Piece of Cake (TV series)

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Piece of Cake is a six-part 1988 television series, depicting the life of a Royal Air Force fighter squadron from the day of the British entry into World War II through to one of the toughest days in the Battle of Britain (7 September 1940). The series was produced by Holmes Associates for London Weekend Television and had a budget of 5 million pounds.[1][2]

The series is based on the 1983 novel Piece of Cake, by Derek Robinson. In the book, the squadron is equipped with Hurricanes. The relative rarity of airworthy Hurricanes in the late 1980s precluded their use in the television series.

The squadron depicted is the fictional Hornet Squadron, which is equipped with Supermarine Spitfire fighters,[3] and deployed to France, where it waits out the Phoney War in comfort and elegance, until the German attack on Western Europe in May 1940. One by one, nearly all of the original pilots are killed and as losses mount, the character of the squadron changes from a casual nonchalance to a fight for survival. By the end of the series, only four of the original fourteen officers have survived.

Some of the major themes explored in the script include: the snobbery and class-consciousness that existed in the RAF during the era; the belief cherished by many of the pilots that the war would be fought as a sporting gentleman's contest; the inflexibility and ineffectiveness of the tactics used by RAF Fighter Command in early 1940 and the poor gunnery skills and inadequate training of many of the British pilots. Like Robinson's original novel, the story spans the first year of the war, from September 1939 to the German Luftwaffe's first massed aerial assault on London on 7 September 1940.

Main cast[edit]

Crew[edit]

Plot[edit]

The series begins in September 1939 on the day that the Second World War is declared. Squadron-Leader Ramsey is working furiously to whip Hornet Squadron into shape. Having just landed after a practice flight, Ramsey accidentally taxis his Spitfire into a slit-trench and his angry impatience causes him to fall from the aircraft and fatally fracture his neck. His temporary replacement is Australian pilot Fanny Barton who is un-certain about his capabilities for such a role. (In the book, Farton is from New Zealand.) A tragic mistake is made when Barton leads a patrol to intercept what they are led to believe is a German attack and he shoots down a bomber which is later identified to be a British Blenheim, killing the pilot in the process. New Squadron Leader Rex arrives and Barton is sent away to face a court of enquiry. Rex is immediately popular as he provides his pilots with many luxuries whilst demanding strict discipline and adherence to textbook tactics in return.
Hornet squadron is despatched to France to await a possible German invasion. Billeted in a luxury manor, the pilots live well although one pilot, Moggy Cattermole, shows himself to be a vicious bully, singling out vulnerable characters Pip Patterson and Dicky Starr in particular. In a dangerous stunt, Moggy flies his Spitfire under a low bridge, goading Patterson and Starr to do the same. Starr is killed whilst attempting to do so and Moggy shows not the slightest remorse. A new pilot arrives, an American named Chris Hart who has fought in the Spanish Civil War and is un-impressed with the gentlemanly tactics favoured by Rex. Two of the pilots, Fitz and 'Flash' Gordon start romances with two local school-teachers, a young French woman named Nicole and an expat Englishwoman named Mary. Barton returns to the squadron. Other pilots include 'Moke' Miller, Irishman 'Flip' Moran, 'Mother' Cox and cheeky 'Sticky' Stickwell.
As the 'Phoney War' draws to a close, Hornet Squadron begin to see more action. Hart is un-impressed by the tactics and skills of his fellow pilots when it takes six of them to destroy a single crippled German bomber. In its first encounter with German fighters, one pilot, Miller, is killed and three Spitfires lost without any successes to show for it. In another sortie, Cox is badly wounded and a rookie pilot flying at the rear of the tight and neat formation that Rex demands is picked off by a German fighter without anyone else in Hornet squadron even noticing.
It is now May 1940 and the German Blitzkrieg has begun with the invasion of France and Belgium. The squadron celebrates a double wedding as Fitz and Gordon marry their respective partners. The happy reception is brutally interrupted by a German air-raid that causes considerable damage. Rex is badly wounded by shrapnel but conceals his injuries from the other pilots but the painkillers he takes render him euphoric and overconfident. Recklessly ordering his men to attack a much larger German formation, Rex dives down to his death whilst Barton orders the others not to follow.
Now squadron leader, Barton leads what remains of the squadron against the overwhelming German invaders. Sticky is killed and Patterson is nearly undone by fear and abandons his still-intact aircraft by parachute. Gordon's wife Nicole is killed by German air-attack whilst fleeing as a refugee but Fitz's wife Mary reaches England. The surviving pilots are likewise evacuated.
August 1940-Hornet squadron is reinforced in readiness to take part in the Battle of Britain. Gordon has been rendered eccentric and mentally unstable by grief. Amongst the new pilots are a Czech pilot named 'Haddy' Haducek, a Pole named 'Zab' Zabarnowski and a nervous Englishman Steele-Stebbing who Moggy chooses as his next victim for bullying. Hornet squadron are soon in the thick of the action as the German air-force repeatedly attack South-East Britain. To his horror, Steel-Stebbing is ordered by Moggy to destroy an un-armed German rescue plane. Flip Moran is killed, horribly burning to death and there is an awkward moment when his family arrive at the aerodrome and request to view the body. The squadron's generally poor standard of marksmanship soon becomes apparent and Intelligence Officer Skelton is sceptical about the numbers of enemy planes that the squadron is claiming to shoot down. Skelton is appalled when Moggy refuses to show any remorse when a Spitfire he has bailed out of crashes into a town, killing four civilians.
Fitz is killed in action and, in her grief, his pregnant widow Mary begins lurking around the edge of the aerodrome which the other pilots find disturbing. Zabarnowski is soon killed, followed by Gordon whose death upsets the surviving veterans in particular. On 7 September, the German air-force stages a massive raid on London and every available RAF fighter squadron is flown into action, leading to the biggest battle of the campaign. Hornet squadron has only five Spitfires left intact and Barton, Patterson, Moggy, Haddy and Hart fly into battle. They inflict heavy damage on the enemy but suffer in return. Haddy is the first to be killed. Hart pursues a crippled German fighter but decides to spare it, only to be shotdown by another from behind. Hart's parachute catches fire and he plummets to his death. Moggy shoots down three German planes, getting the third right over his own aerodrome but is surprised and killed from behind by another. Barton and Patterson are the only two survivors. A postscript describes how the battle on 7 September marked a turning-point in the Battle of Britain and the German campaign soon ended in defeat.

Differences to original novel[edit]

The TV series was generally faithful to the original 1983 novel by Derek Robinson. And for practical reasons, the series was obliged to change or combine certain incidents and characters. Some of the differences in the original novel include:

  • As already mentioned above, Hornet Squadron is equipped with Hawker Hurricane Mk. 1s instead of Spitfires.
  • Fanny Barton is a New Zealander rather than an Australian.
  • American Chris Hart is known as CH3, after his initials Christopher Hart the Third.
  • It is 'Mother' Cox rather than Hart who narrowly avoids death when his early model Hurricane loses its wooden propeller in flight.
  • 'Sticky' Stickwell has a prior history of mental illness and before the Blitzkrieg he is transferred from Hornet Squadron by order of Squadron Leader Rex for attacking enemy territory without orders. He later transfers to another squadron that flies two-seater Defiants and he is killed during the Battle of Britain.
  • The marriages of Fitz and Gordon to their respective wives take place separately and prior to the German invasion.
  • The injuries that Squadron Leader Rex sustains are due to an anti-aircraft shell exploding close outside his cockpit.
  • Marriott, the engineering officer, survives.
  • Nicole loses her life whilst fleeing as a refugee but due to an accident when the motorcyclist she has gotten a lift with crashes.
  • Cattermole orders 'Nim' Renouf rather than Steele-Stebbing to shoot down the German rescue plane over the Channel.
  • 'Mother' Cox escapes injury and is still flying with Hornet Squadron on 7 September. During the action he bales out and is last mentioned drifting by parachute towards dry land.
  • 'Pip' Patterson does not bale out of his aircraft when under attack, before a single shot has been fired.
  • Newcomer to Hornet Squadron Pilot Officer Steele-Stebbing is harassed and picked on by Moggy Cattermole until the former retaliates with a practical joke. The two appear to be forming an unlikely friendship until the battle on 7 September when Steele-Stebbing is killed.
  • Czech pilot 'Haddy' Haducek is shot down and killed a few days prior to 7 September.
  • Moggy Cattermole is killed during the climactic battle on 7 September but he is first mistakenly attacked and damaged by a Spitfire and then finished off by German Me-109s.
  • Air-Commodore Bletchley is supposedly killed in an air-raid during the Battle of Britain. However, he manages to reappear in two sequels.
  • At the end of the novel, Christopher Hart is still alive and he and Squadron Leader Barton are continuing to attack the massed formation of German bombers.

Releases[edit]

The series (in its complete original format of six episodes) was released on Region-1 DVD through BFS Entertainment in a 3-disc set in 2000[4] and has recently been re-issued in a new edition (also via BFS and in Region-1) in March 2011.[5]

When the series was screened on Network Seven in Australia in 1990, the original run-time of over 5 hours was shortened to less than 4 hrs so it could be shown in two 2hr episodes (plus commercials). In order to condense the series, a considerable amount of footage was cut, mostly from scenes on the ground including some entire scenes such as when Chris Hart invites one of the ground-crew LAC Todd to play squash and the press conference held on Hornet Squadron's airfield in France.

Trivia[edit]

  • Hornet Squadron also featured in several of Robinson's books about the war in the air in World War I.
  • Hornet Squadron was equipped with Spitfires, but in reality, only Hawker Hurricane-equipped fighter squadrons were deployed to France in 1939-1940 (Spitfires were retained in Britain). Other Aircraft deployed by the RAF in France as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force were Bristol Blenheims and Fairey Battles (both light bombers).
  • The flag of Hornet Squadron was shown a couple of times during the series. The central emblem of the squadron was a hornet. The motto beneath the emblem reads BEWARE OUR STING.
  • There were various marks (types) of Spitfires used in the series: three Mk.IXs, a Pr.XI and a Mk.Ia. At the time that the series was set (1939–40), the RAF only had the Mark I and Mark IA Spitfire in service.
  • Six mock-up Spitfires were built as static props. Some were purposely destroyed for the air-raid sequences.[6]
  • Veteran Pilot Ray Hanna (1928-2005) performed the stunt where the Spitfire flies under the low bridge.[6] The scene was filmed at a bridge at Winston near Barnard Castle. Hanna, a New Zealand born former RAF pilot and Red Arrows member, was 59-years-old when he performed the stunt.
  • RAF squadrons are primarily designated by numbers, although some are named.
  • The series used footage from the 1969 motion picture 'Battle of Britain' for many of the dogfight scenes.
  • Air-to-air filming of the aerial sequences was done by a vintage B-25 Mitchell and an Augusta 109 helicopter, both of which served as camera ships for the shoot.[6]
  • For actor Tim Woodward, who played Squadron Leader Rex, this was the second TV series in which he played the role of a fighter pilot. The first was Wings 1977-78, in which he starred as young World War One pilot Alan Farmer.
  • Actor Nathaniel Parker, who played pilot 'Flash' Gordon in the series, lost two uncles in World War Two, both of them real-life RAF fighter pilots. After he got the role, Parker's father Peter presented him with a white flying scarf that his uncle Alan had worn whilst serving as a Spitfire pilot during the war.[7]
  • The production made use of three vintage Messerschmitt BF 109Es which were actually Hispano Ha 1112 Buchons, a Merlin-powered version of the Me 109 that was used by the Spanish Air-Force up until the late 1960s. These aircraft later appeared in the motion-picture Memphis Belle in 1990 and later in 2001 in the Battle of Britain sequence in Pearl Harbor. In addition, a Heinkel He-111 was also used, again a Merlin-engined version once used by Spain. In addition to the aerial scenes, the Heinkel was partially dismantled for the filming of the scene where Hornet Squadron visit the crash site of their very first 'kill'. The Heinkel, serial no G-AWHB, was flown to the UK from Spain in 1968 to be used in the filming of the movie Battle of Britain and later appeared in the film Patton.[8]
  • For the scene where Cattermole and Steele-Stebbing destroy the German Rescue plane, a vintage Junkers Ju-52 (registered CASA-353L) was used.[6] In the original novel, the aircraft is a Heinkel He 59.
  • Some of the exterior filming was completed at the old airfield at South Cerney in Wiltshire UK which, in 1988, still featured several period hangars and a control-tower.[1]
  • For the French base at "Le Touquet", the producers filmed at Cambridge Airport.[6]
  • In an interview in 2010, Derek Robinson, author of the original novel Piece of Cake remarked that when the novel was first published in 1983, the first edition sold poorly in the UK (although it did well in the US). He credits the 1988 LWT production with greatly reviving interest in the novel.[1]

References[edit]

External links[edit]