The Halcyon’s refugee storyline is more timely than ever

ITV's story of Austrian Jewish chef Max Klein is vital television in 2017 argues Eleanor Bley Griffiths

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The day after Holocaust Memorial Day, as President Donald Trump told refugees they were no longer welcome in America and banned travellers from seven Muslim countries, I took a trip back to wartime London. I wanted to visit Mr Klein. 

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Max Klein – played by Nico Rogner – is a talented, traumatised refugee: an Austrian Jew who works in the kitchen of The Halcyon (ITV, Mondays, 9pm). It’s 1940 and, while guests dance in the bar and celebrate lavish weddings, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the war and its human impact.

Bombs are falling on London, sons and husbands are not coming come, and in the kitchen a refugee is quietly going through hell.

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A photo in the chef’s locker shows his wife and six-year-old child: he had been separated from them as they fled Nazi persecution. Mrs Klein and the kid made it to France and Mr Klein to London, but as the cloud over Europe darkened, letters were returned unopened. Paris fell to the Nazis.

Now, safe in Britain but with his family in danger, Klein can only desperately wait for news.

The Halcyon was filmed in the summer and written before Brexit, before Trump’s election and inauguration, and before the US President’s so-called ‘Muslim Ban’ was met with international outcry. But the drama’s timing is eerily appropriate, and it feels like an important thing to be airing on primetime TV right now. 

To start with, The Halcyon doesn’t shy away from ugliness, from anti-Semitic and xenophobic hatred.

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Klein is tortured by head chef George Parry (Kevin Eldon) who sets out to make his life a misery, humiliating him and locking him in the cold storage.

“Bloody hell – the agency’s only gone and sent me a bloody German!” he says when he hears Klein’s Austrian accent, gesticulating menacingly with a butcher’s knife. “Well then. I’ve got my eye on you, Fritz.”

And not everyone thinks Hitler is wrong, either: hotel owner Lord Hamilton’s lover, Charity Wakefield, assumes Emma Garland is afraid her job will be taken by “some shabby little Jew”. Lord Hamilton himself is hosting a pro-appeasement meeting. (Spoiler: in unrelated developments, Lord H dies and Germany invades Poland, so that’s the end of that plan).

But there’s a welcoming side to the hotel, too – a flipside to the hatred.

Life gets better for Klein as the hotel staff embrace him. Despite an incident where he steals the late Lord H’s gold cufflinks to raise some funds for his wife and daughter’s passage, the Jewish refugee is forgiven his crime and told he’s part of the hotel family now: the staff will help him, support him, comfort him.

Mr Parry, unable to stomach a ‘German’ in the kitchen, is thrown out on his ear, and Scottish chef Robbie (Gordon Kennedy) gets the head chef hat, with Mr Klein promoted to assistant.

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Chefs George and Robbie

In the most moving scene from this Monday’s episode, Klein and Robbie stay behind in the kitchen as the rest of the hotel empties into the air raid shelter. All the pots and pans are shaking from nearby explosions but there they are, meticulously icing a wedding cake for the demanding guests downstairs.

Trying to coax Klein into letting down his defences, Robbie provokes him, blasting his fellow chef for ‘giving up’ on his family. It seems almost cruel, but suddenly there’s a real bond: Klein cracks and sobs his heart out, while Robbie holds him tightly and offers his help. 

When I interviewed Olivia Williams (Lady Hamilton) last year, she stressed how vital it was to show a “diverse” London: the place that really existed, where everyone was thrown together during the war.

She was also distressed by the discrimination which appeared to be gaining ground both in the UK and abroad, making it acceptable for a stranger in a pub to tell her husband Rhashan Stone, who is black, “I don’t have to be around your sort any more.”

The Halcyon serves as a microcosm of British society in 1940, holding up a mirror to today’s world. Can this drama remind us of where we’ve been before as a country – and make us think about what is happening around the globe today?

“I think parallels are very useful things,” Williams agreed. “And maybe it will wake people up a bit, and [make them] think of the consequences.”

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The Halcyon airs on Mondays at 9pm on ITV