Documentaries fit for heroes

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The Independent Online
"I can remember the bombing of Dresden as if it were yesterday," says Percival Furnival. "I can't remember a lot since then, because it's all been peacetime, and I don't get asked many questions about peacetime, but Dresden I can remember as if it were yesterday. I only wish people would ask me about it. Yes, I can remember standing out there as the planes took off to bomb Dresden and shouting: `Good luck, lads!' They didn't shout back, of course. They couldn't hear me. Damned noisy, those old bombers. But I remember it as if it were yesterday."

By Percy Furnival's standards it almost was yesterday. Percy Furnival's flying days were in the First World War. By the time the Second World War came, he was too old to go on active flying duty. So as a result it has been a galling five years, this last half-decade, as he has heard veterans of the Second World War endlessly being asked on to news programmes and documentaries to peddle their memories. Galling, because to him they are all mere striplings of 70 or 75 or so. Galling, because we are now moving through the 50th anniversary of the Second World War with never a mention of Percy's own war.

"It's been hell, the last five years," says Percy. "It's not fair! I've got great memories of the Great War, for God's sake, and nobody asks me about it all! And do you know why not? Because it all happened 80 years ago, and for some reason nobody marks 80th anniversaries. Well, let me tell you this. When the centenary of the Great War comes round, there won't be anyone left to come on telly and tell it like it was. They'll phone round for survivors and there won't be any. Because we'll all be dead. We'll all be up in the great interview room in the sky, being debriefed after our mission to Earth."

The old man falls silent for a moment, and smiles at his own joke. Then his smile fades. "Just think about it. AD 2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. To remember that you'll have to be at least 115 years old, minimum. Now, how many 115-year-olds are there around? None that I know of. I'm 95 and there aren't many left of me ..."

This is a problem that documentary-makers have been aware of for some time. Take Philip Prude, for instance. He started work on a documentary film about the bombing of Dresden in 1988 and immediately ran into difficulties.

"I remember The Bombing of Dresden so well," he reminisces. "Every day our brave researchers would set off on Mission Impossible - to find bomber pilots who genuinely had flown off to Dresden and had come back to tell the tale.

"God, they were young, some of those researchers. They didn't know what they were going out to do. Some of them never came back. The job was just too much for them. `Research shock', we call it. It's a condition in which the repetitive strain of trying to find the right target suddenly becomes too much for a young researcher ..."

He smiles ruefully.

"I only wish we had been able to make use of Percy Furnival's outfit then."

Percy Furnival runs an outfit called Old Soldiers Never Die. It is an agency which provides genuine veteran talkers with reminiscences of any war or battle you care to mention, from the Great War onwards. He had the idea while watching a nostalgic programme about the Royal Flying Corps, the First World War equivalent of the RAF.

"The presenter apologised for not providing personal first-hand memories of First World War flying, but he said there were so few flyers still alive. Well, this was rubbish! I was still alive! I could think of at least 10 who were still alive! Why hadn't they got in touch with me? Well, of course this was because they didn't know about me. Then I had this idea of actually organising an agency that would supply survivors of not just the Great War, but any war you care to mention. Do you want first- hand memories of the Russo-Japanese War? We got 'em. Do you want people who were there at the sack of Nanking? We got 'em. They don't speak English, admittedly, but we got 'em."

Percy Furnival is a spokesman for the only major section of the community which by definition is over 80 years old and is shrinking fast: the survivors of historic wars.

"I used to think I was an old nuisance," says Percy. "Now I realise I'm a national treasure. And I'll tell you something interesting. There's more money in being a national treasure than an old nuisance."

Yes, Percy is a man with a message. And the message is this. If you're planning a programme for the centenary of the Great War, get Percy on tape now, while there's still time!