Lissa Evans: how my novel about film-making was turned into a film

My wartime story, Their Finest Hour and a Half, has been adapted for the big screen – seeing actors playing actors and a fake film crew being directed by a real one was surreal

I’ve had two jobs in which periods of boredom were punctuated by frenetic, tension-ridden activity. One was as an A&E doctor, and the other as a TV comedy producer. Clearly, it would be fatuous to compare treating a road accident victim to changing a camera shot so as not to reveal the presence of a giant pork pie (which would otherwise spoil a subsequent gag), but the ludicrous thing is that, when you’re doing it, when you’re there, the stakes seem almost as high. As George Arliss, a 1930s film star, once wrote: “When work begins in the studio, nothing that happens in the outside world is of any relative importance.”

This quote, together with a life-long obsession with the home front, gave me the central idea for my third novel, Their Finest Hour and a Half: what must it have been like to make a film during the blitz? When bombs were dropping outside the studio, did it still take 14 people to decide whether a bowl in the back of a shot should contain apples or oranges? With shrapnel clattering on the roof, did the cutting of an actor’s favourite line still trigger a meeting of Yalta-level importance? The answers are yes and yes.

I started researching. I talked to film industry veterans and dug through boxes of 1940s ephemera in the archives of the British Film Institute. I read telegrams that had pinged to and fro across the Atlantic, in which US distributors asked British film producers for “more oomph, more noise, more action!” I read original scripts peppered with caustic notes from the continuity girl, and I watched film after film, all produced while London was under nightly attack – written, performed and photographed by people desperately short of sleep and uncertain of whether they might still be alive the day after.

It was in the Imperial War Museum that I found what was to be the springboard of my plot: the archive of Sidney Bernstein, special adviser to the Ministry of Information film division. Before the war, he had been head of Granada cinemas, and when he took the ministry job, he shrewdly asked his managers to write to him once a fortnight, letting him know what audiences were saying about current films. He wanted the unvarnished truth, and he got it. Among the letters, I found this, from the manager of the Woolwich Granada:

Watch the official trailer for Their Finest
The film A Call to Arms, about munitions workers, is rather naive in parts. There is one scene where the forewoman is shown as receiving a phone message asking for a million bullets by the morning. She replies that the girls are dead-beat and can’t do any more. The workers, just knocking off after a long shift, overhear this; one shouts ‘Come on girls, it’s got to be done’, and there is a wild rush back to work. This was received by our audience, consisting of a very large portion of arsenal workers, with satirical laughter and a chorus of ‘Oh Yeah’s!

Reading this, I had the sudden idea of a young woman at a job interview, being given the script and asked what she thought of the “female dialogue”. This young woman became Catrin, the central character of my novel – and eight years later, that imaginary interview became the first scene of the film adaptation, with Gemma Arterton frowning at the munition workers’ speeches (“My Arthur’s gorn missing. But I expect I’ll feel better after a nice cup of tea”).

I was present for some of the studio shoot, and the experience of standing in the cavernous F Stage at Pinewood, watching actors playing actors being directed by a fake 1940s crew – in turn being directed by the real Lone Scherfig – was one of the most surreal of my life. There were elements familiar to me, of course: the enormous, inexplicable pauses inherent in filming; the almost palpable tension at the start of each take. The major difference was that, for the first time in my life, I was in front of the camera, in full costume (including corset and wig) in a walk-on role as a makeup artist, so terrified of overacting that I hardly dared to move a muscle of my face. If you go to see Their Finest, do look out for a lipsticked plank in the background of Bill Nighy’s first scene …

• Their Finest is on general release.

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans is published by Black Swan. To order a copy for £6.79 (RRP £7.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Lissa Evans

The GuardianTramp

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