“If the Nazis ever come again I will hide you, I promise.” This disturbing message was often whispered to me at night by an Austrian friend of my parents who lived with us when I was a child. Even though this was many years after the war, her tone was so urgent I felt it was only days since hostilities had finished. I think this is one of the reasons I’ve always been fascinated by the immediate postwar period; it remains vividly alive for me and it is why I have chosen to set my new seven-part drama at that time.
The story begins in 1946, when the euphoria felt over victory had begun to fade and the British people found themselves faced by severe rationing. As they strove to cope with this extreme austerity, few realised the first moves of the Cold War had already begun to be played out right in their midst. The British, the Russians and the Americans were seizing anybody that could be of use to them from Germany and were bringing them over to their own countries so they could use their knowledge to get ahead in this new war.
The people seized (often out of their beds in the middle of the night) didn’t just include scientists and intelligence officers but also perfume manufacturers, specialists in plastics, anybody, in fact, that could be of use to them. Many of these people had been very active members of the Nazi party and some of them were guilty of war crimes, but this proved no hindrance to them being given new identities if they cooperated. Some of them even had their deaths faked so they couldn’t again be traced by a Nazi hunter.
As the victorious Allies plotted and spied on each other, the British people were restarting their lives in an extraordinary landscape where bombed buildings stared back at them from nearly every street. The adrenaline from the war was still coursing through most people’s veins as they tried to come to terms with this new reality. Children swarmed over bombsites totally unsupervised, guns were hidden in desks in classrooms and the black market thrived in every community.
Meanwhile, at the centre of Whitehall officials were busy covering up dramatic information, riveting testimony about what had really gone on in the build-up to war. They hoped it would never ever see the light of day.
I wanted to bring all these stories together under one roof and this led me to a hotel setting, because the military did take over certain hotels for their own purposes.
I’ve used a hotel before in my last drama series Dancing on the Edge, but this time it is a shabby mysterious place held up by scaffolding and where many of its bedrooms are being bugged by military intelligence. Down in the basement by contrast is a ballroom, which is full of energy and colour, as people attempt to dance away their troubles.
I wanted to create as vivid a collection of characters as I could in this hotel and to surround them with a potent, edgy atmosphere so the audience feel they are stalking the passages with them. And when the characters venture out into the hallucinatory landscape of a bombed London I wanted to realise this world on genuine locations without CGI so it would seem as alive as possible.
My whole idea was to capture the urgency of that time as everybody seeks to find some kind of equilibrium. They are trying their utmost to put the tragedy of the war behind them. All the characters in this story have had experiences in the war they never imagined they would have, and some of them have done things they desperately wish to conceal from the outside world.
As they attempt to adjust to peacetime they are confronted with the really difficult dilemma – how far can one overlook what people have done in the recent past so one can move more easily into the future? Each of them has their own, different, answer to that question.
Close to the Enemy starts tonight at 9pm on BBC2