One of my earliest memories is of sitting next to my father in the front seat of his car and staring out of the window at a shattered bomb-devastated city as we drove together across London. This was at least ten years after the end of the war and yet there were still bombsites everywhere you looked, houses sliced in half with their wallpaper, fireplaces, bathrooms and sometimes even pianos exposed to the elements. They stood like a series of jagged enormous doll’s houses peering at you from the end of the street.
As I got a little older, I realised that many of the adults I encountered still seethed with a sense of danger and grievance about the war. Just below the surface lurked real anger about what they had experienced and how their lives had been changed by it for ever.
I think this is the reason I have always been fascinated by the immediate post-war period and why I have decided to set the most ambitious drama I have attempted in the particular years of 1946 and 1947. It was a time of startling contrasts: people’s lives were continually blighted by intense austerity and draconian food rationing (bread was rationed for the first time when it had been freely available during the war), but it was also the moment the National Health Service was being born and the Welfare State was being truly established. What’s more, this was all accompanied by a tremendous burst of activity in the arts, which saw one of the finest periods in British cinema, the founding of the Edinburgh Festival and an outpouring of new British classical music.
The adrenaline that had been released by the war, either through the experience of actual combat or the terrifying sensation of being bombed from the air, could not just be switched off like a tap in 1945. The country was still semi-militarised and yet the black market was doing vigorous business in every community. Children swarmed over dangerous bombsites totally unsupervised or hid guns in their desks at school. The atmosphere on the streets was raw and edgy as everybody wondered, ‘Now what happens?’ And yet we were the victors; we had supposedly triumphed. It seemed inexplicable to many that life could have become even tougher than during wartime. A series of savagely cold winters made existence even more intensely vivid and gruelling. In summer, the light was blindingly bright because of the great many buildings that were missing, completely transforming familiar landscapes so that they seemed totally alien. There was also a widely shared sense of bewilderment once the joy of victory and the realisation that the war had finally ended began to fade. People stared at the ruined cities across Britain and wondered how this could have all been allowed to happen in the first place. Why wasn’t the rise of fascism in Germany confronted earlier? Who, apart from Hitler, was really to blame?
I wanted to tell some of the stories from this time, and there were several that had haunted me for years. For a start, how the British (along with the Americans and the Russians) seized any German nationals they thought could be of use to them and compelled them to work for them, whether they wanted to or not. Some of these people were literally kidnapped from the streets of Europe, plucked off the pavements, for they were the human spoils of war. They were brought in considerable numbers to Britain, America and Russia. Those that came to the UK did not just include scientists, but also perfume manufacturers, experts on making plastics – anybody, in fact, who could give the British an advantage over their competitors, especially the Americans.
Another story that intrigued me was how the British secret service often thwarted the attempts by various individuals and organisations to bring people guilty of war crimes to justice. If these potential war criminals were deemed useful – if they had information on the Soviet Union or had important strategic knowledge – they were given new identities or even had their deaths faked. In the US, there was a special secret initiative, called Operation Paperclip, which gave literally hundreds of German scientists new identities. Many of these scientists had enjoyed very close relations with the Nazi regime and some had used slave labour in the course of their work.
And, above all, there was the story that really obsessed me: how the British missed crucial chances that might have helped shorten the war or indeed may have averted it altogether. The most striking examples of this were how we let our lead in jet-engine technology evaporate because we refused to renew a patent for the cost of five pounds and how we ignored an approach from members of the German military who stated they intended to stage a coup against Hitler just weeks before the Munich Agreement in 1938. At this pivotal moment, a year before the outbreak of war, there was no appetite for conflict among the German public, nor was the German army ready for war – for one thing, many of their tanks were not functioning properly. A very serious and highly secret initiative was instigated by several senior German military commanders and diplomats to get rid of Hitler before it was too late. They just needed certain assurances from the British government. These assurances, tragically, were not forthcoming.
In Close to the Enemy, I set out to entwine these stories together in one narrative and this drew me back to the hotel setting I had used in Dancing on the EdgeClose to the Enemy is a very different place, however, for it has been seriously damaged during the war. Large portions of its interior are held up by scaffolding, its exterior stares out across a massive bombsite and on its attic floor there are secret rooms being used by military intelligence to listen in to various guests whose bedrooms they have bugged. Furthermore, the hotel’s ballroom is not a gilded space populated by the wealthy, but a room sunk deep in the basement where all sorts of characters let off energy by dancing as they try to escape the hardship that lies outside.
As in nearly everything I write, I wanted to tell Close to the Enemy through the eyes of just one character so it became a first-person narrative. In this way, the audience can travel with the central character through the story, enter the hotel for the first time at the same moment that he does and then initially meet all of the other characters at the point that he encounters them. By this method, I try to make the past seem to be happening in the present tense – it is as if we are experiencing it, too.
In this story, we see a lot of the action through the eyes of Callum, the young officer working for military intelligence. He has been assigned the job of making the jet-engine scientist Dieter and his daughter Lotte a little happier about being in England after they have been seized from their beds in the middle of the night in Germany. It is to be Callum’s last job in the army before he goes back into civilian life and he thinks it will only last a few days. In the event, Callum becomes consumed by his task and it begins to have a profound effect on him, both emotionally and intellectually, changing his whole outlook on life.
As Callum finds himself being drawn deeper and deeper into the Connington Hotel (it has, in fact, become his home), he meets the other main characters who will alter his destiny. These include the mysterious Foreign Office official Harold; the wealthy, seemingly golden couple Rachel and Alex; the combative and very determined war crimes investigator Kathy; the American singer Eva; and the displaced and absolutely terrifying Frau Bellinghausen. At the same time as all these new relationships are forming, Callum also has to deal with the responsibility he feels towards his younger brother, Victor, who has been deeply scarred by his experiences during the war. The two brothers are alone in the world for both their parents are dead and Callum is constantly concerned about his brother’s health and general wellbeing. Like many returning servicemen, Victor is desperate to re-enter civilian life and have a proper job, but his volatile moods have made this difficult. He wants his brother to solve this, but Callum’s life at the Connington has become increasingly intense, causing their relationship to undergo a dramatic shift.
As the narrative of Close to the Enemy unfolds, all these characters either live in, or frequently visit, the crumbling world of the Connington Hotel. When they do venture outside, it is into a city that is not just full of bombsites, ruined churches and rationing, but is being gradually enveloped by paranoia as the Cold War descends and begins to affect everything.
During the seven parts of the drama, I trace what happens to each of these characters and, at the same time, I attempt to illuminate the wider landscape at this crucial moment in history.
All the characters are trying to rebuild their lives after the trauma of the war, but they are also faced by a constant dilemma: how far can one turn a blind eye to what has happened in the immediate past so one can move more easily into the future?