Becoming ‘John’ in Wireless Operator

As actors, I don’t believe we just tell stories. I believe we get the opportunity to live them. For me, this is the fundamental difference between storytelling and acting. I get to tell a story through the eyes of someone who lived and experienced things we can only dream of. The character of ‘John’ in Wireless Operator, is the story of not just one man, but he is a vessel of remembrance for a generation of selfless airmen who volunteered to risk their lives for freedom.

I feel a great responsibility in tackling this project and striving to truthfully represent the extent of their internal and physical struggles. Yet this responsibility is miniscule in comparison to the responsibility thrust into the arms of these very young men. Their average age being 22.

Stories such as these must not be forgotten! This is why the opportunity of appearing in Wireless Operator is a dream come true. I have dedicated most of my life to learning about people from past generations and how their yesterday created our today. I will enjoy using everything I have learnt in tackling this difficult and sensitive subject matter. I only pray I can do their story Justice!

As we start rehearsals on this project I cannot express the excitement I have in working with this incredible team of people, all willing to give so much to a project that I believe will capture the hearts of many. One of my first dreams in life was to be a fighter pilot. As a young boy, the thrill and excitement of it all really appealed to me. Watching classic films like ‘Battle of Britain’ really ignited my imagination.

 

In fact as a mere 10 year old I found myself trying out the night-time flight simulator at an air base in Norfolk. Let’s just agree I am probably more suited to the Wireless Operator role, than the pilot anyway. To think over 12 years ago, my imagination began a journey and now I get to complete it, flying alongside my beloved crew of the majestic Lancaster Bomber!

While visiting the air base at East Kirkby, it became clear in my mind that had I been in their position between 1939 and 1945, I would most likely have volunteered and joined the RAF. Now within the safety of the world they helped create for us, I can begin to explore what it must have really been like.

By Thomas Dennis

Producer’s Blog….. Auditions

Oh my goodness. This was both incredibly stressful and utterly inspirational.

Cakes at The Sugar Pot Cafe

Start the day off very briefly with escalating nerve (nerves? why?) in a delightful café just round the corner. They make their own cakes there. The cakes look fantastic.  The cakes look delicious. The cakes look different.  The cakes have fruit.  I can’t believe they are anything other than extremely healthy.  We’d be doing ourselves a disservice not to eat the cakes.  I want to audition the cakes.  I really really want to audition all the cakes.  I think it will be easier and less stressful than auditioning actors.  And on top of that, there’ll be cake.

I don’t have any cake.

We are in our audition space! The table is prepared, the sides of script distributed, lists are collated, the chairs unfolded. We flick the light switch and are blinded by the harshest of white fluorescent lights.  We turn off the lights.  We are plunged into that kind of gloom that you only get when you can glimpse glorious sunshine outside the windows. Gloom will do.  We sit down. Suddenly there seems to be an awful lot of us…. four producers, two of whom are the writers, one of whom is the director, and one casting director. It feels like there could be a partridge in a pear tree.  We shuffle about trying not to look imposing. 

And then, we’re off….!

And wow. What a bunch of talented actors we see. They’re all delightful and engaged with the material and committed and yes… really good.

Top Tip from casting director – don’t fall in love with all the candidates. And actually, it turns out, that’s quite hard not to.

They perform our words.  For the first time we hear the play lifted off the page and lifeblood breathed into it.  It is uplifting and thrilling.  In just a few lines these actors draw us into the narrative – it’s funny, it’s moving, it’s shocking.

And now here I am about to put someone into second place. 

I’ve never been on this side of the table before and the responsibility is overwhelming. Not only to the play and the creative team, but to the actors. Their next job is in our hands. And we all know, that being the runner up, the ‘it was such a tough job to decide but…’ , the ‘they really loved what you did but…. ‘ we do all know, don’t we, that however kind and generous and indeed, honest, the let down is…. that is what it is.  A let down.  To be the one who didn’t get the job, the fee, the opportunity is absolutely not compensated for by kind words however true they are.  The decision may have been tough to make for them but that never softens the blow of being close but not quite it.

Which also means we are about to offer someone the chance to be our wireless operator.  And that’s the most thrilling, exciting thing of all.

A few days later. . .

Thomas with ‘Just Jane’ in East Kirkby

Our wireless operator is Thomas Dennis! 

We couldn’t be more pleased that he has accepted our offer and joined the team.  He feels as if he’s part of the family already and yes! he has already been in a recording studio with the rest of his crew and been to East Kirkby and inside Just Jane. 

No hanging about on this project!  Now there is not even time for cake… Just Jane may not be flying but time feels as if it is.

Oh. And I haven’t yet told you about the pigeon.  Remind me to tell you about the pigeon.

Producer’s Blog….. East Kirkby

Who knew how fascinating this would be?  After all the research, the books I’ve read, the films and documentaries I’ve watched, the programmes listened to, the museums visited…. Who knew what an extraordinary difference actually climbing inside a Lancaster Bomber could make? Suddenly everything falls into place.  Geographically I get it.  I see how it all fits together. I understand how they must have moved into position and then how impossible it was for most of the crew to move out of position. And without being inside you really can have absolutely no idea about just how cramped they all were. 

It was like an assault course inside, steps down and up, metal bridges to crawl over, positions to lie in – and if you did want to move, remember, you would have to do so in the dark.  And mind not to bump your head.  Or stub your toes. Or fall over the metal mounds or trip over the raised bits of the floor, or bang into your mid-gunner’s legs as you duck under him as he hangs there…. 

Then there’s the fuselage. All that’s between you and the sky or the bullets being shot at you is the metal of the fuselage. And that turns out to be no thicker than the metal of a cheap tin can.  Not even a sturdy tin can.  Ten hours or so they flew in this great big bird, cold and crushed and scared.  Trained and committed and skilled.  Without being strapped down as they plunged into avoidance manoeuvres the only thing that would stop them hurtling around the plane was to hold on tight to tiny metal handles – as they tried to protect the vital equipment they were working on.

And then there was the pigeon….

Writing the Script

My first meeting with Bob Baldwin came about through Rik Mayall. I was working with Rik as ghost writer of his “sort-of-memoir”: Bigger Than Hitler Better than Christ – a dream job. Bob was a close friend of Rik’s and had written and directed lots of television with him. Bob and I became friends and ended up working together – somewhat randomly – on a digital game for Sony. We had just left a meeting together there in 2014 when we learned of Rik’s passing.

When Bob told me the story of his father’s life during the war and his plans to bring it to the stage (and eventually, we hope, screen), I was hooked, and only too pleased when he asked me to write the script with him. His research into his dad’s experiences – and the experiences of all Lancaster crews of Bomber Command – proved invaluable and allowed me to get up to speed very quickly with the world our story would inhabit. 

Against this authentic historical backdrop, we set about creating our characters: John, the wireless operator – based closely on Bob’s father, Joe Baldwin – and the other six members of the Lancaster’s crew. Gradually the story began to come alive. Writing together mostly via Skype, we would occasionally take time out to discuss the febrile politics of the moment or laugh at what Rik’s take might have been on any chosen topic. For just as Wireless Operator is written in the memory of Bob’s father, in the DNA of the script, if you look very closely, you might just glimpse a sly Flashheart-style nod to Rik’s genius.

Working on the script of Wireless Operator with Bob has been a challenging and rewarding experience. All I can hope is that audiences will derive as much enjoyment from seeing and experiencing it as I have from writing it.

by Max Kinnings

One night in a Lancaster Bomber

Artwork by Bob Baldwin

I have written a play with Max Kinnings called Wireless Operator which has its premier in at Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August.

My father Sergeant Joe Baldwin, a joiner by trade and a pacifist by instinct, was a Wireless Operator in 630 Lancaster Squadron based at East Kirkby. Like others my dad rarely talked about his war and I grew up with a lovely but burdened man, who struggled to process his feelings. From what I’ve read I don’t think anybody could. What they were asked to do was so absurd, so hideous, that it just didn’t make the kind of sense that could be explained; they were muted, repressed into silence. It’s now understood that this is part of the destructive long term impact of PTSD.

Our story is just one night in a Lancaster Bomber and is told through the eyes and ears of the wireless operator as he, with his crew, some just 18, hurtle through a terrifying  frenzy of violence and destruction.  He becomes an innocent participant in utter slaughter and, one of the most contentious strategies of WW2.  It’s estimated that in Hamburg, more people, civilians mostly, were killed than died in Nagasaki.

It’s hard to imagine the enormity of what ordinary people were asked to do…. obliterate entire cities. And it’s hard to imagine what it felt like to carry out these merciless acts without anger or hate. They were not cold hearted killers, yet they were expected to kill, cold heartedly, and probably die. The statistics are shocking. These young men were not expected to survive more than 10 missions.  A tour of duty was 30. If they survived physically, they could never escape the memory of seeing friends blown up or of dropping bombs that burned entire communities.

After he passed away I read my Dad’s log books and a beautifully written and revealing short story he wrote called “1 + 5 More To Go”.  It provided the seed for this play as I realised how much more emotionally complex my Dad’s war had been, more than he would, or could, ever have shared.

Wireless Operator is a thrilling and nail-biting drama. Operatic in its ambition with a soundscape crafted from deconstructed recordings of the iconic Merlin engines. It’s an exciting and moving story that takes us deep into the terror of the battle and to the very heart of a personal struggle for sanity.

Shakespeare’s take on PTSD

400 years ago, Shakespeare’s Lady Percy describes her husband’s battle induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Original text followed by a modern translation.

William Shakespeare

Henry IV Part 1 Act 2 Scene 3


“O my good lord, why are you thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banished woman from my Harry’s bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is ’t that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth
And start so often when thou sit’st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-eyed musing and curst melancholy?
In thy faint slumbers I by thee have watched,
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry “Courage! To the field!” And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners’ ransom and of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus hath so bestirred thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbèd stream,
And in thy face strange motions have appeared,
Such as we see when men restrain their breath
On some great sudden hest. O, what portents are these?
Some heavy business hath my lord in hand,
And I must know it, else he loves me not. “

William Shakespeare

Henry IV Part 1 Act 2 Scene 3 – Modern Translation

Oh, my good lord, why are you alone like this?  What have I done to make my Harry banish me from his bed these past two weeks?  Tell me, sweet husband, what has stolen your appetite, your desire, and your sleep? Why do you stare at the ground and jump in your skin when you are sitting alone? Where is the colour in your cheeks? Why have you taken all your attention, which should be mine, and given it to this dark mood and terrible sadness? While you sleep so lightly, I’ve watched you and heard you mumble stories of war. I’ve heard you give commands to your horse. I’ve heard you yell, “Courage! To the field!”  And you have talked of charges and retreats; of trenches, tents; of fences, ramparts, and walls;  of all types of cannon; of prisoners’ ransoms and of dead soldiers, and of all the movements of a violent battle. Your soul has also been at war and has disturbed you in your sleep. Beads of sweat have broken out on your forehead, like bubbles in a churning stream. And on your face I’ve seen strange expressions, like a man who’s gulping his breath at an awful, sudden command. Oh, what does all this mean? My lord is contemplating some serious matters, and if he doesn’t tell me about them, he surely doesn’t love me.

The Bomb

In the 1960s, we were a young family living in Oxfordshire. Close by was USAF Upper Hayford where huge B52 Stratofortress strategic bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, were based. When they were landing they would fly very low, directly over us. From our garden, we could look up and almost touch the nuclear bomb strapped to the bottom of the plane. I remember standing with my dad looking up at it. He was lost for words and just sighed. Some time later I discovered that he and some mates had painted a huge CND sign on a farm shed at the end of the runway, knowing that the pilots and crew would see it every time they took off and landed. It was all he could do – but it was something.

He attended Ban The Bomb demonstrations in the 70s and 80s; when the Greenham common women were being regularly evicted by the police and their camp demolished, he would go and help them rebuild.

It’s hard to imagine the enormity of what ordinary people like my dad were asked to do. He was a gentle, thoughtful and considerate man who had no great ambition beyond the good of his family and community. It’s almost impossible to conceive what it must have felt like to carry out merciless acts of terror without anger or hate. The crews were not cold-hearted killers, yet they were expected to kill cold-heartedly. After Dad died and I had read his log books, I realised, knowing how passive he was, the extent of what he had experienced and the emotional consequences he had endured.

Since planning and developing this play – and writing the script with Max Kinnings – I have begun to understand the strength it must have taken to hold together the fractured pieces of his psyche. I respect him all the more now for keeping faith in the human spirit that he had witnessed at its very worst.

The Merlin Engine and Rolls Royce

It is said that the Merlin Engine made by Rolls Royce made the difference between winning and losing the war with Germany.  Designed and built in Derby, Crewe, Glasgow and Manchester, the Merlin engine, an extraordinary feat of engineering brilliance provided the heft that the Lancaster needed and went on to assume mythical status.

The four Merlins of the Lancaster were powerful and robust enough to enable strikes deep into Nazi Germany. The 10 hour trip with a full load of fuel and bombs, often involving violent structure-stressing corkscrew manoeuvres, depended on their astonishing power.

About 150,000 liquid-cooled 12 piston Merlin engines were built, each one containing 14,000 individual parts which created a unique and familiar sound. Churchill considered the Merlin so important that he arranged for a set of drawings to be sent to the USA just in case Britain became occupied by the Germans.

At an American airshow at their base in Mildenhall, the commentator requested quiet from the audience and then said:

‘Let’s just listen to the Merlin…’

Only one more plus five more to go

….the debriefing officer spoke quietly and casually.

“The tour has been increased”

We dropped back into our seats, wide awake now, staring at him in shocked silence.

“It couldn’t mean us, we’ve only one more to go!” Jock said in a tone of disbelief.

SGT JJ Baldwin

When my father Joe Baldwin showed me a story he had written I was surprised. He was a joiner by trade, thoughtful and gentle but not someone who put pen to paper very often. He had called the story ‘Only one more plus five to go’. It was about his time as a wireless operator in a Lancaster Bomber in Bomber Command from 1943 to 1945.

Sergeant J.J Baldwin – 630 Lancaster Squadron

The tour of duty was for 30 sorties after which the crew were taken off active duty. Their chances of being killed each time they flew in action was 60 %. Their chances of surviving 30 sorties were 1 out of 5.  On his 29th sortie his crew were told that they had to fly 5 more. Devastating news … but news which had to be absorbed without emotion or reaction.  In the mid ‘70s and still traumatised after 30 years he wrote this story about his time.

Wireless Operator is a stage play written by his son, Bob Baldwin, inspired by our Dad’s story and honouring his memory.

Families of those who served in Bomber Command often share a common experience; of a distant father or troubled grandfather who never or rarely spoke about their experiences but suffered severe, sometimes lifelong mental effects, now identified as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

In association with International Bomber Command Centre, Lincoln we are contributing to their archive of the experiences of those affected.

Please share your important family story here…
https://wirelessoperator.co.uk/your-story/