‘This story of Nicky Winton’s life matters so much’

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‘This story of Nicky Winton’s life matters so much’

James Hawes, the director of a star-studded biopic of Nicholas Winton’s life, tells Jenni Frazer about what inspired him to tell the great man's story on the big screen.

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

James Hawes has known about Nicholas Winton for almost his entire career.

Hawes, the director of a star-studded biopic of Nicholas Winton’s life, is making his directorial debut with the film, One Life, the story of Winton’s extraordinary rescue of 669 children, mostly Jewish, from 1939 Czechoslovakia. The film will be shown as a gala feature at the London Film Festival in mid-October and then go on general release on January 1 next year.

But Hawes, who began his career in factual television programming, revealed that his “second ever job” at the BBC was “as a trainee researcher on That’s Life”, the groundbreaking consumer TV programme which effectively introduced Nicholas Winton to the British public.

In a now famous episode, presenter Esther Rantzen gathered a studio audience of adults who were among the children saved by Winton and his colleagues. Winton, unaware of what was to happen, was placed on the front row of the audience and was reduced to tears when “his children” stood up and applauded their rescuer. Behind them sat the rescued children’s own families, none of whom would have existed without Winton’s initiative.

James Hawes

Hawes recalled: “I was trained, inspired and put in my place by Dame Esther, with whom I now have a vibrant text relationship, many years later”. He was very aware of the powerful clip, which he had watched many times on social media “with huge affection and emotion”.

When he was first invited to direct One Life, he was sent a script — by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake — and the link to the That’s Life episode. In the months since then Hawes has studied everything he could lay his hands on about Winton, then a young British stockbroker, and what he did in Prague on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Hawes, who has worked in Prague on various TV projects, was undoubtedly helped in this, his first big-screen film, by his stellar cast. Sir Anthony Hopkins’ craggy features look made for the part of the Nicholas Winton that the public came to know in his later years, while Johnny Flynn plays Winton as a young man involved in the daring rescue initiative.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Babette Winton, Nicholas’s mother, who worked with him in a tiny London office, assembling all the massive paperwork associated with bringing the children to Britain.

Other key roles — such as Martin Blake, who first invited Winton out to Prague in January 1939, to assess the situation of refugee children camping out in primitive conditions — or British academic Doreen Warriner, already involved in adult rescue work with the British Refugee Committee of Czechoslovakia, and who asked Winton to form a committee to help the children — are played by Jonathan Pryce and Romola Garai, while Samantha Spiro does a pitch-perfect role as Esther Rantzen.

How different is it working in film from his TV work? Hawes nods. “There is the expectation, and the scope. In your head you are constantly thinking of the details and how that’s going to project onto a much bigger visual. So whether it’s the performance pitch, or the framing of how something will play — there’s quite a lot for a director to recalibrate. But in terms of the running of the production and the directing of the cast, it’s largely the same as high-end TV, because television has become so ambitious these days. I think it’s about detail, and pacing, and scope”.

Hawes is hardly an industry newbie. He’s been associated with some of the most innovative TV productions, such as the multi-Emmy and BAFTA-winning Black Mirror, and Slow Horses, starring Gary Oldman and based on the Mick Herron spy thrillers, whose entire first season he directed.

He thinks cinema is at “a very exciting moment”, working out which is its best direction. For One Life, he says, “it’s the sort of film that people will want to come and see on the big screen, because I think it’s about the collective experience. It’s important now — not just post-pandemic — to remind ourselves of the joy of screening, crying, laughing, in a room with several hundred other human beings”. He describes the Winton film as “a small film with a very big story and a very big heart”.

What struck Hawes about Winton, he says, “is the fact that he lived so painfully, for so many years, with a sense of hurt and guilt [about the children he did not manage to save]”. Winton, he believes, “was of that generation of ‘not talking about it’, whether they were fighting or surviving”.

Famously, of course, Winton and his colleagues organised to bring the Czech children into Britain. And then for the next 50 years, Winton never spoke about the rescue operation. It was only when his wife Grete found meticulous notebooks and albums in the attic, with hundreds of pictures of the children, that Winton talked about it, still modest and deprecating his role.

“It was such an active, on-the-ground operation that Winton inspired and led”, says Hawes. “And he did all sorts of other things — he drove an ambulance in the war, he was involved in the reparations programme after the war, he tried to become a pilot but was turned down because of his eyesight and became a trainer of airmen instead. Quite extraordinary things in one life. That’s not why we called it One Life, but it’s not an unsuitable re-interpretation of the phrase”.

A key part of the film background was Nicholas Winton’s daughter, who died suddenly last September aged just 69. She had written his story, “If It’s Not Impossible” and was, says Hawes, “thrilled” that One Life was being made. He did not meet her himself but spoke to her by phone, and she had met members of the cast. “There was something tragic and very moving about the fact that we were literally in the air, crew and cast, from London to Prague, when she died. We are very much in touch with her husband and children and they have seen the film.”

Hawes is trenchant about attempts to talk down what Nicholas Winton did. Speaking about him as though he were an old friend, he says: “Nicky would be the first person to tell his story as it was, and to diminish his role and probably to underplay what he achieved. The film tells the story of a team of volunteers. The key thing is, that but for Nicky saying that ‘we have to do something about the children’, and initiating that whole project, it wasn’t going to happen. What we show is not a hagiography, but a much more measured account, as a history”.

The director also pays tribute to “the emotional risk” Winton took. “Once he started making promises to those parents, to the community leaders, that he was going to get their kids and keep them safe — that’s an enormous responsibility.”

Nicholas Winton died in 2015, aged 106. He had in fact been born Jewish, though his German Jewish parents converted and he himself was baptised. But did Hawes think that his origins had led to his motivation to rescue Jewish children?

“If you were interviewing Nicky now, he’d say ‘I did it because I consider myself a European, a humanitarian, and the impact my heritage had was to make me aware of what was happening in Europe — and of the risks’”.

For Hawes, “when you make a film that matters as much as this, and when you have a purpose, a belief, and the days turn into 18 hour days, you keep going. Because it’s a privilege to tell stories, and it’s magnificent when you tell a story as important as this one.”

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