‘Bomb sites were the perfect playground’: how John Boorman’s Hope and Glory got the Blitz spirit right

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In his 2003 memoir, director John Boorman recalled the lengths he went to recreate his childhood for Hope and Glory – his autobiographical film about being a young boy in the Blitz .

Boorman’s crew built a 50-acre set across a deserted airfield, on which they reconstructed the street – Rosehill Avenue in Carshalton – and a near-exact replica of the house in which he’d grown up. Boorman even tracked down a book of Forties wallpapers, picking out the design which had once decorated the family home.

Boorman brought his mother and her sisters – whose lives are also depicted in the film – to the set. Looking round, his mother was mostly impressed save one detail. “The wireless was in the other corner,” she pointed out. His Auntie Billy was similarly backhanded in her praise. “It’s almost perfect,” she said. “What a pity you got the wallpaper wrong.”

In the same memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, Boorman concedes that he had in fact “built the memory” of his childhood surroundings. But that’s the spirit of Hope Glory. Not just “Blitz spirit” – that national sense of defiance and determination, which, as the country struggles through coronavirus lockdown, we’re as close to having since the war ended – Hope and Glory is a film about childhood spirit, told from a perspective of absolute innocence that can’t be rattled even by the war.

“The war was a mixture of terror and fun,” Boorman said at a recent screening of the film at the Curzon Soho, held to celebrate his all-new memoir, Conclusions. “The fun part was that because everything was falling apart, nobody bothered with children – you’d just run quite wild.”

Boorman began writing Hope and Glory after his Brazilian noble savage drama The Emerald Forest. He re-imagined his childhood self as Billy (eventually played by Sebastian Rice-Edwards), and drew almost entirely on real events.  It begins with Billy hearing Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war over the wireless.

From there, his father (David Hayman) rushes to sign up, but is lumbered with a clerical job because he’s too old to fight. His mother (Sarah Miles) is left at home with the kids, battling a rebellious teen daughter and a not-to-secret love for her husband’s best friend. 

Billy gets thwacked across the knuckles by abusive teachers (“I was much more terrified of school than I was of the war,” Boorman once said) and along with other kids, rampages through the ruins of bombed houses, collecting shrapnel and live ammunition (this was “the best acquisition of all” according to Boorman – much like Billy’s pals, the real kids would stick the ammunition into a vice and hammer in nails to detonate it).

Meanwhile, his sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) falls in love with a Canadian soldier – and then falls pregnant. Eventually, the family escapes the Blitz to stay with Billy’s grandparents in Shepperton on the Thames.One throwaway moment alludes to his early cinematic inspiration, when Billy and his eccentric, sozzled grandfather see a film crew in the street. “Great strapping fellows playing silly buggers with a war on… outrageous!” barks his grandfather.

Living near Shepperton Studios, the young Boorman really did see film crews. “Every now and again there was a unit doing location shots and I was fascinated by that,” Boorman recently told Radio 4’s The Film Programme. “I grew up, really, watching people make films and it certainly stuck.”

John Boorman directing Sarah Miles in Hope and Glory

Credit: getty

In cinematic terms, Boorman wanted Hope and Glory to put an alternative perspective on the Second World War. “I’d watched so many films of that time and they all struck me as phoney,” he said in 1987. “I wanted to give a different view.” 

He also saw it as a film about class, specifically the creation of the lower middle-class, which had come from the four million semi-detached houses built between the wars, filled with working class families climbing up the ladder and middle class families slipping back down. Boorman called it “class limbo” and confessed to being a “closet semi” himself: as a youngster he wished he been “higher born”; in the Sixties, when working class culture became fashionable, he wished he was “lower born”.

Executive producer Jake Eberts warned Boorman that Hope and Glory would be a “tough sell”. It was a film with the heart, spirit, and resonance of a low-key British picture, but with the vision and scale of, well, the German bombing campaign.

Boorman needed £10 million, not least of all to rebuild Rosehill Avenue. In Adventures of a Suburban Boy, he describes why he couldn’t shoot the film in a real street. Any suburb lined with Thirties semis was adorned with too many modern trinkets: TV aerials, double glazing, metal garage doors. “All that aside, the occupants might not have taken kindly to their houses being bombed and burned,” he said.

Boorman was also intent on recreating the bright, mesmerising spectacle of the Blitz, as seen from a kid’s-eye-view. “At one time it had been suggested that I make the film in black- and-white,” Boorman told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “But I remembered all too clearly the colours of the war, the orange glow which hung over London from fires started during the Blitz. I didn’t want to miss using that.”

Hope and Glory

Credit: alamy

Twentieth Century Fox considered the film but dropped it. Warner Bros said it was too close to upcoming Spielberg drama Empire of the Sun. Channel 4 offered Boorman £350,000, but only to be paid after it was broadcast on TV – two years after theatrical release. Cannon Films – producers of such tawdry fare as Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Masters of the Universe, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – offered him $7.5 million.

That bumped down to $7, $6, and $5.5 millions in the few minutes it took for Boorman to be passed along a chain of dodgy executives. He reworked the script to meet a smaller budget and offered to defer his fee. “We’ll go ahead if you can make it for $5 million,” said Cannon, shaving off another $500,000.

Boorman finally got financing from US video distributor Embassy Home Entertainment (owned by Coca-Cola), which had done big business with The Emerald Forest. Boorman and production designer Tony Pratt began the construction of Rosehill Avenue in Wisley, Surrey at a cost of £750,000. The facades of six pairs of semis houses were built onto scaffolding. Barrage balloons floated above.

And at the end of the mock-up street stood painted cutouts of the city skyline and St Paul’s Cathedral. It brought to life an illusion which had existed in Boorman’s head since he was a child – that Rosehill Avenue stretched all the way into the heart of London. Behind one row of houses they built gardens and allotments; behind the opposite row was a bomb site.

But production came to a halt when a management buyout deal between Embassy and Coca-Cola fell through. Then, just nine hours before Hope and Glory was shut down for good, Coca-Cola agreed to continue funding the film. It saved Boorman a personal sum of £350,000 in winding down costs, and Jake Eberts £650,000 in advance money.

Coca-Cola passed the film to Columbia Pictures, which it also owned, creating a newfound interest from international distributors. “So as it turned out,” Boorman wrote, “this most English of subjects was financed by some 20 distributors around the world, the exception being Britain.”

Hope and Glory

Credit: alamy

Shooting began in August 1986. Boorman described making the film it as “the happiest of times.” It shows: the finished film – which premiered on September 3, 1987 – is utterly lovely in every way. The production (wallpaper designs notwithstanding) is affectionately detailed; the performances comically charming; and its romanticised Englishness undeniably stirring (“Mind the Brussels sprouts,” warns a policeman as he marches a crashed Luftwaffe pilot – played by Charley Boorman – across an allotment).

Beginning with Chamberlin’s war declaration, the historic moment interrupts Billy playing King Arthur and Merlin in the garden with his tin knights. It’s a nod back to Boorman’s bonkers Arthurian epic, Excalibur – and an extension of his love of the mythical quest. Instead of knights charging through enchanted forests, it’s now kids charging through the wreckages of bombed-out buildings. 

“As children during that time we had the most wonderful time,” said Boorman, speaking on Wogan in 1987. “Fireworks displays every night with the bombings and Battle of Britain, and of course bomb sites were the perfect playground for children – who are natural anarchists – to go out there and smash things up.”

Indeed, after Billy is inducted into a gang of local scamps (he has to say some swearwords for initiation – “Bugger off you bloody sod”), their adventuring is a delight, somewhere between Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and the riotous youngsters on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. 

Even the air raids are fun. The kids excitedly charge from the classrooms to bomb shelter like it’s playtime – cheering all the way – then recite their times tables under gas masks. When Billy’s family hide under the stairs during an air raid – because it’s too cold to brave the Anderson shelter in the garden – his sister Dawn delivers the film’s funniest line. “Please God, not on us,” she says about the bombs. “Drop it on Mrs Evans. She’s a cow!”

Hope and Glory

Credit: alamy

When a bomb does fall onto a neighbours house, killing a classmate’s mother, the kids are more excited than upset. “Pauline’s mum got killed!” they shout to each other, before offering poor Pauline some shrapnel as consolation.

“That was something that actually occurred,” Boorman told The Dissolve in 2015. “This girl was very unpopular. Nobody wanted to be her friend, but her mother being killed gave her status. She was suddenly important, and she enjoyed the importance of people coming up and talking to her like they hadn’t done before. In a way, that compensated her for her loss of her mother.”

The film is powerfully emotional too – see a scene when the kids’ mother almost evacuates them to Australia, but can’t bring herself to do it – and occasionally harrowing: the windows are blown out – and the family blown off their feet – when a bomb lands in the back garden. The next day the Blitz spirit is seen in all its glory: Billy’s mother Grace and her sisters are putting the curtains back up and dusting. 

“After an air raid,” Boorman said, “people would feel an exhilaration about being alive, having survived it. There was a determination to live life to the full.” The spirit of the film might be best summed up in a scene in which a barrage balloon escapes its ropes and careens down the street, taking out roof tiles. The families stand out in the street, tickled by the hilarity of it. 

For Billy, the biggest tragedy of the war comes later when their house burns to the ground (which happened to the Rosehill Avenue house in real life, but after the war) and his tin soldiers melt. In truth, Boorman’s most painful wartime memory came when ARP wardens and Home Guard volunteers came into their house and trampled muddy boots into the Christmas decorations that he and his sister had been making.  

There’s a sense that Boorman is most strongly connected with the later scenes, when the family escapes to the placid riverside of Pharaoh’s Island in Shepperton. It’s true that the time he spent there as a child began his obsession with the power of nature, which is seen in many of his other films – from Hell in a Pacific and Deliverance to Excalibur and The Emerald Forest.

After seeing Hope and Glory again recently, for the first time since it was released, Boorman confessed that he was strangely touched by a shot of a postman doing his rounds in a street that’s been obliterated – the formality of Englishness continuing among chaos. “I find that incredibly moving somehow,” he said. 

Hope and Glory was nominated for five Academy Awards and 13 Baftas. Susan Woolridge won a best supporting Bafta for her performance as Molly, best friend to Billy’s mother. 

Boorman’s real mother Ivy – then 84-years-old – was hit by a car during the film’s post-production. “As she lay in the road, she believed her time had come,” said Boorman in Adventures of a Suburban Boy. “But she wanted to see Hope & Glory so she decided to live.” 

Having recovered in time for the premiere, Ivy was as complimentary as she had been about that recreated living room. “I was quite good in it’s way,” she said. “But personally I prefer a good thriller.”

In 2014, Boorman returned to the autobiographical story with Queen and Country, about his time in the army, continuing the story of Billy (now played by Callum Turner) and his family.

But the final moment of Hope and Glory is hard to beat. In the climactic scene, Billy arrives at school to find it’s been completely destroyed by a doodlebug bomb – something which also happened in real life. “Thank you, Adolf!” shouts one of his classmates, absolutely elated by the destruction. For the kids of Hope and Glory, the devastation is nothing but an adventure.

Was John Boorman able to truly capture the Blitz spirit in Hope and Glory? Share your view in the comments below.

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