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Arts & Life

The British At 'Their Finest': How A Nation Kept Calm And Carried On

<em>Their Finest </em>stars Gemma Arterton as a brilliant young scriptwriter, and Billy Nighy as an aging actor who still wants to be cast as the romantic lead.
<em>Their Finest </em>stars Gemma Arterton as a brilliant young scriptwriter, and Billy Nighy as an aging actor who still wants to be cast as the romantic lead.

Their Finest is a film within a film about making wartime movies in Britain. Bill Nighy stars as an aging matinee idol, unhappy that he's been cast in an older role. Gemma Arterton plays a young copywriter — the script department's secret weapon.

It's during the Blitz, and they're tasked with making a British drama that will lift spirits at home and warm hearts across the ocean — a challenge that real filmmakers faced as well.

"They made a lot of films during that period under very, very ... difficult circumstances," Nighy says. They were designed to "keep the country's spirits up during a savage, brutal time when they were bombarded daily by the German Air Force."

Arterton and Nighy discussed quintessential Britishness and (his) rock n' roll legs with NPR's Scott Simon.


Interview Highlights

On British propaganda films

Arterton: They were all kind of geared towards women. Propaganda filmmaking at that time was quite interesting and pushing boundaries. People wanted to see things that made them feel like they were being understood and spoken to. So films became actually quite naturalistic. ... And actually maybe that's where the kitchen sink drama [genre of the 1950s and '60s] kind of originated was in these propaganda films of that time ... It was mundane things like growing crops in your own garden or mending your own clothes — very mundane normal things were being shown on the big screen.

On Arterton's character, Catrin Cole

Arterton: My character is based on a real person called Diana Morgan who was a writer that was hired during the war to write "the nausea" — women's dialogue — for Ealing Studios, and she went on to write a lot of films for them.

So I found the character to be original. I hadn't read anything like that before. I didn't know anything about that period of filmmaking for women. And it's actually quite rare to read something about a female writer, especially a screen writer. ... It was a very male dominated industry at that time. Sexism was everywhere and it just was the way things were.

On Nighy's character, Ambrose Hilliard

Nighy: He's a chronically self-absorbed, pompous actor in his declining years who's in almost perfect denial about how old he is. Everyone else in the world apart from Ambrose Hilliard is completely aware that he can no longer play romantic roles. The only person who has any doubt about that is Ambrose, and it has to be gently — and not so gently — explained to him that he can't play the leading man anymore. He's too old and he has to play drunken Uncle Frank. He warms up during the film. ...

Gemma's character ... very cleverly gives him the job of teaching the young American actor who isn't an actor — he's a war hero — teaching him how to act, which is a brilliant stroke, because Ambrose is very flattered by that initially and it turns out he enjoys doing it. One of the redeeming factors about Ambrose is he is actually quite serious about acting and not just in a diva-ish status context.

On everyone thinking they can act

Nighy: As an actor, it dawns on you slowly that you have one of those jobs that it seems that most people in the world think they would not only probably be able to do if they'd been given half a chance, but they quietly imagine that they probably would be better at it than you are. ... And there are people that did a little acting now and again and they felt pretty good about it, and had they had the breaks ...

I don't mind if everyone can act. I really don't mind. But it is occasionally sort of satisfying to discover that the thing you do is actually a thing — it's not just something some kind of fannying around.

On when he realized he could make people laugh

Nighy: I got a school report once that said ... "If Bill expended as much energy on his classwork as he does on being the wag of the class we might see some results." The reason I remember is because, for once, my father, who never let me near my school report, actually read it out loud to me. ... Those words are carved into my heart.

In my professional life ... I didn't get comic calls for jobs until I was in middle age. ... I did a movie that required me to be funny ... a movie called Still Crazy in which I played another rock n' roll idiot. ...

[Comedian and actor] Billy Connolly once said I had "rock 'n' roll legs." He also said, "The last time I saw legs that thin, they had a message tied to them," which I think is a pigeon reference.

On the way the British faced the realities of war — in the film and in real life

Arterton: People were dying all the time ... it was a reality. The saying "Keep calm and carry on" which is very associated with British people, I guess that's what they had to do back then. ... Some of my favorite moments in the film are when there are moments of deep tragedy accompanied by comedy — I think it's a British trait.

Nighy: Somebody told me something very interesting just before I came in to do this interview ... which is the "Keep calm and carry on" slogan which has been revived in recent times in England — there are tea towels and coffee mugs and whatever — when it was originally introduced in poster form during the Blitz it was very quickly withdrawn because people felt offended by it. ... They felt patronized by it because they were already doing that.

Radio producer Sarah Handel, radio editor Barrie Hardymon and web producer Beth Novey contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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