Ordinary people are capable of the extraordinary. British author Lissa Evans believed that with her heart and soul and set out to prove it by creating her own piece of greatness. The road to achievement is often paved with books; and Lissa, an avid reader, navigated her own course.
Evan’s book, The Finest Hour and a Half, from which this month’s movie is adapted, puts the reader in London as the winds of war are howling from Germany. All cinemas are closed in 1939 as Londoners brace themselves for an onslaught of attacks from across the Channel. It is an anxious time with little to no entertainment relief. Renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw remarked (Glancy, 2011, p. 453),
What agent of Chancellor Hitler is it that suggested that we should cower in the darkness and terror for the duration? . . . a masterstroke of unimaginative stupidity.
The British government re-opened the cinemas in 1940, so popular were the films that the theaters sold over one billion tickets in that one year alone (Glancy, 2010).
In 1940, cinema admissions figures actually rose, to just over 1 billion for the year, and they continued rising steeply for the next few years, reaching over 1.5 billion in 1943, 1944 and 1945.
British Propaganda Films Were Different
British propaganda films encouraged the people of Great Britain to rally around the cause of going to war against the Third Reich, different from German propaganda films that encouraged the worship of Hitler. Through these films, the British also cried to Americans to help them in their urgent need to fight.
Filming a movie at the time was a literal matter of life or death, since directors had no idea if anyone would survive to the next day in the waves of German bombing attacks. Whether buildings on set would still be standing or whether actors would be alive for the next scene were matters of grave concern. Yet, they kept filming because they knew that each week, 13 million people would go to the cinema to be distracted from the horrors of war.
The main character of Evans’ story, Catrin Cole, is loosely based on a real woman named Diana Morgan who was active in her role at Ealing Studios where propaganda films were produced during the war. At the time, Diana Morgan was the only female employee of Ealing Studios and one of very few female writers for the British Film Industry. Though most of her work was credited to a man, she played a significant part in making films that created public support, support that was critical to winning the war.
Evans wanted to show that ordinary women made extraordinary contributions to the war effort. In Their Finest Hour and a Half, Evans aspires to celebrate women and their accomplishments, rather than to proclaim a feminist perspective.
A Physician Believes Patients Deserve More
Before her writing career began, Evans’ journey to achievement began in the practice of medicine. Growing up in the West Midlands (approximately 2 hours north of London) in a family of voracious readers enabled her to obtain a good education. Naturally, this opened doors and she initially pursued a career as a physician. After four terrifying years of practicing medicine, Evans decided that patients deserve more than just a cheerful bedside manner. (In Evans’ case, this was a manner that belied her strong feeling of inadequacy).
Assured that her patients were left in the care of a confident and capable doctor colleague, Evans left the medical training that took her five years to complete.1 At a crossroads, she accepted one of the few employment opportunities available to her at that moment: radio comedy. Five successful years editing in radio led to another five years producing and directing in television. With a decade in media production under her belt, the time came for Evans to do what she was meant to do all along. She picked up a pen and started writing in her own words (Evans, 2018).
Our lives are amplified by the books we read and the movies we see; and, we carry with us all that we learn from them. Readers find their books to be companions, sanctuaries, and guideposts. In an interview by “The Books that Built Me,” (Brocklebank, 2015), Evans shares her favorite books with us, emerging from her lifetime of reading :
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Precision is required for being funny, and is a skill that Evans’ picked up by reading this, her first book. As she relates: 2
I can pinpoint the exact day I read it. It became my world . . . you can quiz me about any page.
Down and out in Paris by George Orwell
Looking for something to read, a 12-year-old Evans picked this book from her parents’ collection. She was influenced by Orwell’s writing style:
George Orwell writes with such wonderful prose, which is incredibly readable and very memorable. He didn’t write many books, but they are all very distinct – one for every occasion.
The Egg and I by Beth McDonald
Like My Family and Other Animals, this book tickled Evans to laughter, thus encouraging her penchant for humor. She credits the author for her comedy influence, “I owe her a great deal – I wish I’d met her.”
The Leopard by Lampedusa
Lampedusa’s prose was exquisitely precise, and reading this book reinforced Orwell’s impact on Evans’ writing style. . . . when writing, she prefers to hone and pare each sentence till it passes muster, and then build sentence on sentence, rather than press on with a first draft and then go back and draft again. “I hate being given notes,” she says.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
From her training as a physician, Evans feels that Oliver Sacks has the right idea about medicine.
It’s what medicine should be about … he tilts the prism to see people find themselves again.
The Penguin Book of Hymns
Evans’ school days involved daily hymns during morning assembly.
The language is wonderful for seven-year olds – there are words to ponder, rich vocabulary and imagery. . . . hymns gave a vocabulary that transcended class.
Evans’ personal repertoire of books, her life experiences, and a desire to write propelled her to author books for children and adults. Evans’ book, Their Finest Hour and a Half, left a deep impression on movie producers Steven Wooley and Amanda Posey (BFI London, 2016). After first competing for the movie rights, they collaborated to bring Their Finest to the screen, united in what they deemed necessary for taking Evans’ story beyond the world of readers to reach a greater number of people.
Evans’ Extraordinary Effort Rewarded
Not every writer enjoys the rewards of seeing their fruits of labor showcased on film. That Evans persisted for five years to write a period piece, and was recognized for her efforts with a bidding war over movie rights, is an extraordinary feat in itself. It seems that Evans’ background and past reading proved beneficial for undertaking such an attempt: the humor of Gerald Durrell and Beth McDonald, the prose of George Orwell and Lampedusa, the discipline of studying medicine, and the richness of singing hymns.
When Evans decided to write the story that highlights British propaganda film production, she researched for one year, then continued to research after she started writing. She read only books written from 1939 to 1944. She watched every film of the era, studied reference books and trade books at the British Film Institute, and became obsessed with 1940s dialogue which meant keeping a constantly updated file of words, phrases, and references used during the period. That is amazing dedication.
Their Finest Hour and a Half is an entertaining and educational story that found its storyteller in Lissa Evans. Writing books and making movies are powerful accomplishments for individuals because the stories spark imaginations, which in turn can motivate others to make their dreams come true. Writing books and making movies—extraordinary power indeed.
1 Twenty-six years later, Lissa Evans says that her four years as a doctor was so intense that her memories had not faded in the slightest. Everything she writes is infused by that experience.
2 Gerald Durrell’s memoirs is cherished by countless readers including me and has been made into a miniseries on Masterpiece Theater (“The Durrells in Corfu”, 2016).
Amanda. (2014, Nov 13). Author interview: Lissa Evans. One More Page. Retrieved from https://www.onemorepage.co.uk/?p=14748
BFI London Film Festival 2016. (2016, Oct 14). Their Finest – Bill Nighy, Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Rachael Stirling – BFI LFF Press Conference (Video). Premiere Scene Retrieved from https://youtu.be/geLFW4B-qhg
Brocklebank, H. (2015). Crooked Heart, Lissa Evans at The Books That Built Me. The Books that Built Me. Retrieved from https://thebooksthatbuiltme.co.uk/2015/04/
Evans, L. (2018). Lissa Evans | A prize-winning novelist for both adults and children. Retrieved from https://lissaevans.com/
Farmer, R. (2016). Cinemas and cinemagoing in wartime Britain, 1939–45. Manchester University Press. Retrieved from Project MUSE, https://muse.jhu.edu/book/51313
Glancy, M. (2010). Going to the pictures: British cinema and the Second World War. University of London: SAS-Space. Retrieved from https://sas-space.sas.ac.uk/2810/1/Glancy,_Going_to_the_pictures.pdf
Glancy, M. (2011). Picturegoer: The fan magazine and popular film culture in Britain during the Second World War. Historical Journal Of Film, Radio, And Television, 31(4), 453-478. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01439685.2011.620834
Hitt, C. (2017, Apr 22). Warm, witty and occasionally tragic – this is what you can expect from Their Finest. WalesOnline. Retrieved from https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/warm-witty-occasionally-tragic-what-12926519
Scherfig, L. (Director). (2016). Their Finest (Motion Picture). UK/Sweden: BBC Films.
Staff writer. (2017, Apr 20). ‘Their Finest’ and the British films that inspired the home front during the Second World War. History Extra. Retrieved from https://www.historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/their-finest-and-the-british-films-that-inspired-the-home-front-during-the-second-world-war/
The Durrells in Corfu. (2016). Masterpiece. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shows/the-durrells-in-corfu/