The brains behind Jackboots

Last week I went to an advance screening of Jackboots on Whitehall, an epic stop-motion film about what might have happened if the Nazis had invaded.

It’s a completely utterly wonderfully mindblowingly brilliant film. And it’s beautiful – epic sweeps across pastoral English countryside, great shots of London, old intricate maps, and fantastic models. The one of Goebbels is particularly impressive, with skin a pale shade of sickly green and jaw always awkwardly gawping open. In fact, with such an impressive sidekick, I thought the model of Hitler would have to be a disappointment, but that problem was overcome by Hitler’s dramatic entrance in frilly overblown drag.

I laughed almost all the way through Jackboots, except for one bit when a tear almost leaked out, just before the final battle at Hadrian’s Wall when everyone sings Jerusalem.

But what was so particularly endearing, and so eye-opening, and so flabberghastingly impressive, is that Jackboots was made by a good friend of mine and his younger brother. In fact they have already made cameo appearances elsewhere in this blog …

For the past few years, they’ve put their all into writing and directing this film. I’ve heard about it on many an occasion, from the thrill of doing the voice recordings with such a star-studded cast (including Rosamund Pike, Ewan McGregor, Richard E. Grant and Alan Cumming), to the excited exhaustion of non-stop filming for six weeks, even to the difficulty of finding the right corduroy for the main character’s trousers.

It was quite odd to watch Jackboots knowing who had written it. It was such a fascinating glimpse into my friends’ rather peculiar minds.

At the beginning, Goebbels and Goering and some other lead Nazis are in a Zeppelin flying over a pastoral scene. They decide to drop a bomb, and look through their viewfinder for the perfect target. Various characters fill the frame – a vicar, some pretty milkmaids, an arrogant soldier, but the final target is a baby’s pram. I was surprised (and, dare I say, rather unnerved) by such dark humour. And how on earth did the two of them come up with the idea of the main character’s vital trait – his big hands? And the American guy who’s convinced the Nazis are all actually Communists? Or the great little gag when the Nazis rechristen The Ritz, ‘The Fritz’?

‘So this is how their brains work,’ I kept thinking, ‘that is so exactly what they would make happen next …’ Watching the film was like watching the two of them in some kind of ultimate conversation – in which every gag is spot on, every sound effect on cue, and with a host of actors to do all the different voices. Although I kept listening out for friends in the cameo roles.

It’s a dangerous game to try and find out how writers’ brains work from what they’ve written. Most of A-Level English was spent being told, ‘the narrator is NOT the author’ and it’s generally seen as pretty reductive to spot their friends/lovers/enemies among the main characters. Of course it can be informative to bring biographical information to a reading of a text, but the text supposedly lives free of the author and, according to Barthes, the reader is the author too – bringing their own wealth of experience and associations to the text. Now I’m actually trying to write a novel, I have to say I think the reader definitely gets the easier ride of authorship.

As it so happens, I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s Wigs on the Green at the moment. It’s a delicious slice of the thirties a la P.G. Wodehouse – lots of posh young people larking around a village and falling in love with each other, although, of course, in the wrong combinations.

But this is a book in which biographical information is absolutely vital. It is really a very thinly veiled satire of Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts (or ‘Union Jacksuits’ in the book). Indeed Wigs caused such a rift between Nancy and her sister Diana – who became Oswald’s second wife – that she never allowed it to be reprinted during her lifetime. Originally published in 1935, it’s only just come back into print.

This charming novel about silly posh people gains a whole new dimension when one knows about the Mitford sisters and Mosley and the falling out. Eugenia Malmains, for instance, described as Britain’s largest heiress, is a thinly veiled Unity Mitford – famed for being six foot one, very large indeed.

Of course most writers don’t make such direct satires – probably from fear of libel as much as anything else – but it can be fun to try and think of how particular friends, enemies or neuroses come out in their text. For instance, having discovered that Hook went to Eton, on rereading Peter Pan after seeing Enron, I felt more than a pang of disappointment when I found out that J.M. Barrie didn’t go to Harrow. I wonder why his quintessential villain was an Etonian then? Perhaps he couldn’t stand all the posh public schoolboys he met at Edinburgh University.

But going back to Jackboots on Whitehall, and this funny squint into my friends’ brains, I realised quite how bonkers they both were, quite how much they loved mad Scots, and that when faced with danger they will always be able to twist it into a joke and laugh their way out of it. So next time we all play Germans in the Dark I needn’t be quite so scared.


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2 Responses to “The brains behind Jackboots”

  1. Ineclinna Says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


    • emilybooks Says:

      Hey thanks so much Christian!
      It’s very heartening and encouraging to hear there’s a fan out there …

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