The son of Tarka the Otter author Henry Williamson is preparing for an extraordinary beyond the grave ‘meeting’ with his father 36 years after his death.
A haunting interview that Williamson gave to the BBC about his experiences in the First World War has been brought back to life and is being made available to view for the first time ever from Tuesday.
His son Richard got a flavour of what to expect at a London screening last week. He was visibly moved by the short clip he saw.
“To see him talking is what is so extraordinary,” he told Radio Times. “He is so face to face with you. His spirit is coming out. It was very moving. In the eyes you can see the anguish and the memory of the horror. We used to see that anguish as children, but we didn’t understand why. Sometimes he would just start to weep.”
The full 30-minute interview – along with 12 others – is being made available online after a two-year restoration and editing project. The interviews were among nearly 300 recorded for the 1964 TV series The Great War. All the footage has since remained stored at the Imperial War Museum.
Henry Williamson served throughout the Great War, witnessing at first hand the 1914 Christmas Day truce while serving with the London Rifle Brigade and later on fighting with the Machine Gun Corps.
Although nearly ten years after the war he wrote the acclaimed Tarka the Otter – one of more than 50 books he published – his son Richard says the conflict left him damaged and troubled for the rest of his life.
“He was a difficult man. He had seen his partner blown to bits next to him. It was horrible. He had been deeply traumatised by what he saw and it never left him. There was one occasion when he very nearly committed suicide. He was found walking out to sea in Devon. There was no one else on the beach but someone saw what he was doing and dragged him back. He was on the edge of a nervous breakdown all his life.”
Despite the popularity of his books, Williamson became a controversial figure during the Second World War when he expressed his support for Oswald Mosley’s fascist party. At one point he was, very briefly, under arrest as a spy. Son Richard believes that the carnage his father witnessed on the Western Front may explain his father’s politics.
“This is all I’ve heard for 65 years or more. ‘Your father had bad politics’. But he wouldn’t have had those politics if he hadn’t been through the first war. It was a total aberration.
“During the Second World War we were living on the edge of a volcano because we never knew what his state would be. It was all happening again. At the time we were living in Norfolk expecting invasion at any time. The bombers were going out, we would see the fighter planes all the time. For him the whole horror was happening again. He just didn’t want to see Britain and Germany at war again.”
Williamson died aged 81 in 1977, coincidentally on the very day the death of Tarka was being filmed for the movie adaptation of his book.
The man who has painstakingly brought these stories out of the archives and onto our screens is German-born producer Detlef Siebert, who has worked on numerous First and Second World War series. He says: “It’s a common prejudice amongst TV producers that talking heads of old people turn viewers off. My greatest ambition was to help restore the humanity of the Great War generation.”
The full-length interviews with Williamson and 12 other contributors can be found from Tuesday 11 March at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfourcollections
At 9pm on Friday 14 March, these and many other interviews from the Great War series will be edited and repackaged into an hour long BBC2 documentary called I Was There: The Great War Interviews
Picture: Jon Wilkinson Pictures