Details

Cast (in alphabetical order) - Tom Burlinson ('Fanny' Barton); Corinne Dacla (Nicole); Neil Dudgeon ('Moggy' Cattermole); Boyd Gaines (Christopher Hart III); Richard Hope ('Skull' Skelton); David Horovitch ('Uncle' Kellaway); Helena Michell (Mary); Jeremy Northam ('Fitz' Fitzgerald); Nathaniel Parker ('Flash' Gordon); and Tim Woodward (Squadron Leader Rex).

Ian Toynton (Director); Leon Griffiths (Screenplay); Linda Agran (Executive Producer); Andrew Holmes (Producer); Lynnette Cummin (Costume Designer); LWT, 1988. Running time: 5 hours.

 

Plot Summary

"Piece of Cake" is a six-part mini-series that follows the fortunes of Hornet Squadron - a fictional RAF fighter squadron - during the first year of World War II. Based on the book by Derek Robinson, the story begins on September 3, 1939 and ends on September 7, 1940.

"Piece of Cake" takes the viewer from Chamberlain's radio broadcast, through the so-called phony war, the fall of France and finally, the Battle of Britain. "Cake" tells the story of these historic events on a small intimate scale. Life and death, love and war, are told through the stories of the men - boys in many cases - of Hornet squadron.

 

General Review

You don't have to be a military aviation or a World War II buff to enjoy "A Piece of Cake". "Piece of Cake" is an example of what British television does so well - the ensemble production. There were no big-name stars in this series. The cast assembled were relative unknowns, although some - like Nat and David Horovitch, Neil Dudgeon and Helena Michell - have subsequently been seen on other of PBS series, such as "Masterpiece Theater" and "Mystery". I also recall seeing Boyd Gaines on some American TV sitcom. Certainly the absence of big-name stars contributes to the realistic feel of the series.

Another factor contributing to authenticity of this series was the way it was filmed. According to an article that appeared in the October 1988 issue of "TV Times", the cast lived and worked together on location during the filming - even going as far as calling each other by their fictional nicknames and attending "funerals" for cast members when they written out of the series.

While there are no stars in "Piece of Cake" and all the roles are well acted; several do stand out and are worthy of being singled out for special mention. As Squadron Leader Rex, a career RAF officer who leads Hornet Squadron during the first half of the year, Tim Woodward convincingly plays Rex as a generous country squire - paying half of his squadron's mess bill. But this benevolence comes at a price - Rex insists upon his pilots flying tight, tidy formations and he tolerates no questioning of these tactics.

The pilot who most often dares to question Rex's tactics is the American Christopher Hart III, ably portrayed by Boyd Gaines, also an American. A rich-kid and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Hart is the officer best positioned to take on Rex. He's the only pilot who has had combat experience.

Neil Dudgeon appears in all six episodes as Flying Officer 'Moggy' Cattermole, a cynical pilot who is out - at all times -- for number one. A quick-witted, sarcastic bully, 'Moggy' is - by his own admission - not "an officer and a gentleman". Although his constant sniping gets on everyone's nerves at times, his skill as a pilot and his killer instinct is appreciated just as long as it's aimed at the enemy.

Aside from Nat's, the characters who evolves and grows the most during the course of the year is 'Fanny' Barton. Through Tom Burlinson's portrayal, 'Fanny' grows from a conscientious pilot to the leader of Hornet Squadron during the tumultuous days of the Battle of Britain.

Supporting the pilots of Hornet Squadron were the Adjutant and Intelligence officers - Flight Lieutenant 'Uncle' Kelleway and Flying Officer 'Skull' Skelton - convincingly played by David Horovitch and Richard Hope. As a veteran pilot of Word War I, Horovitch's Kelleway is the calm, pipe smoking, voice of experience. Hope's "Skull", on the other hand, is a Cambridge don, a Flying Officer who calls flying "unnatural".

"Piece of Cake" is visually beautiful. The sequences with the Spitfires are aerial ballets - so graceful that one almost forgets the real horrors these scenes represent. Derek Robinson's excellent novel was well adapted by Leon Griffiths and the excellent cast was well directed by Ian Toynton. Lynnette Cummin's costume designs capture both the spirit of time and the individual eccentricities of pilots of Hornet Squadron.

Conclusion:
In his speech before the House of Commons at the height of the battle, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said - "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The creators, cast and crew of "Piece of Cake" have created a fitting tribute to those "few".

If you are a fan of Nathaniel Parker, "Piece of Cake" is a must-have for your DVD collection. Even after this length of time, it still is one of his finest performances.

 

Nat's Review

Nat plays 'Flash' Gordon, a young RAF pilot. It was his first television role and nearly 14-years later it still ranks as one of his best performances. He takes 'Flash' from a well-scrubbed young pilot to a romantic young husband and eventually into madness. His appearance during the first episode is little more than "wallpaper", out of focus, lounging against a fireplace mantelpiece during Prime Minister Chamberlain's radio broadcast.

In Derek Robinson's excellent novel, Flash is first introduced on page 99 and described as "the man who listened, who laughed at the joke (slightly later than everyone else), who was on the edge of the photograph, half-obscured by the man in front. He always looks neat and squared-off, his hair neatly parted, his features regularly distributed as if his face was ready for kit-inspection. When people thought of him (which was not often), they though of a uniform rather than a personality.

When Flash is posted to France he changes. "Gordon had finally left home. All his RAF training and service had been spent no more than a train-ride away from his parents in Hendon; now he was released, liberated, let of f the leash in this wonderful foreign country where everyone drove on the wrong side and drank wine night and day, and where sex was more than a technical possibility, it was a definite probability because it was a well-known fact that the French had virtually invented passion and they had definitely invented the brassiere…"

Indeed, many of the young pilots had never been away from home before. Their games and pranks often have a boarding school feel to them. Going into the RAF and being posted to France had changed them all, but the metamorphosis was perhaps greatest with Flash. He falls in love with a young French teacher, they marry, and then, after he is forced to bail out, he begins to question his squadron leader's tactics and his insistence on tight formation flying. In short, Flash is growing up. Then tragedy strikes - his new bride is killed and he begins a sharp descent into madness.

Nat captures it all - the well-scrubbed young pilot, the youthful playfulness, the despair and then finally, the madness. He displays boyish charm as he tries out his schoolboy French when he first meets Nicole. He is silent, yet eloquent, when he is told of her death - falling to his knees, back to the camera, he never-the-less communicates his total despair.

By the time Hornet Squadron returns to England, Flash has escaped into madness. While the rest of the squadron is on leave, he stays at the airfield shooting seagulls and drinking 200 bottles of Guinness. We see him - flying upside down; leaving the relative safety of an air raid shelter because it's time for his mid-morning coffee; and calmly quoting "large chunks of Churchill" to an RAF Medical Officer who has been sent to examine him.

Nat's performance throughout is totally believable. It [Nat's performance] never appears forced. He slowly evolves. That Nat stands out in production with such a large cast is a tribute to his skill as an actor and his ability to create a character the audience is drawn to and can empathize with.

Nat's portrayal of Flash Gordon impressed me when I first saw "Piece of Cake" around 1990 and his performance impressed me again when our local PBS station re-played the series in conjunction with airing "A Great Deliverance" and I realized that it was the same actor.

 

Trivia:

What was the name of Squadron Leader Rex's dog?
Where do Flash and Nicole first meet?
In the book Flash is from Hendon, but in the mini-series he says he's from what town along the Thames?

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