|With no specific anniversary in
mind, the comedy drama Stalag Luft debuted in
October 1993. While wartime comedy has often come in for
criticism because of the part in plays in the memories of
those who lived through it and fought in it, most have
come out unscathed and have even become popular as time
went on; 'Allo, 'Allo is an obvious
case in point. In the case of Stalag Luft it had no such
luxury of time or repeats and has largely been forgotten
despite having a well-known writer and popular actors
playing the leads, whereas the film it could most be
compared to, The Great Escape, has had
countless reruns and plaudits. Now is the time to revisit
an underrated piece of television drama.
A lone Spitfire overflies the camp as the Kommandant gazes out the window. The plane lands, but it turns out to be a glider built by some of the prisoners in the camp. Wing Commander Forrester continues his usual walk around the camp, keeping morale up, until he passes 'Chump' Cosgrove coming the other way and, taking him by surprise, punches him in the stomach. As Chump writhes on the floor, asking why he did it, Forrester admonishes him German, man, always in German! How else do you expect to escape?
It's the eve of their escape. Chump and Forrester make their escape wearing German army uniforms through a tunnel which has its entrance hidden inside one of the toilet stalls. They come out the other side, but are spotted and recaptured. When they both get out of solitary confinement, Forrester of course has another plan; this time instead of just trying to get a couple of them out he plans to take all 327 prisoners! His thinking is that all the able-bodied Germans are at the front and the guards are only the weak and feeble left behind; if they put them under real pressure with a mass escape, they'll snap and it'll work. There is one snag; 'Shorty' reminds Forrester that Hopkins has two broken legs, so will have to be left behind. That doesn't bother Forrester unduly, but dismays Chump. However 'Prof' says 'Haggis' Barrington has taken Hopkins under his wing, so will probably stay with him, but as New Zealander 'Owly' Morrison point out only if Polish airman Stefan Godborni stays too as Haggis and Stefan are in love. Forester is dismayed at this admission of homosexuality in the camp; he didn't think they'd sunk to those depths. However, he's quite happy to leave the three of them behind - better that than let that sort of thing get back to Blighty! They get the warning signal that the guard is coming, but only confuse him when he finds them playing cards and Shorty remarks and one for his knob as part of the game; the guard thinks it may be a code and this report confuses the Kommandant too!
Continuing to discuss the plan, Forrester decides that he will be known as 'Big F' and will be in charge. Both of these irritate Chump, who tries to get some democracy, but no one puts themselves forward instead; Chump and Big F have the record of 23 escapes and 23 recaptures, hence Chump's lack of faith in Big F. The plan is this; Big F proposes five tunnels - Tom, Dick, Harry, Julian and Gladys; Julian is the name of his 15-year old son, who's a fine boy considering. He asks the Jewish airman 'Izzy' how long to make 327 German uniforms or German civvy clothes; four months is the reply, he wants them in two and they compromise on three - I can't do it in less. So the date is set - three months from now or the next moonless night after that is the date of the great escape.
They start to dig the tunnels and all goes well until 'Einstein' realises that there's underground water in the path of one of the tunnels. Meanwhile, the Kommandant has Big F in his office; he's sure something's going on because there hasn't been an escape attempt for over a month, everyone's been on their best behaviour and there hasn't even been a complaint about the soup. Big F says he should take it as a compliment, but the man knows - they must be putting their energies into something else.
The escape committee's main problem is disposing of the earth from the tunnels; Shorty suggests to Big F that they use one of the tunnels to hide the earth they've dug out of the other tunnels, which Big F agrees is a great idea, not being as bright as he thinks he is. Prof witheringly observes no tunnel can take more earth than we dug out of it, so we'd end up with five tunnels full of earth and we might as well not have bothered to dig in the first place. Congratulations Shorty on fatuousness beyond the call of duty! Big F is forced to concur or look as stupid as he actually is!
The Kommandant is now desperate to find out what is going on, but Big F denies that they are planning anything, and even if they were, he wouldn't tell him; they'll have to find out for themselves - if indeed anything is happening. The German admits he has no chance; his men are old and stupid; the best men, the young men went to the front, to Rommel, to the Luffwaffe and the panzer divisions. He has no chance. But you're not stupid,Big F reminds him. No, but I am old, admits the Kommandant, help us. Big F replies I'm embarrassed by your defeatism and the officer agrees; Me too, but I am weary. It is here that the first seeds of doubt as to who the real prisoners of Stalag Luft are are sown.
Chump tells Einstein he's wanted at the committee meeting. It's to explain why Big F nearly fell over him coming out from under one of the huts when he was being taken to see the Kommandant. That evening Einstein explains that he has found the source of the water, an old well the Germans have built a hut on top of. Prof immediately sees what he's getting at, but Big F yet again has to have someone spell it out for him. Einstein explains that the discarded earth can be stored down there, solving their problems - and saving his asparagus from the sandy soil they're dumping in the vegetable patch!
The Kommandant again has Big F in his office to try and find out what is happening, plying him with schnapps and allowing him to call him Henrich; Forrester allows him to call him 'Big F'. Henrich now drops his bombshell; if the British are going to escape, he and his men want to go with them!
Big F thinks the whole suggestion is preposterous, and expects the committee to back him on that, but all of them in fact agree with the Germans. Owly can see it would make their escape easier, Prof can see that it makes sense for them to suggest it bearing in mind what fate would await them when all their prisoners have escaped, Izzy's pleased as they all have German uniforms he wouldn't have to make, Shorty's pleased as he wouldn't have forge documents for them and Chump also thinks it's logical; funnily enough, Big F, we touched on logic at Pudsey Grammar he says in a full-on rebuttal of Big F's scorn for the public school earlier. Big F still refuses to go along with this, but Izzy points out that it's five to one. You can't have democracy in wartime! Big F cries out to which Chump replies so what the hell are we fighting for?. The Wing Commander has no answer to that!
Big F informs the Kommandant that it's been agreed - against his better judgement - they can come and the German tells him they can be ready by Tuesday. Big F is livid when the Kommandant triumphantly gets him to admit in reply that the tunnels won't be ready for three weeks. Has it all been a put-up job to get him to reveal all? No, it hasn't; he still hasn't told them where the tunnels are and the Germans are too stupid to find them. Anyway, they don't need them now; if everybody's going then they can all walk out the front gate! Big F is aghast; this is a classy operation - his operation - and if there's one thing they're going to do they are going to escape 'properly'.
At the next meeting, and after a clash once more between Chump and Big F over democracy in action - if Hitler's a dictator, what are you (Forrester)? - they vote to abandon Tom, Dick and Harry and concentrate their efforts on Julian and Gladys which are further advanced. The tunnels progress, though there are hiccups on other aspects of the escape; some of Izzy's suits don't fit and some of the forged documents Owly's helped Shorty with have spelling errors on them. However, eventually Chump manages to break through outside the compound and the news is whispered around the camp - Julian has broken through, Julian has broken through! The whispered news is even conveyed to the German soldiers in the same way and and eventually reaches the Kommandant by his secretary!
Big F announces they'll go on the 23rd or 24th of the month, whichever proves to be the moonless night in a couple of weeks time. Chump wants to go now, but Big F says it's all a matter of style. You get engaged on long summer evenings, just as the western sky's flushed with the first tinge of pink he waxes poetically then continues bitterly, you get divorced on dank, dark Thursdays when even the gun metal sky's weeping before gathering his thoughts to conclude and you escape from prison camps on dark, still, moonless nights.
When it comes to the time, the German radio forecast Big F and Henrich listen to indicates that the 24th would be the better night, but Chump informs him that Einstein thinks the reverse will be true; will Big F go with the might of the German war machine or the son of an English lord who's not too bright? Inevitably he decides to go with Einstein as does Chump, but for differing reasons; Big F because Einstein's from a top drawer English family, Chump because he's a comrade-in-arms he can trust. The 23rd it is - and this is broadcast around the camp in the same way as Julian has broken through; even Henrich's parrot tells him we go tomorrow night(one of the few bits of English it speaks!)
Einstein is right; the weather is just as they wanted. Chump still doesn't trust the Germans and tells Big F in private that he wants them to go through the tunnels first; after all, there may be men waiting to pick them up as they emerge. Big F is indignant at the suggestion; he has a gentleman's agreement with Henrich. However, Chump convinces him by telling him it's their escape, their tunnels, they should be running the escape and calling the shots - unless Big F's honour is more important to him than the escape succeeding. Big F is forced to accede from this point of view and when Chump announces that the Germans will escape first to the massed men, Big F has to explain to the affronted Henrich that it's only fair if they humiliate them a little, even as they fulfil their moral duty of seeing their guests on the escape get away free. Henrich agrees that he would probably do the same in Big F's position and goes down the tunnels first, followed by his men.
When the Germans have all gone through, Big F is about to lead his men to freedom when Prof enters with Einstein, who's had another idea - and is as much a bombshell to Big F as Henrich's; It's awfully peaceful without the Germans - why don't we just stay?
Big F can't believe he's suggesting this; Einstein's parents would turn in their graves - if they were dead. Once again, everybody else on the committee agrees with the idea; Prof points out that it does have the singular advantage that none of them will get picked up and shot, and Shorty agrees that not getting killed is a good idea. Big F tries to persuade them to escape, as it's a prisoner's duty to escape, but as Shorty points out they're not technically prisoners any more as there are no longer any guards. Big F appeals to Chump to back him up, but he agrees with Prof's assertions plus the Allies are already making advances and even if they do get back home, their wives may not be waiting for them; he admits this bitterly. No, he agrees with the others.
The Germans are getting nervous why have the British not followed them? Henrich decides to go back down Julian to see what is going on, and it is up to Big F and Chump to go down the two tunnels and cause roof falls to block them off. The Germans try to get back in by rushing the gates, but there are more English than Germans and they are unable to break them down. Big F comes to talk to Henrich, who is disappointed; he trusted him as an English gentleman. Beware of racial stereotypes Big F advises and the crestfallen German agrees. However, Henrich warns the British officer that their fortunes are linked; if they manage to convince everyone that things at the camp are normal, then the real Germans will not be missed and will get away to neutral countries. However, if they cannot carry off the illusion, the chances are the Germans will become hunted men. There is mutual respect between the two commanders and Big F goes so far as to allow Henrich to call him just 'F', as well as to give him an open invitation to call on him when the war ends at his home in England; 33, Bagshott Road, Weybridge! The Germans melt away into the darkness.
Now of course the British need to organise the pretence of German soldiers in the camp for when laundry or supply vans arrive or inspections by district officers. Big F does a count to see who of those equipped with one of Izzy's German uniforms can speak German, but of the 17 who profess to speak it when asked in English only 4 are able to raise their hands when asked in German! Checking to see how many others without uniforms can speak German yields another 9 as well as Big F himself, who immediately elects himself as Kommandant. He also elects Chump as the leader of the prisoners, who immediately decides to get some escape plans going - just for show!
Next morning, the first supply truck arrives while Big F gets kitted out with Izzy's latest creation; his Kommandant's uniform. Einstein, as one of those who speaks fluent German, has another good idea and tells the driver they are all new at the camp and the staff rotation idea belongs to the Fuerher's. Big F goes to intercept the driver at the cookhouse as no one there speaks German and informs him that the Fuehrer no longer wants the English swinehund to eat rotten potatoes and next time he will bring proper potatoes, a variety of root vegetables and some greens! The driver is amazed - why? Big F goes on to explain that he wants the prisoners to look well nourished when the victorious Allied troops arrive. The driver's incredulous when this new Kommandant tells him Didn't you know? We're going to lose this war!
Shorty is put in charge of teaching more of the prisoners German; the only snag is his language lessons include teaching them some Welsh placenames at the same time! Some of the British prisoners are getting a bit bolshi on the parade ground during roll call. Barrington is the main culprit, refusing to say 'here' for Donaldson. One of the other officers, understanding the need to keep up the charade, says so when roll-called and gets a rocket from the irritated Donaldson. Big F appears and says he'll turn them both into Germans, but after Yah Vol, Mein naffing Fureher from Barrington he decides against it and just co-opts the other poor officer instead, much to his dismay and it is becoming apparent the Big F is definitely getting into his role as Kommandant and is starting to throw his weight about. It also becomes apparent that they as German guards cannot be bribed with chocolate like the real ones, and also that they are getting different food - steak and caviar no less! Chump starts to have second thoughts about playing along with the plan, especially when he is chatting to Einstein and Barton, one of the guards, comes along and gives him a bloody lip for not jumping to when he says so. He tells him Big F wants to see him in his office. As he marches off, Einstein and Chump decide that he wasn't just acting the part, he - like Big F - was enjoying his power.
Chump goes to see Big F as 'requested' and complains about Barton, but his real complaint is about the difference in food. Big F explains that he has inherited various black market perks that it would be difficult to refuse without arousing suspicions; fair enough, but a shame as most of the men don't like caviar. Chump thumps him in the stomach and Big F complains about the treatment in English until Chump evens the score; German, German, always in German! Big F is forced to accept the test, but is unable to refer any further to it as he gets a phone call from Oberst von Steffenberg of the SS, who knew Stubenhalle's (Henrich) brother. Big F almost gets caught here, as he doesn't realise the brother has been dead for 18 months. Thinking quickly he replies lamely, Oh, that brother! and is able to get through the rest of the phone call, which has von Steffenberg advising him that he will be making an inspection of the camp tomorrow. At the end of the phone call, Chump thumps him again, but this time Big F gets it right!
Taking everything into consideration, Big F has a staffing problem. A lot of the 'Germans' don't speak it or understand it terribly well. In fact out of 112 supposed Germans, only 21 can be relied upon to be able to speak it without dropping them all right in it. Even taking into account shift workers and men off camp 'on leave', it still leaves him with 55 who can't speak it! Owly suggests an outbreak of laryngitis, an idea that Big F is immediately scornful of, but as Chump asks have you got anything better? He hasn't so laryngitis it is and God help them tomorrow morning
When von Steffenberg makes the inspection, everything goes well until roll call when Barrington is insolent to the German. He asks how many are currently in the cooler, and when he hears from Big F there are none because they have excellent discipline, he calls one of the German speakers over to take the Scot to the cooler. However, he asks rather than forces him away and Big F is forced to motion him to kick Barrington in the 'Crown Jewels' and verbally insult him to avoid von Steffenberg's suspicions. Continuing along the line, he comes to the Polish airman Stefan, who tells him in Polish what von Steffenburg can go and do. Unfortunately, he understands Polish, and Stefan is coshed by the sadistic Barton before being taken to the cooler; Barton is praised by the officer, though Big F excuses him because of the laryngitis. He uses the same excuse for two other soldiers and von Steffenburg replies there is quite an epidemic, but doesn't seem to have twigged and they can all breathe again. He asks if Big F's men are all stupid and Big F replies yes; after all, the best went to the SS like von Steffenberg himself. The officer agrees, sympathising it must be difficult for the Kommandant. He asks another soldier how he is enjoying life in the camp and Shorty is pleased with his student as he acquits himself well in German. Of course, since he's comparing the place to parts of Wales, it's not surprising von Steffenberg thinks he's met another stupid guard He gets madder in the cookhouse, as he finds the soup far too tasty for prisoners; it should be thin, sour and disgusting! When he visits the cooler, now containing Stefan and Barrington, he is not happy when Haggis compares life in the cooler to being in Glasgow, which Big F translates as a joke. There should be nothing to joke about in the cooler! Taking Big F back to his office he informs him that he now knows why no one has escaped from the camp; Big F thinks they have been rumbled, but not so. It is because he is running to lenient a camp. He is not pleased and will return without warning. At that time von Steffenberg wants to see demoralised men, foul soup, empty bellies and a full cooler otherwise Big F will probably see either a firing squad or the Eastern Front.
article copyright PPS / M.Hearn 2005