Discovering his father’s inclusion in Hitler’s little Black Book inspired John Willis (History 1965) to delve deeper into the historical archives.
Sonderfahndungsliste GB (‘Special Search List Great Britain’), commonly known as Hitler’s Death List, was produced by the SS, the German secret service, under Hitler in 1940, and contained a list of 2,820 likely to resist Nazi rule who were to be detained as a top priority upon a successful invasion of Britain.
Among those was Ted Willis. John takes up the story: “My father was a writer, but in the years running up to the war he was also a very active youth leader, and anti-fascist – he fought against Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts, for example.
“In 1980, I discovered he was on Hitler’s death list – he would have been rounded up and no doubt eventually killed. I had no idea – and I don’t think my father knew either – that he was on the list until it was published.
“I thought I wouldn’t have been born if my father had been arrested after a German invasion. And I realised the pilots of the Battle of Britain were absolutely instrumental in stopping the Germans from invading.”
That piqued John’s interest, and five years after the discovery, Churchill’s Few was published. Detailing the experiences of six young male pilots to whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill said Britain owed so much, it was updated and re-released this year, 35 years on, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. John also released a new book, Secret Letters.
In Secret Letters, John shares previously unpublished letters of Pilot Officer Geoffrey Myers, pictured, who never sent them to his French wife and two half-Jewish children trapped in Nazi-occupied France. They were intended for reading if he were killed.
Wartime literature often romanticises, or even glamorises, the conflicts, but John’s production of contemporaneous accounts offers an uncensored truth.
“It captures people’s imagination partly because it was a critical turning point right at the beginning of the war,” John adds.
“It pushed Hitler, who had ripped through most of northern Europe, back towards Russia. I think it was the Spitfire, the Hurricane, the images of the pilots which attracted people.
“I’ve tried hard in both books to paint the picture in an unvarnished way, to celebrate the heroism of the pilots, but make sure that those who were killed and the way they were killed is not forgotten.
“The secret letters are beautifully written. He (Myers) wrote in quite a raw way about the young men in his squadron who had been killed. It was a badly led squadron so a lot of them died. He wrote incredibly powerfully about that – he was a few years older, so it badly affected him.”
John has enjoyed an illustrious career in storytelling, whether factual or fiction, in film and television. He is Chairman of Mentorn Media and Group Creative Director of Tinopolis plc, and a former chairman of BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).
He believes there is a link between his career, and his academic work at school and at Fitzwilliam.
“There is a connective tissue between writing history essays at school and university, making documentaries and writing a book,” he says.
“They all require organisation, a theme, research, sources, additional sources to confirm the primary sources… When I read History at university I didn’t realise how useful it would be in shaping documentaries.
“One of the things I’m really enjoying about writing books is that it’s put me back in touch with the creative side of the first part of my career, when I was on the road making documentary films.
“History teaches you to be sceptical about facts sometimes, so you’re always looking for additional sources. It’s important to examine all of the facts and try to get to the truth as close as you can.”
John, whose production company makes Question Time for the BBC, among numerous other programmes, is worried about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts.
He adds: “I’ve been in film and television for a very long time and this without doubt is the most challenging time we’ve had to face. Oddly, it comes at a time when people are locked down at home and want to watch television and stream films at home.”
John’s specific worries are for emerging talents, with theatres closed and no indication when live audiences may return, and for the future of British-made content.
John, who is also Chair of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, says: “I feel really desperate for the young people. I see the talent they have to be the next generation of great actors, or writers, or directors, and worry about what opportunities they’re going to get.
“Arts and culture are a vital part of a creative and open nation. But, at the moment, so much of what is important is in the dark.”