From Hogwarts To The Horror Of The Trenches
By Peter Morrell for icWales.co.uk, 10th November 2007
‘Harry Potter’ star Daniel Radcliffe takes on a new challenge with a television drama for Remembrance Sunday. Rob Driscoll reports
THERE was one terrifying moment while filming the World War I drama My Boy Jack, when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe felt close to how it must have felt fighting in the mud-soaked frontline trenches of nearly a century ago.
“There were about 60 of us on top of the trenches, and when we were rehearsing the scene where we all go over the top, the production marked with white flags the various areas where the explosions would go off,” recalls the 18-year-old star, making his debut starring TV role in the provocative true-life drama being shown this Remembrance Sunday.
“They told us that when the explosions went off, visibility would be reduced by about 70% because of the smoke, and then they’d take the flags away. The air was just filled with dirt, and for about five seconds you could see nothing, you were running blind – so I think those five seconds were the closest you ever came to experience what it must have been really like.”
This is a million miles away from the magical, family-friendly world of the boy wizard Harry Potter and his life at Hogwarts. For one thing, Radcliffe is playing a real person – John “Jack” Kipling, the doomed son of celebrated Edwardian author Rudyard Kipling, of The Jungle Book fame.
My Boy Jack tells the story of how Kipling Snr used his fame and fortune – not to mention his royal connections – to get his 17-year-old son Jack a commission with the Irish Guards, despite the boy’s cripplingly poor eyesight.
On September 27, 1915 – only a day after his 18th birthday – Jack went missing in action during the Battle of Loos, and his mother and father carried out an exhaustive search for him, spanning many years and many miles of soul-destroying discovery.
The two-hour film for ITV1 has been a labour of love for its writer, actor David Haig, who also co-stars as Jack’s father, with Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall taking a radical image departure to play his American wife and Jack’s mother, Caroline.
My Boy Jack is based on Haig’s own stage version of the story.
The role of Jack is one with which Radcliffe could identify strongly, having turned 18 himself over the summer during filming.
“I thought of myself or any of my friends going to war now, and it’s a horrifying thing to contemplate,” he says.
“You can’t help but see a parallel with boys of Jack’s age who are still going to war, in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tragedy isn’t just about war, it’s about the idea of the parents outliving the children, which is the greatest tragedy imaginable.”
But if conscription was still in force, how would Radcliffe react if he were called up to fight for his country?
“I don’t know what my reaction would be,” he says. “They’d be very unfortunate to have me! It’s impossible to answer, because I don’t know what my reaction would be if that happened. I’d fight for anything I believed in passionately, I suppose. I’m sure in 1066 I would have done a really great job at Hastings!
“I think I certainly wouldn’t be able to handle myself, I’d just be too scared. There were moments when we were filming the trench scenes and it was just me and a load of shivering 18-year-olds.”
The gritty Western Front battle sequences were filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland, where Radcliffe and his young co-stars spent six days in trenches filled with mud, smoke and live rats, and lashed by powerful rain machines. Over the top was No Man’s Land, scattered with explosives and eerily realistic prosthetics of soldiers who hadn’t quite made it to safety.
“Recreating the World War I trenches was an amazing experience,” recalls Radcliffe. “When you’re in the trenches, and you’re being soaked from above, and it’s freezing cold, and there are rats everywhere, that does make it slightly easier to imagine yourself in that situation.
“The constant rain also does something to your performance. When you’re having to compete with the rain and still be able to have to communicate with each other, the level of intensity in your performance soars.
“But, equally, you can’t ever hope to fully comprehend what it was like to be there. Those men – many of them just boys – must have thought they were all going to die, and most of them did. No human being should have to go through what they went through, and that’s another reason why it’s so important to tell the story.”
Radcliffe also had personal reasons for accepting the role – his great-uncle fell at the same battle as Jack, and he had a picture of him in his dressing room during the shoot.
“I found out that my great-uncle Ernie, on my dad’s side, died at Loos,” says Radcliffe. “I would have loved to have visited his war grave, but in the run-up to My Boy Jack I was doing Equus in the West End, so I didn’t get a chance, which was disappointing, but I’m sure I will do it at some stage.”
The photograph of his great-uncle was one of three talismans that Radcliffe had with him while filming My Boy Jack. “I also had two medals from World War I that were given to me as present, and I had two copies of Kipling’s study of the Irish Guards,” he reveals.
“It was a pretty bizarre moment when I looked at the medals, and the certificate that came with them told me they’d been presented to a man called William French. When I looked in the index of Irish guardsmen’s names in the back of the book, his name was there.
“It’s a strange moment when you realise this man may have died a few years later, or he may have died in the war, and he’s entered my consciousness in 2007, and he entered Rudyard’s 80 years ago. It’s a moment of strange shared experience which is quite haunting.”
The dashing moustache Radcliffe sports as Jack Kipling is a fake one, but the image is one the young actor enjoyed. “There really wasn’t time to grow my own one, as the filming schedules meant that in some scenes Jack was clean shaven, and others with the moustache,” he says. “But I enjoyed the thrill of having a moustache that full – as it’s not a sensation I’ve been used to.”
Right now, Radcliffe is back in front of the movie cameras as he continues filming Harry Potter 6 – or, to give it its correct title, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And next year, he’s set to make his Broadway debut when Equus opens on stage in New York.
For now, though, Radcliffe remains in contemplative mood, as this weekend’s timely broadcast of My Boy Jack is sure to resonate with millions with its poignant, heart-breaking message.
“A lot of people might say Jack’s father was wrong to engineer his commission into the army when he was obviously suffering with myopia, and they might want to blame Rudyard Kipling for his son’s fate, but I hope not, because in fact Jack himself was equally determined to join the forces in the face of adversity, and that’s what I loved about his character,” explains Radcliffe.
“The thing I’d hate most was if people watching thought Jack was forced to go to war. He absolutely wanted to go there, maybe not for precisely the same reason as his father, but he absolutely wanted to be where he was. To be at home and to be viewed as unfit to fight was such a deeply humiliating experience.”
Radcliffe is fully aware that many Harry Potter fans will be tuning in to My Boy Jack – a programme many of them would not ordinarily choose to watch. What does Radcliffe hope they gain from the drama?
“I just hope they’re moved, and that it sticks with them,” he says. “For me, the thought of forgetting all the people who died is terrible. It’s quite upsetting. One day it’ll happen to all of us.
“I feel we need to make the effort to remember them, and realise how lucky we are not to ever have to endure those dreadful conditions again.”