“Testament of Youth: Mother would be so proud of film of her extraordinary life…”
THE EXPRESS, Jan 11, 2015
Baroness Shirley Williams tells HENRY FITZHERBERT of her relief that Hollywood did not sentimentalise her mother’s memoir, and how she entered politics after narrowly avoiding becoming a movie star herself.
By HENRY FITZHERBERT
The history of cinema and British politics might have proved very different if Baroness Shirley Williams had not experienced an early disappointment: aged 13 and then living in America the blonde, blue-eyed Shirley screen-tested for the lead in 1944’s National Velvet.
She was pipped at the post by a then unknown Elizabeth Taylor.
“I’m so glad I didn’t get it,” she laughs.
“Can you imagine?
“Eight husbands for a start!
“God, how awful.
“I loved acting, I was very tempted by it, but I’ve always felt extremely grateful that I didn’t make it.
“It wasn’t a career for someone like me.”
Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrat grandee never lost her interest in the silver screen and when Harry Potter producer David Heyman approached her expressing interest in making a film based on her mother Vera Brittain’s classic war memoir, Testament Of Youth, she was intrigued but cautious.
The book, which of the was to things details the personal tragedies Brittain experienced during the First World War, had already been dramatised in a hugely popular BBC drama in 1979 with Cheryl Campbell.
Williams feared that “it would be hard to get anything as good again” but her biggest concern was that it would sentimentalise her mother and turn her coming-of-age story into “just another ditzy romance”.
Brittain fell in love with Roland Leighton, a school friend of her brother Edward.
The pair got engaged but Leighton died in 1915; Brittain received the news, unbelievably, on her wedding day (a scene in the film Baroness Williams praises as “accurate down to the last detail”).
At the time Brittain was working as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment having dropped out of Somerville College, Oxford, which she had fought her well-to-do father Thomas hard to attend.
“My mother was never sentimental.
“It wasn’t her nature at all,” says Baroness Williams.
“She was a very strong-minded person.
“As a young woman she was utterly determined to refuse to live by the conventions of the time.
“If you were a middle class girl you married and had an eye out for the best young man in the area.
“You were terribly limited in what you were allowed to do if you were a girl.
“That’s what she was fighting against.”
In the event, the moving picture presents an honest portrait of the wilful, often obstreperous Brittain (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) and Williams believes it would have delighted her mother.
“I think she would be really pleased by it.
“She was always terribly honest and felt the job of the author was to present things the way they were.
“Not to dress them up.”
It would be particularly gratifying because when she died in 1970, Brittain felt her literary output was largely forgotten: “She felt she might be remembered as this niche, regional author.”
Aside from Brittain’s romance with Roland (played by Kit Harington from Game Of Thrones) the other dominant relationship of thealways honest the job film, and Brittain’s early life, was with her brother Edward.
The two were devoted and Brittain was bereft when Edward, played by Taron Egerton, died in Italy in the last year of the war.
The film alludes to the fact that Edward was homosexual but doesn’t explore a tragic theory surrounding his death which came to light years later when Brittain met with her late brother’s commanding officer, Colonel Charles Hudson.
He aired his theory that Edward might have courted death in the battle because the authorities had become aware of his homosexuality after his letters to another officer were read by the military censor.
Baroness Williams says the circumstances surrounding her uncle’s death remain a mystery to this day: “We don’t know if he actually put himself in the line of fire because he might be court-martialled as a homosexual. It’s possible but what is worth remembering is that homosexuality was the great crime in the eyes of the Edwardians even though lots of them were gay.”
It was as a teenager that Baroness Williams grew close to her mother: “I don’t think she was a great mother for little children,” she says.
Brittain had married political scientist Sir George Catlin and the pair sent Shirley and her brother John to America for three years during the Second World War for safekeeping.
“By the time I got back to England I’d developed quite an independent capacity to look after myself and that enabled me to talk to my mother in a much more adult way,” she says.
“So at that point we became very close.
“We used to go on long walks in the country and she would talk to me about the war but she never pushed it down my throat.”
By then Brittain was a bestselling author and famous pacifist who had courageously risked her reputation campaigning against the carpet bombing of German cities during the Second World War.
What, I wonder, would preoccupy her today?
“She’d be campaigning mostly about peace I think, particularly in the Middle East,” says Baroness Williams.
“There you have the most tribal feelings about other groups and nations.”
In terms of female equality “my mother would feel we’re on the way but it’s taken an awfully long time”, she says.
“I think one can now say there’s been a big leap forward with the possible exception, dare I say it, of the City and the financial sector where women are hardly seen.
“The top level in every profession is still very difficult for women to get into.
“There are plenty of women in the law but very few female judges.”
Baroness Williams herself of course broke through numerous barriers, becoming a Labour MP in 1964 aged 34, rising to Cabinet Minister and then shaking up British politics as one of the “Gang of Four”, the rebels who founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981.
Interestingly, she credits her father as the bigger influence on her political career.
“My father shaped me in terms of politics.
“He stood for parliament three times, but you could say my mother was the bigger influence in terms of principle.
“She had very clear principles.”
It was her father, too, who put the kybosh on her acting ambitions: “He said, ‘Don’t waste your time on acting, dear. You’re going into politics’.”