. Eric “Winkle” Brown’s encounter with the latter was recalled with mesmerising precision – typical of a chipper 95 year-old with a memory to match. He was well served by Simon Winchcombe’s restrained, respectful film, introduced and overseen by historian James Holland. If it held few surprises in its presentation, at its heart lay a tale which needed scant embellishment.

What window-dressing there was came in the form of newsreel footage. Some of it was frivolous (juxtaposing the Austro-German Anschluss with The Lambeth Walk), much of it intensely serious. Brown looked haunted as he talked of Belsen concentration camp: seeing these “dying zombies” shattered his long-held admiration for the German people. These responses to death offered the deepest insights into the man. The dogfights above the Atlantic convoys were adventures, full of derring-do and excitement. Until, that is, his ship was sunk and he was left roped together with 23 survivors in the water. Only two of them made it through the night – “a very nasty business”.

His story was littered with such understatement. He was “a bit piqued” about being imprisoned by the SS at the outbreak of the war; and his response to getting through a test flight which had already claimed lives by the skin of his teeth? “I was pretty pleased about it.” Upper lips don’t come much stiffer, although the sober manner in which he recounted his record-breaking feats – 487 different aircraft flown, 2,407 aircraft carrier landings achieved – was usually matched by a twinkle in the eye.

Such extraordinary commitment to excellence – Brown himself called it an “obsession” – must have taken a terrible toll on his personal life and, barring a brief acknowledgement at the film’s close, there was a disappointing lack of curiosity about this: we only found out that he was married when he mentioned his wife’s concussion after a V1 missile attack. Getting inside the minds of pioneers is a fascinating pursuit, and this felt like a missed opportunity. No matter. His achievements were remarkable; this was a man who, while not quite changing the course of history, certainly gave it a gentle nudge in the right direction. A life very well lived.


World War Two

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