BBC Radio 4, 13 April 2013
Robin Brooks' and Robert Radcliffe's play took up where John Sturges' film of
The Great Escape (1963) left off. Just to recap: in 1944 a group of seventy-six officers made a daring escape
out of Stalag Luft Three. All but three were recaptured, and fifty of them were systematically executed. The
Great Escape left out the executions, choosing instead to introduce a fictionalized plot-element with Steve McQueen
and his fellow American POWs driving around on motor-bikes.
Great Escape: The Justice
tried to find out exactly why the officers were executed, as Squadron Leader McKenna (Stephen Tompkinson) and his sidekick
Nixon (Gunnar Cauthery) led the investigation. But this was no ordinary detective-story; from the outset, it seemed
as if those involved in the escape and the execution wanted to withhold information - partly for security purposes, and partly
because the experience was just too traumatic to revisit. This was especially true of Nixon, who had been involved in
digging the tunnel, and had escaped - only to be recaptured soon afterwards.
As the action unfolded, we discovered that things were
not quite as they seemed. With films such as The Great Escape, we have always been led to believe that no
German in Stalag Luft Three actually knew what was going on, as the tunnelling progressed. Brooks' and Radcliffe's
piece suggested the opposite: the camp commandant actually knew of the plan, and the reprisals that would inevitably follow.
He informed one of the British officers; but nothing was actually done about it. Hence it could be argued with
some justification that the officers contributed to their own death by underestimating the intelligence of their captors.
In the end McKenna found out the truth of what happened, after a long and at times traumatic
investigation. As portrayed by Tompkinson, he came across as a strong-willed personality - so strong-willed,
in fact, that he was prepared to go without sleep in order to complete his work. Cauthery's Nixon tried gamely to keep up
with him, but found the experience just too traumatic. At one point the two men actually came to blows, much to the
amusement of two French officers witnessing the event.
Jonquil Panting's production proved enthralling, as it helped us to understand why the need to escape from prison
camp proved so fatally attractive.