One Life – the film about Sir Nicholas Winton – opens in cinemas

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One Life – the film about Sir Nicholas Winton – opens in cinemas

Finally the movie about the miracle rescue of 669 Jewish children is here and this is their story

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton with Henrietta Garden as Vera Gissing
Sir Anthony Hopkins as Nicholas Winton with Henrietta Garden as Vera Gissing

It is one of the most powerful scenes ever staged on British television history. It is 1988 and Esther Rantzen asks a selected crowd in the That’s Life! studio, “Can I ask, is there anyone in our audience tonight who owes their life to Nicholas Winton?” There is silence and then the entire  audience stands up.

Nicholas, a quiet, stoic man, who saved 669 children through the Kindertransport scheme, is seen gently wiping away tears from both eyes as he looks from one end of the audience to the other, stunned as they applaud him. Recreating the scene was almost as emotional, says Jewish actress Henrietta Garden, who plays Vera Gissing in the beautifully-told new film of Nicholas’ rescue of the children, called One Life.

While many of the original ‘Kinder’ – or ‘Nicky’s children’ as they called themselves – are no longer with us, everyone in the audience was related
to them. Altogether, there are believed to now be 6,000 descendants of them. Anthony Hopkins, who plays the older Nicholas in One Life, was only told that the descendants would be playing the audience on the day of filming at Pinewood Studios.

Henrietta as Vera Gissing with Hopkins as Sir Nicholas Winton

“I was sitting next to Anthony for the filming and started talking to the people behind us,” recalls Henrietta, whose mother was a friend of the real Vera. “ It was a man and his twin sisters who had flown in from Israel and they started telling Anthony and me this story about their father who had been saved by Winton.

“They described how it was the family of an English pastor who had brought up this boy, knowing all about his Judaism, and even giving him a barmitzvah. Well, we all started crying at that point.Tony was crying, we were all crying, it was almost impossible to film as people to start to tell their stories. We all had to briefly stop the tears when the cameras were on us but as soon as they were off everyone was crying, particularly Tony. You couldn’t not.”

Anthony himself says: “It was like a kick in the chest when all the descendants came in. It was hard to try not to be sentimental – it was very moving.”

Recalling the first of two shows in which Nicholas was introduced to those he had saved – Vera (who is no longer with us) and Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines, Esther says: ‘What I had not planned was that when I introduced them to each other, the moment would be so moving that, for the only time in my professional life, I had to stop, get off my chair, and ask the team to stop recording. I left the set and wiped away my tears.”

The young Sir Nicholas and the children he saved

One Life tells the story of the dramatic rescue in two timelines, starting in 1938 and ending in 1988. In the first, the young Nicholas, played by Johnny Flynn, is a young banker who is asked by friend to see if there is anything he can do to help the growing numbers of mainly Jewish refugees who had appeared in Czechoslovakia.

As a man whose own parents were German Jews – but who had had him baptised – Nicholas felt a particular kinship with these desperate Jews.  The Kindertransport scheme – in which Jewish children were allowed to become refugees in England if they came without their parents – was already running, but had slowed down. Knowing that Hitler was likely to invade Czechoslovakia next, he became determined to help as many people as he could.

The film is based on If It’s Not Impossible…: The Life of Sir Nicholas Winton by Nicholas’ daughter Barbara, who wanted to ensure that the true story of the rescue – and the others who helped it, should be told.

Helena Bonham Carter as Babi Winton, mother of Nicholas

Those include Doreen Warriner (played by Romola Garai), who was trying to get the Jews out of Czechoslovakia, and Trevor Chadwick (Alex Sharp), who gave up his job as a school teacher to negotiate with the Nazis to get young Jewish children out. And then there was Babi, Nicholas’ indomitable German mother, who helped him run the HQ of the organisation from their front room, who is portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter.

Johnny Flynn as the young Nicholas

We see how Nicholas used photographs of each child to ‘advertise’ them to willing British people who would foster them during the war period. Each foster family had to pay £50 for the pleasure – another of Nicholas’ jobs was finding the funding as well as getting the visas.

In the second storyline, Nicholas, as an older man, is spending time emptying out his office when he opens a suitcase and finds a very important scrapbook containing the name of every child rescued by him and his friends. How this becomes national news involves Robert Maxwell – himself a Czech Holocaust survivor – and his wife Elizabeth, who ensured it became a big story.

Barbara Winton, who died last September, before the film was finished, chose Anthony to play her father, and all those who knew Nicholas say the Welsh actor is uncannily like him. Lady Milena, who was on the last train to make it out of Czechoslovakia safely, reveals that when Esther first telephoned her about the story, she thought it was a joke.

Samantha Spyro as wonderful Esther Rantzan

“One day in 1988 the phone rang and this voice says, ‘This is Esther Rantzen,’ so I said ‘And I’m the Queen of England’ because I thought it was someone pulling my leg. And she said, ‘No, I have a list of names here and your name is on it. It is a list compiled by a man called Nicholas Winton who is responsible for getting you on the train and I would like to invite you down to the studio.”

Lady Milena, who helped advise on the film and even had a role as an extra, was one of the luckier of the Kinder as both her parents made it out of Czechoslovakia and the family was reunited. But, for many others, the end of the war meant only that they learned their parents and their families were dead. As teens and young people all alone in the world, they had simply got on with their lives and never really thought about how or by whom they had been saved.

That all changed after the That’s Life! shows. The Kinder began to call themselves ‘Nicky’s children’. Not only had he saved their lives but, for many of them who had lost their own families during the Holocaust, he was the closest thing to a father they experienced.

Sir Nicholas with kindertransport rescue Vera Gissing

Vera, who lived near him and who had lost her family in the Holocaust, became particularly close to him, working as an assistant as word spread about what he had done. He became a hero, not just in the UK but also
in Czechoslovakia, the US and around the world.

“This is a film which shouldn’t just be shown in cinemas but in schools too because it teaches the message of altruism,” says Lady Milena. “It shows that if one man sets his mind to do something, without asking for anything in return, he can do extraordinary things. He can even save lives.”

Rare honour for hero Sir Nicholas Winton

A campaign led by Jewish News after Sir Nicholas died in 2015 ensured the hero was honoured on a special stamp. The campaign attracted more than 100,000 supporters. The campaign was backed by the Chief Rabbi and Sir Eric Pickles. Justin Cohen the newspaper’s news editor (pictured above with Nicholas’ son, Nick), said: “Sir Nicholas shied away from the hero label, but we could thing of no one more deserving of this rare honour.”


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