Veteran actor Oliver Ford Davies, who plays the title role in the new stage adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom, speaks about his own experiences of the evacuation from London during World War Two.
“I was born just weeks before the war broke out in 1939 and was living in London,” he recalls. “In 1941 it was decided that my mother, my brother and I would all go to live in Dorset.
“To begin with, we were staying in a pub run by a friend of my mother’s, but then a local farmer offered us the use of an abandoned cottage on his land. It was in the middle of nowhere, about a mile from the nearest road, and it had no gas, no electricity and no running water – we had to pull water up from a well and light a fire in the range.
“So we lived there until 1944 and I thought it was wonderful. It was an adventure for us, although I am not so sure about my mother. The farmer did actually offer her a rifle to use for her protection but she said ‘with two small boys in the house?’ She knew better.”
In 1944, Oliver returned to London, which was a bit of a shock after his time in the country.
“We came back then because we thought the war was won. But that was the time of the flying bombs or V bombs. I remember being about five and learning that I had to lie flat on the pavement if I heard the drone of the bombs.
“I remember that we had a shelter in our house which was a sort of steel construction about six foot by two foot which was in the living room and, as soon as we heard the sirens, we all had to get in there.
“I thought it was wonderful all snuggled up in there with everyone. My mother said I used to say that I hoped the sirens would go off so we could go into the shelter and then come out and have a cup of cocoa!”
In contrast to Oliver’s recollections of evacuation, Michelle Magorian’s novel about life on the home front is far from this cosy.“The story is about two very damaged people who are brought together by the war,” says Oliver.
“William has been ill treated by his mother who is mentally unstable and we learn that Tom is a man who has cut himself off from the village after his young wife died in childbirth 40 years earlier. The story shows how they come to depend on each other and how they blossom and change.” The role of Tom has presented Oliver with some challenges.
“The hardest part is to decide just when I can stop being gruff and start becoming a man who everyone can really relate to,” he says. “Because Tom does not just change in his relationship with William, he also changes in his relationships with others. Everyone is surprised when he attends a village meeting and offers to become a fire warden.”
Oliver has long been a stalwart of British theatre, featuring in dramas across the UK. He shared the stage with David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet, which opened at Stratford-upon-Avon, and has undertaken a whole range of roles at London’s National Theatre.
He began that illustrious career in Birmingham. “I started at the Old Rep in 1967,” he recalls. “I was in the company along with Brian Cox, Timothy Dalton and Michael Gambon. We had such fun. We were doing great plays – Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen. We were far too young for lots of the roles but we just did them anyway.
“My very first part was in Richard II and I played John of Gaunt. So there I was being John of Gaunt on his deathbed when I was only 27.”
Oliver went on to feature in television series such as Kavanagh QC, Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders and films including Johnny English, Mrs Brown and Sense and Sensibility.
He also took the part of Sio Bibble in the Star Wars prequels The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
“That was immense fun,” he says. “We were filming in a palace outside Naples, it was supposed to be the palace of Princess Amidala who was played by Natalie Portman. I remember having a long chat to a 12-year-old girl who was playing one of her decoys – and her name was Keira Knightley. We were talking about schools in Twickenham!”