BBC Radio 4, 15-22 November 2009
The problem facing anyone adapting a wartime romance is to try and avoid
stereotyping - especially when it involves a British member of the armed services and a French girl. There are several possible
pitfalls - either it could be sentimentalized, turned into a 21st-century pastiche of the 1940s or 1950s war film, or (worse
still), become a serious version of 'Allo, Allo', with the French characters speaking in funny accents.
Happily Jonquil Panting's production avoided all such possibilities, The French characters
spoke English; their mutual incomprehension was rather signalled through asides delivered direct to the listeners. H. E. Bates'
novel was transformed into a tale of self-discovery, of the oh-so-British aircrew member Franklin (Rory Kinnear) learning
how to loosen his stiff upper lip, shed his prejudices and thereby falling in love with the French girl Francoise (Louise
Breeley). Although forced to have one amputated owing to an air crash, Franklin gained something very important instead -
an ability to understand others' point of view, especially when they were making every effort to save him from being captured
by the Germans. His radical character change was deliberately contrasted with his fellow crew-member O'Connor (Tom Goodman-Hill)
who, although given the opportunity to escape from France through Marseilles, nonetheless failed to take advantage of it.
Mostly this was due to his inbuilt racism; as a true-blue Britisher he felt he could never trust a race who (in his view)
had so meekly given up the fight at Dunkirk and subsequently surrendered to the Germans. Eventually O'Connor admitted that
these assumptions were both false; the British Expeditonary Force (BEF) had been largely responsible for their own demise
in 1940, and the French simply had no other choice other than to surrender if they wanted to preserve their country. However
he could not change his character; his prejudices were too deeply ingrained for that.
This production took a long hard look at the two nations - the British and the French
- and their conduct during the war. Whereas the aircrew (particularly O'Connor) seemed more preoccupied with saving their
own skins, the French bonded together to try and ensure the Britons' safe release, even if it meant putting their own lives
at risk. How historically accurate this representation might be is open to dispute; but director Panting did suggest
that the British might have forged closer relations with their closest European neighbours if they had been a little less
self-absorbed. This is what Franklin discovered in the end, as he and Francoise eventually escaped together through Marseilles
and back to Britain.
However, the production could not end without an heroic gesture (after all, it was
set in wartime). This was undertaken by O'Connor, who generously sacrificed his own life by firing at the German guards, thereby
enabling Francoise to escape interrogation and join the train out of France into Spain, which Franklin had already boarded. The
British might have been reluctant to interact with foreigners, but they never lost their sense of decency.
Fair Stood the Wind for France was the kind of classic serial that Radio
4 does very well, allowing for considerable character-development while ensuring that the plot unfolds at a brisk pace.