Island at War

Sunday, July 11, 2004 by

Due to its beneficial tax breaks for filmmakers, the Isle of Man is being seen more and more on our screens of late. Island at War is the latest big-budget drama series to take advantage of the financial benefits offered by this location. However, there is another reasons for shooting there, according to the programme-makers. Because the titular island featured here is fictional it should have a non-specific appearance, which apparently the Isle of Man can offer.

This is a clever tactic in terms of storytelling – rather than concentrate on one of the real islands and risk offending people, the idea of creating a fictional, generic one enables writer Stephen Mallatratt to use stories and anecdotes from all the Channel Islands in his version of the occupation. It is a sensible option, which will allow a wider range of storytelling that will be important should the series do well enough to justify any further runs.

The action opens with British soldiers escaping from the enemy in Northern France and being fired upon by German gunners. They are very nearly rescued by one of the show’s main protagonists, Wilf Jonas, who is out in his boat looking for lobsters. The threat from the enemy is keenly felt throughout the opening hour, with this incident and regular fly-overs by Luftwaffe reconnaissance planes reinforcing the idea that life is about to change forever for the inhabitants of the island. This first episode deals primarily with the build up to the invasion and how the people of St Gregory intend to cope with it. Despite outward appearances, and the apparent tranquil pace of life, the menace from just across the water is on the mind of just about every islander. The British forces quickly desert them, having been recalled to the mainland in preparation for dispatch to more strategically “important” battle areas. The island’s children are evacuated to safety and the islanders try to withdraw all of their money from the local banks. Even after all of this some of the community appear to be in denial about what is happening, unwilling to believe that the Germans will be interested in such a small area.

When the planes finally attack, they do so indiscriminately, but briefly. Low-flying aircraft swooping over the harbour shoot down innocent civilians and it is not long before leaflets are dropped from the sky informing the islanders that they will be surrendering. The villains here are not only the invading forces from across the Channel, but also the British Government. While the politicians are safely tucked up on the mainland, the people of the Channel Islands are cruelly and casually abandoned to their fate. We learn that there would have been no attack had the British bothered to inform the German forces that the island had no defences, but this is something that is seemingly forgotten or overlooked. As one of the islanders remarks: “St Gregory is where they [the Germans] wipe their feet.”

The scene at the harbour is well realised, with some fairly good CGI recreations of the German planes, huge explosions and impressive stunt work. The production designer has done a sterling job of bringing the 1940′s to life. The costumes, vehicles, locations, shops and their contents all appear to be completely accurate recreations or original items. Real life locations are completely transformed for the purposes of filming, with the harbour in particular being worthy of praise.

The story is told through the eyes of three of St Gregory’s families: the well-off Dorrs, the middle-class Mahrs and the working class Jonas’. James Dorr is Deputy Bailiff of the island and appears to be more able than his superior, the ineffectual Senator La Palotte. Dorr is the one who takes the lead and reassures the islanders while La Palotte blusters and prevaricates. The Mahrs are shop-owners who fear that their business will be overrun by German soldiers, and that their two young daughters will be the objects of unwanted attention once the forces arrive. What they do not expect is for their house to be looted by fellow islanders as the panic begins to take hold. The final group in the trio of families are the Jonas’. The father, Wilf, is a policeman in the island’s small force and the mother Kathleen is a farmer. Despite the apparent “safe” feel of the drama there is tension in all three of the main character groups. The Dorrs conflict comes from the fact that while James Dorr is a native islander and is determined to stay, his wife is from the mainland and wants to depart as soon as possible. The Jonas adults decide to stay, but are troubled by the presence of Kathleen’s shady brother, Sheldon, who appears to be involved in some kind of black marketeering with looted items.

Despite occupying a 90 minute timeslot the actual running time of Island at War is only around 65 minutes. Much of that time deals with establishing the characters, settings and way of life on St Gregory, and as a result the first episode feels slightly leaden for much of its running time. However, the pace immediately picks up with the arrival of the German Commander at the airport. Baron Heinrich Von Rheingarten takes control and installs himself and his troops in the best hotel on the island, from which swastika flags are draped. It seems that Von Rheingarten is going to make his stay on St Gregory as comfortable as possible, and judging from the trail for the next episode he has his eye on one of the main female characters.

The realisation of the invading force is one of the most impressive aspects of the series, with hundreds of extras making up the soldiers, and Philip Glenister adding just the right amount of chilling threat to Von Rheingarten’s outwardly calm appearance. Glenister is probably the most impressive of the acting talent on display in this opening installment, with the rest of the characters being quite thinly-sketched so far. Julian Wadham impressed as the laid-back Urban Mahy, but his character is killed off in the attack on the harbour. James Wilby plays James Dorr, but somehow seems a little bland so far. As Wilf, Owen Teale displays just the right amount of concern for his family and anger at them for not doing what he says. Meanwhile, Sheldon’s dodgy dealing is very likely to go on to become one of the main themes of the series, and it is not too difficult to imagine that he would be the type of person content to cosy up to the Germans if he thought he could make money out of it.

Expect the pace to pick up in the next episode when we will likely see how the Germans intend to rule the island, and what the natives will do to try and scupper the activities of their new masters. The Mahr girls will probably come to the fore quite soon too, and it is not difficult to imagine that one of the pair will fall in love with a German trooper, which will likely cause even more tension within the family. Despite the inevitable growth of a small resistance movement on the island in forthcoming episodes, it is likely that the tone of Island at War will remain more like that of Heartbeat than Secret Army.


Comments are closed.