Tag Archives: Iain Glen

Welcome to Windermere

The previously untold story of how hundreds of children came to the UK from concentration camps at the end of the Second World War is dramatised in The Windermere Children, a stark and poignant film commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

In the summer of 1945, following the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, hundreds of orphaned Jewish refugees started new lives in the picturesque surroundings of England’s Lake District.

When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated at the end of the six-year conflict, the survivors included many Jewish children who had been separated from their families and lived through the horrendous conditions they were confronted with.

On August 14, 1945, 300 young people – of a variety of ages and backgrounds – were brought from Prague via RAF aircraft to the Calgarth Estate beside Lake Windermere, where these children would spend four months together. In total, more than 700 young Jewish refugees came to England after the war.

This remarkable story is now the focus of a single drama commissioned by BBC2 in the UK and Germany’s ZDF, which airs today to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

The Windermere Children tells the true story of young Jewish refugees who came to the Lake District at the end of the Second World War

The 90-minute film opens when a coach full of quiet, nervous children arrives at the former factory accommodation that would become their temporary home.

Carrying only a few small possessions and the clothes on their back, they are initially hesitant about what awaits them as they are asked to line up and hand over their belongings – a process echoing their time in the camps. The subsequent sight of their own bedrooms and plentiful baskets of fresh bread is initially overwhelming.

What transpires is a story of hope and survival as a team of counsellors try to help the children come to terms with their horrifying experiences and reclaim their lives. Together, they learn English, ride bikes and play football, while revolutionary art therapy sessions reveal some of their darkest nightmares – an element fully realised by the haunting screams that fill their dormitories each evening.

“I’d heard of The Windermere Children story before but I’d never understood the importance or the audacity of the undertaking or just what a life-changing event this was,” says Patrick Holland, controller of BBC2.

“Taking hundreds of children who had experienced the very worst of humanity is capable of and using the bucolic setting of the Lakes to help restart and reset what life could be felt like a work of fiction. But it was clear this transformative story demanded to be told.

As sports coach Jock Lawrence, Game of Thrones star Iain Glen (right) is among those playing the real-life counsellors

“The Windermere Children explores the ability to start again in the darkest of times. It shows the profound positive impact one group of people had on the lives of others. It celebrates a nation welcoming the most vulnerable and allowing them to thrive.”

Writer Simon Block didn’t know the story, but was approached by producer Wall to Wall with the idea of bringing it to the screen. He says the way into the story became clear after meeting some of the real-life Windermere Children, the majority of whom were boys, and speaking to historians and researchers about what took place over those four months in 1945. Advisors included Trevor Avery and Rose Smith of the Lake District Holocaust Museum and the 45 Aid Society.

‘It was then a question of processing all that information and making sure we had a skeleton of a good story,” Block says. “However much information you have of a story that happened in real life, it still has to have the shape of a drama – but you don’t want to bend the facts to the shape. There was quite a lot of reworking to make sure we were accurate but also telling a compelling story.”

The story is led by powerful performances from young actors Marek Wroblewski (Sam Laskier), Kaceper Šwiętek (Chaim Olmer), Kuba Sprenger (Ike Alterman), Pascal Fischer (Ben Helfgott) and Jakub Jankiewicz (Salek), who all play real survivors who were brought to Windermere.

They are supported by a cast of actors also playing real people. Thomas Kretschmann (The Pianist) is child psychologist Oscar Friedmann, Romola Garai (The Miniaturist) plays art therapist Marie Paneth, Tim McInnery (Strangers) is philanthropist Leonard Montefiore and Iain Glen (Game of Thrones) takes the field as sports coach Jock Lawrence.

Tim McInnery plays philanthropist Leonard Montefiore

Garai, whose father’s family emigrated to the UK from Hungary before the war, describes Paneth as a “really incredible person.” She continues: “She developed art therapy and play therapy and had worked originally with children affected by the Blitz, and that was how she was drawn into the project.

“What the film really describes brilliantly and interestingly is the understanding that people came up against the greatest tragedy of all human history and found themselves maybe not quite prepared for that. They had all these wonderful intentions but the tsunami of suffering was something I don’t think they were ready for.

“People didn’t really know what they were doing except that they understood the human experience had to be more than just survival. It also had to be happiness, and they were trying to generate that feeling in the children again, or at least suggest it could be something they were striving for. It was very moving to me. They were really courageous people who were also slightly struggling in this very difficult situation.”

Glen expresses admiration for the way The Windermere Children, which was filmed in Northern Ireland, captures the horrors of the Holocaust without showing them, with the drama absent of any flashbacks or concentration camp reenactments.

“It was really down to these young actors who managed to do it, and Michael [Samuels, director] was brilliant with them,” he says. “You wanted that suggested history without every depicting it.”

The drama’s young cast pictured alongside the real ‘Windermere Children’ they play on screen and who appear at the end of the programme

Lawrence was a retired PE teacher who offered to help the children when they arrived at Windermere. “Just being outside and being active in the beautiful surroundings was actually really vital to a lot of their recovery,” Glen says. “All the people who received the kids weren’t quite prepared with the level of trauma and how to deal with it. In a simple sense, just getting them out and active was incredibly beneficial.”

Montefiore was behind the project, persuading the British government to allow hundreds of young Jewish concentration camp survivors to come to Britain, with the project supported by donations from the British Jewish community.

“They had no family to go home to. Something had to be done, and Leonard’s the kind of guy who fights and fights until those things happen,” McInnery says of his character. “He manages to raise money and convince politicians. I have huge admiration for these people; I’m hopeless at anything like that, so it’s humbling to play someone like that – who fights so hard on behalf of other people and dedicates their lives to it.

“What everybody managed to do in the space of four months is astonishing really. With these extraordinary people, the lives they [the children] managed to have afterwards are partly down to the people who gave them such help then.”

While the film – coproduced by Warner Bros ITVP Germany and distributed by Fremantle – is moving throughout and at times nightmarish and distressing, it is particularly poignant when the Red Cross delivers news of the fate of the children’s families, with none of it being positive. But it is ultimately a hugely uplifting and hopeful story, not least in the beautifully shot finale when the main characters stand on the bank of Lake Windermere, only to morph into their older, real-life counterparts.

Prague, August 1945: Some of the 300 refugee children headed for the Lake District

“I would be instinctively cautious about doing something like that, but I felt in this situation it was absolutely merited and a way to link the past and the present,” Samuels says. “What we tried to avoid was the sense that ‘everything’s sorted out now’ in four months, which would be ludicrous. But what we’re saying is we can imagine these people have hope and they will take something away from Windermere that didn’t exist beforehand.”

Block notes that it would be too easy to downplay the amount of suffering the children went through. “It didn’t end at Windermere by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds. “We wanted to avoid patness and it wasn’t about trying to rub the audience’s nose in human misery. It’s a much more interesting story about how these children came together and built a platform for the rest of their lives. They weren’t necessarily easy [lives], but they did that and it was important to end the film on an uplifting note.”

Certainly, the survivors and their families who attended a BBC screening of the film were satisfied by what they saw.

Polish-born Arek Hersh, who spent three years in concentration camps and now lives in Leeds, said the show was “very realistic,” adding: “It made me weep a bit, from time to time, and it was a true story of what actually happened.”

Harry Olmer, a fellow Polish survivor who went on to become a dentist in Glasgow, added: “The people who portrayed us were absolutely spot on. We were seen to begin with as semi-savages and yet we were brought back into humanity. We became human beings again.”

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Smart TV: Get the lowdown on Cleverman

A new Australian drama blends Aboriginal history with contemporary culture in a futuristic landscape. DQ meets the team behind Cleverman.

It’s a groundbreaking new genre drama heading to screens in Australia – but just how can one describe Cleverman?

Set in the near future but rooted in Aboriginal history, and using a blend of CGI and traditional make-up and prosthetics, the show sees a group of non-humans (the ‘Hairies’) battling for survival in a world where humans feel increasingly inferior to them – and want to silence, exploit and kill them.

In particular, the story focuses on two Indigenous brothers who are forced together to fight for survival in a land that is also home to otherworldly creatures.

Ryan Griffen
Ryan Griffen

The series is produced by Goalpost Pictures in Australia and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for ABC TV Australia, with SundanceTV and distributor Red Arrow International coproducing. Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, pictured directing on set above) is the lead director, with Leah Purcell also behind the camera.

Cleverman features an all-star ensemble cast, headed by Iain Glen (Game of Thrones), Frances O’Connor (The Missing), Deborah Mailman and Hunter Page-Lochard (both The Sapphires), Rob Collins (The Lion King) and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games).

And it is exactly the uniqueness of the series that drew Glen to the project. “It’s just a very original script, which is where it always begins for an actor,” he says.

“It started with one of those very happy emails you get. It was very intriguing. I read the first two episodes and asked for more information about where the series was headed, and it took no persuasion.”

Goalpost also needed little persuasion to take the project on after receiving a pitch from series creator Ryan Griffen.

It was during an internship with Goalpost that Griffen first suggested a kids’ show called Dreamtime Detectives, which was based on storytelling traditions rooted in Aboriginal mythology and aimed to help children understand different cultures.

But when the project went out to public broadcaster ABC, “they kept asking to age it up, and with Dreamtime stories, a lot of the consequences are death,” Griffen explains. “You can’t put that in kids’ television, so we progressively aged it up until we got to a point where ABC said if we really wanted to push it, this would be the home for it. We jumped for that opportunity straight away.”

In Aboriginal culture, the title of Cleverman often refers to a man of power within a clan who provides the conduit between dreams and the real world.

Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade
Iain Glen as Jarrod Slade

Speaking about the show’s origins, Griffen says: “Early on, it was about creating an indigenous superhero but also looking at the idea of identity and how change in even the smallest form affects everyone. And we’ve kept on building that from when it was something very small to where it is today.”

Goalpost producer Rosemary Blight adds: “It’s just so distinct. It’s 60,000 years of storytelling. Ryan, as an Aboriginal man, comes from this line of stories. There aren’t books that provide the chance to sit and read these stories, so they haven’t really been explored. There are thousands of different dramas but there’s no Cleverman, because of where this story comes from.”

Blight describes the partnership with coproducer Pukeko Pictures as “like a glove; it was a very natural fit.” But what was it about Cleverman that ensured Pukeko, too, wanted to come on board?

Chief creative officer Martin Baynton explains: “Great genre stories are actually adult fairytales, and adult fairytales work because they speak to the heart of today’s moral issues. Science fiction and genre have always done that. They’re the ones that stay with us, that speak to the heart and to everyone in the audience.

“This is about cultural issues we’re facing now – the integration of cultural difference, how we get on as a people, how we go on that journey of bringing others in and not being scared of them. So while it’s a genre piece, it’s absolutely and most amazingly an engaging story of now.”

Glen echoes Baynton’s views: “Fundamentally, the series is about how you live with others in society, which is really pertinent today as we see swathes of people leaving their homelands and trying to belong in other areas of the world. That’s the strongest theme within Cleverman and it’s why it should be very universal. You don’t wish it to be the case but it has a horrible relevancy.”

An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation
An actor undergoes a painstaking make-up transformation

The universal themes contained within Cleverman also resonated with Henrik Pabst, MD of Red Arrow International, who believes the story holds huge international appeal. The series received its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this month and is set to debut down under in mid-2016.

“As a distributor, I think about how I can differentiate,” he says, reflecting the need of broadcasters around the world to offer programming that stands out from the crowd. “I can have the next cop show or I can try to reposition myself and find a niche. Broadcasters tell me they need an audience to come to them, so they can’t have average programming. They need something different – and Cleverman is that. I’m really interested in seeing the results. I’ve got interest from broadcasters I’d never thought of. Commercial broadcasters are looking broader and asking if Cleverman provides something for their audience because the topic is so relevant, and that’s what we love.”

To create the look of the Hairies, Cleverman’s creative team sought out Pukeko’s Oscar-winning sister studio Weta Workshop, which together with production designer Jake Nash brought the creatures to life.

Initially, Nash worked with Griffen, Goalpost and Pukeko to begin exploring what these characters and the world they inhabit looks like. “It’s such a great project and something I connected with strongly,” Nash explains. “As it’s an Aboriginal story and I’m an Aboriginal man myself, it connected personally and culturally in a contemporary world. For Ryan to tell this story, it’s the continuation of our culture, which is so exciting.”

One Cleverman creature in particular, the Namorrodor, described as a flying serpent, also comes from Aboriginal culture, so the team had a starting point from which to build the character. “Ryan came forward with a good brief and there were some original artworks that we used to inspire us, and that was really important,” says Nash, who also took on the role of Cleverman’s Indigenous advisor.

Cleverman-s1-2
Cleverman takes inspiration from Aboriginal stories

“With everything on this project, we started from the bottom and worked our way up. What does this character eat? How does he move? What’s his attack mode? We had this list of questions that we had to answer and that began to shape what our characters looked like, which was a really fun process. You learn so much about the characters.”

Ideas and designs were then sent between the team and Weta’s New Zealand base as the creatures began to take shape. Many of the special effects were achieved on camera, ensuring a balance between CGI and traditional character design.

“The creation of the Hairy family is pretty special – you’ve never seen anything like them,” Nash adds. “They are amazingly unique and I think we’ve done a great job.

“For Australia, Cleverman is a first. It takes us out of realism and into genre TV, and that’s really exciting. It’s a story rooted in Aboriginal culture, it’s genre-based and has
an international and Australian cast. Viewers are going to eat it up – it’s great, it’s the next big thing.”

Of course, HBO’s Game of Thrones is often cited as the benchmark for contemporary genre fiction – and Glen admits the show, in which he plays swashbuckling knight Ser Jorah Mormont, has been a game-changer in the industry.

“It took what was perhaps a tired genre, or one that people were nervous of, and made it the biggest global hit ever,” he says. “It’s blown out of the water any notion that TV is a small-screen affair because there are film budgets for pretty much every episode. Not every drama needs vast amounts of money to make it look good, but Game of Thrones changed what was possible and raised the bar.”

He adds of Cleverman: “When you start trying to describe what Cleverman is, it’s quite hard. But at its roots, it’s a character drama. It’s about families, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. And it’s about their relationships, which are universal and to which people can relate very easily.”

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