Dancing out of Colditz

The latest Second World War drama from ITV1 may be inaccurate and inappropriately romantic, but audiences love a clear-cut tale of good and evil, the series' producers tell James Rampton

The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Colditz falls on the 16th of next month. And yet the passing of the decades has done nothing to diminish the strength of feelings that the notorious German POW camp arouses. Witness the storm that broke last week over the accuracy of ITV1's new £6m drama about life in the infamous prison. Having watched the film, war veterans who had been locked up in Colditz - also known as Oflag 4C - accused it of being riddled with inaccuracies.

The 60th anniversary of the liberation of Colditz falls on the 16th of next month. And yet the passing of the decades has done nothing to diminish the strength of feelings that the notorious German POW camp arouses. Witness the storm that broke last week over the accuracy of ITV1's new £6m drama about life in the infamous prison. Having watched the film, war veterans who had been locked up in Colditz - also known as Oflag 4C - accused it of being riddled with inaccuracies.

Ken Lockwood, 93, one of the 35 surviving British and Commonwealth former inmates of the Gothic castle on the Polish border, criticised scenes such as the mock execution of three Allied prisoners. Lockwood, a Territorial Army captain who was incarcerated in Colditz for four years after being taken prisoner in Belgium, called the drama "risible, a disgraceful insult and a travesty of the truth". He also complained that the inmates in the drama look too well nourished and too smart and that the barracks look too commodious.

As you might expect, the makers of Colditz do not see the film in the same light. They contend that the drama, which was inspired by Henry Chancellor's book, Colditz, should not be viewed as a strict documentary account of what took place in the POW camp. It is first and foremost, they maintain, an ITV1 drama.

"It's inevitable that some veterans will be upset," says Stephen Smallwood, the producer, "but it's important to understand that this is a piece of fiction, constructed around known fact. The escape stories, for instance, ring very true. Veterans who went through great privations at the prison may think we're trivialising their experience and may find holes in our drama, but I hope we've shown respect for the reality of what they endured. The men who were in Colditz deserve the greatest respect."

Rewind to last summer, and I am standing in the courtyard of the Colditz that ITV1 has created in a medieval monastery at Kutna Hora, a pretty Czech town about two hours out of Prague. Although the thermometer is touching 32C, a chill runs down my spine as a quartet of Czech extras dressed as Nazi guards march past me, their Alsatians snarling and barely restrained by their metal leashes. I am stationed at the edge of the main courtyard - a broiling cauldron enclosed by walls five storeys high - in this recreation of the dreaded Nazi prison. The place exudes a sinister, oppressive atmosphere.

Perched on an outcrop and looming on the horizon like Kafka's Castle, Colditz was a formidable jail. Housing Allied POWs who had already tried to escape, it was supposed to be impossible to break out of. On set, two ranks of recently arrived prisoners are lined up to be lectured from a platform in the courtyard by Fritz Werner, the camp's head of security (played by Rudiger Vogler).

The camera zooms in on our two heroes, the unworldly Jack Rose (Tom Hardy from Black Hawk Down), and his straight-down-the-line colleague, Tom Willis (Laurence Fox, The Hole). They have been brought to Colditz after an abortive attempt to break out of another POW camp. Their fellow escapee, a cunning Glaswegian called Nick McGrade (Damian Lewis, Band of Brothers), has managed to evade capture and returned to Blighty. There, McGrade joins MI9, the secret organisation providing assistance for Allied soldiers attempting to break out of German POW camps. He also finds himself falling for Jack's girlfriend, Lizzie, played by Sophia Myles.

Werner barks at the new inmates: "I have no doubt that you will try to escape in the future, but you will not succeed. If you do try, you'll be shot. You'll eventually tire of your efforts. The sooner, the better - for both of us. Any questions?" Willis pipes up: "When I get back to England, would you like a postcard from Buckingham Palace or Trafalgar Square?", to rousing cheers from all the POWs.

It is this defiance that makes Colditz such fertile ground for drama. Swigging from a water bottle between takes, Hardy reckons that it was this overriding sense of duty that distinguished the Allied war effort. "What's the biggest sacrifice we have to make these days? To give up the PlayStation? People complain nowadays because they don't have a bigger telly or the right mobile. But that generation knew the true meaning of the word 'sacrifice'. Colditz is an impeccably moral story. People have died in these uniforms. It's important that this drama pays tribute to what those guys did."

But isn't there a danger that viewers will tire of the apparently inexhaustible run of Second World War TV dramas? In the past 18 months alone, ITV1 has given us POW, Island at War, Uncle Adolf and now Colditz. Jason Priestley, star of Beverly Hills 90210, who plays Rhett, a streetwise Canadian inmate, jokes: "I've got actor friends who say, 'If I have to appear in another Second World War drama, I'm going to have to become a conscientious objector.'"

So why do commissioning editors keep reaching back for inspiration? The producers of Colditz underline that as the combatants themselves grow older, it is important that we don't lose touch with their stories. "For us, the Second World War is endlessly fascinating," says Lewis. "It is unarguably the last war where there was an absolutely clear case of right and wrong. It continues to be a huge source for writers who want to examine the age-old themes of honour, valour, duty and evil. What could be more dramatic?"

It was certainly the last unequivocally just war. Nowadays, conflicts tend to be more murky. Smallwood says: "Television audiences are keen on drama that deals in certainties. That's why they love detective dramas where the protagonist engages in the pursuit of right against wrong. Second World War stories give the same sense of certainty to an audience feeling they're living in an uncertain world. They seek reassurance in TV drama - and this does that."

Priestley maintains that "filmmakers keep returning to the Second World War because its values were very clear-cut. By comparison, the wars in Korea and Vietnam were a mess... My grandfather was in the Canadian Navy protecting the Atlantic convoys. That was a generation of people that stepped up to the plate and said, 'This is what we've got to do. Let's get on with it'. Now people would say, 'War is not my problem'. But they did it without question. They were the greatest generation."

But why has Colditz attained such iconic status? It has already been the subject of a celebrated serial, which ran on BBC1 between 1972 and 1974, as well The Colditz Story, a 1954 movie based on Pat Reid's book and starring archetypal stiff-upper-lip actors John Mills and Eric Portman. "We're attracted to the story of Colditz because it symbolises the British refusal to give in," Smallwood reckons. "We gravitate to these stories at a time when we feel we're not much good at anything any more."

At the same time, Colditz represents the sometimes perverse British love of heroic failure. "We're drawn to Colditz in the same way that we're drawn to Dunkirk," the producer adds. "We celebrate notable failure. Very few Brits got 'home runs' [only 30 made it back to this country]. The French and the Dutch were actually better at escaping - perhaps they had less far to run! Our boys were quite good at getting out of the castle, but then the innate British inability to speak foreign languages soon gave the game away. However, in among those failures, there were one or two beacons of success. We like that. We find the idea of unmitigated success unseemly."

Colditz also holds deep significance for the Germans. "History is vital to us all," declares Werner Daehn, the actor playing the sadistic Nazi guard Ullmann. Perched on a prison bench in a grey Nazi jacket and a Swastika-emblazoned cap, Daehn argues that this drama has an important role to play in reminding us about the unique evil summed up by the uniform he is wearing.

Echoing the Remembrance Day invocation - "lest we forget" - the actor stresses that we ignore the warning from history at our peril. "The older generation in Germany want to forget about the Nazis and move on, but it's crucial that we remember the past. Each generation has to learn it afresh. We should never, never, never forget it. You have to tell each generation what a cataclysmic effect Hitler had right across Europe. Otherwise, they'll think, 'It was all a long time ago, it was nothing to do with me. Let's start it all over again.'"

'Colditz' starts at 9pm on Sunday on ITV1

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