You may have read in Fred’s personal history that he himself had the dreadful misfortune to have been involved in one such and so his interest in the show was powerfully personal.
Like so many other chaps who served in World War 2 he never talked about his experiences until right at the end of his life when he knew his illness was terminal; it was then that his story came to light.
All around the Cotswolds lived retired RAF personnel from the war and every night we were priviledged to meet many of them in the bar afterwards. Fred would talk with all of them and us onlookers could see how moved they all were when recounting derring-do from all those years ago. It’s a sobering thought that many aircrew – including the pilot officers – were too young to hold a driving license and that every member of Bomber Command was a volunteer from within the Royal Air Force . . .
In fact this production moved so many people that we presented Flare Path twice more over the years and each time was a repeat of the emotions engendered by this first show. It is generally held that this production marked the turning point for the theatre – it had, so to speak, come of age.
At the Falcon Hotel on the Lincolnshire coast, men from a nearby RAF airbase are planning to spend the weekend with their wives. Patricia Graham, an actress from London, has something to tell her husband Teddy, who is a bomber pilot. The situation is complicated when Peter Kyle, a Hollywood film star, arrives at the hotel, and Teddy is sent out on a night raid over Germany. Patricia is torn between a rekindled old flame and loyalty to the husband who relies on her for support.
Patricia and Peter had a love affair before she met Teddy, but she left because Peter was not free to marry her. Patricia married Teddy after a “whirlwind wartime romance” while he was on a week’s leave. She does not know her husband very well, and she was still in love with Peter when they wed. She reconnected with Peter in London and now plans to tell Teddy she is leaving him, but she is annoyed by Peter’s unexpected arrival at the hotel. Peter tells her that his career is waning as he gets older and that he needs her.
Teddy’s tail gunner Dusty Miller is awaiting his wife Maudie, who is late. Maudie only has a short time off from the laundry where she has had to work since the war began. She was bombed out of their home in the Blitz, but she says matter-of-factly: “. . . there’s a war on, and things have got to be a bit different, and we’ve just got to get used to it – that’s all.”
Doris waits for her husband Count Skriczevinsky, a Polish pilot serving with the Royal Air Force. His wife and son were killed by the Nazis, and he came to Britain, despite his poor command of the English language, to join the war against Germany. Doris met him while working as a barmaid, and though she is now his Countess, she worries about what will happen when the war is over and he is able to return to Poland.
Also present at the hotel are the proprietor, Mrs. Oakes; Percy, a young waiter who is interested in RAF operations; and an airman named Corporal Wiggy Jones.
Soon after everyone has arrived, Squadron Leader Swanson summons the men back to base for an unscheduled night operation, and their wives are left behind to await their return. Swanson, who is affectionately called “Gloria” by Teddy, remains at the hotel. As Patricia and Swanson look out at the flare path from the hotel window, one of the planes is destroyed on takeoff by the Luftwaffe. Doris and Maudie come downstairs while Swanson calls the airfield and learns that the plane did not belong to any of their husbands.
At 5:30 a.m., Teddy and Dusty return from the mission, but Count Skriczevinsky is missing in action. Teddy confesses to Patricia that he’s losing his nerve. His plane was hit and he was responsible for bringing his six crewmen back home. He knew his crew trusted him but he was terrified, and he tells Patricia she was the only thing that kept him going. Patricia has a change of heart and decides to stay with Teddy. She tells Peter, “I used to think that our private happiness was something far too important to be affected by outside things, like war or marriage vows . . .” but that “beside what’s happening out there; . . . it’s just tiny and rather – cheap – I’m afraid.”
Doris asks Peter to translate a letter written in French that the Count left for her in case anything happened to him. In the letter, the Count says he loves her and wishes he could have taken her to Poland after the war. Doris asks if Peter made that part up, but Peter tells her he did not. Peter intends to tell Teddy everything but changes his mind and departs. Count Skriczevinsky returns safely and is reunited with Doris.
Memories, Letters and Publicity
So far no photographs of the show have come to light but, happily, some press critiques have, although in part suffering the curse of all archivists – the glue on the sellotape used years ago to affix the cuttings to a backing sheet has started to bleed through the absorbent newsprint. However, beggars can’t be choosers.