Tuesday, 7 September 2010

War, Walton and interviewing people in their nineties

Hazel Green (above), 93, one of the interviewees for the Walton Memories film


Earlier this year Melvyn Mills, the husband of my mum's best friend's cousin, was elected a local councillor in Walton-on-Thames.

Melvyn had long complained that the Walton Heritage Day, held down by the river every year in September, wasn't very good, or very well publicised. So to shut him up, the organisers put him in charge of it.

Melvyn decided the theme of the Heritage Day this year would be Walton at War, in order to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz.

Because Melvyn lives next door to a TV picture editor called Simon, he decided it would be nice to raise the profile of the Walton Heritage Day by making a short film about the war. Excitingly the "film" is getting its debut (and very possibly only) showing on the double-decker bus which Brooklands Museum sends along to the Heritage Day every year, and which just so happens to be kitted out with a DVD player, brand new flat screen, sound system and window blinds. Wahey.

Melvyn has lived in Walton all his life and knows virtually everyone, so it wasn't long before he had a list of people who had lived in and around Walton during the war. Now all he had to do was get all of them to the same place at around the same time whilst fitting in with his full-time job, my schedule and Simon the TV picture editor-turned-amateur-cameraman's schedule. This summer Simon has been contracted to work for this year's Big Brother on a rotating shift basis, with very little downtime.

Eventually we chose two of Simon's rare rest days, I took two days out of my holiday and Melvyn took a couple of days off. Simon borrowed a £10K HD camera from a friend, I put a suit on, and Melvyn rounded up our interviewee subjects by asking them to put in an appearance at the Walton Day Centre for Retired People on the specified dates.

Melvyn worked very hard. People in their nineties don't do times, they do mornings and afternoons. When you reach a certain age, getting out of the house can be a long and exhausting process. Added to that, nonagenarians don't really care all that much about being on telly, or how nice or polite you are when you want something. 

In short, all our interviewees were absolutely within their rights to treat our whole operation as a rather presumptuous inconvenience.

Eve (below) had actually come along to the day centre to keep another interviewee company. She had to be persuaded to sit in front of the camera and talk to us. Once she did, her story of being bombed by the Luftwaffe whilst working at the Vickers factory in Weybridge was astounding. On 4th September 1940, 85 people were killed in three minutes. Eve told us of the speed of the attack, which happened in broad daylight - there was no air raid siren, just the sudden realisation they were in serious trouble.

She described watching electricity arc-ing across the factory floor, and as the ceiling caved in looking through a hole in the roof to see a German swastika on a plane as it swooped over. Eve told us of her escape, climbing over a body to get out and then being strafed by machine guns from the German planes as she and her friends ran towards the air raid shelters, seeing people around her being shot as they ran. At the time, she was 20 years old.

Other interviewees told us of losing loved ones, being bombed out of their houses, watching doodlebugs being shot out the sky, living in air raid shelters, putting babies to sleep in drawers because there was no furniture left in the house and trying to find a way of struggling through under immense duress. Needless to say, hearing their stories was a very humbling experience.

It was also inspiring to meet people who'd been around for so long and seen so much. It must be strange, carefully negotiating your way around a world which barely acknowledges you, with a lifetime's worth of memories echoing through your head.

The resulting material is being given the reverence it deserves - we have been playing the interviews out on BBC Surrey Breakfast throughout this week, and Simon is working frantically on getting the film together for Saturday. We are also in the process of putting the audio up permanently on the BBC Surrey website and I will be down at the Walton Heritage Day this Saturday (11 Sep 2010) to do some live reporting from the event. Do come down if you live nearby.

I would like to profoundly thank everyone who agreed to be interviewed, and went out of their way to meet up with us.

One thing I did notice over the course of the two days was that the media tradition of asking pre-recorded interview guests to tell us what they had for breakfast became less a technical exercise in getting the right sound level and more a research project into longevity. If you want to make it into your nineties in good nick I would suggest you first of all ensure you are a woman, and then eat fresh fruit every morning.

Although when I asked one of the liveliest 93 year olds I've ever met what she had for breakfast, she said "Two slices of toast and marmalade," before fixing me with a meaningful stare "and TWO cups of tea."

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