Six Minutes to Midnight
by director/co-writer Andy Goddard
It all started with a blazer badge. A simple school crest from the 1930s, a rampant lion pawing at an English Union Jack with neat stitched lettering. The kind of badge worn by jolly hockey girls at Malory Towers in an Enid Blyton book. But for the fact the Malory Towers syllabus didn’t include the Third Reich. Look again and, like a Magic Eye illusion revealing its meaning, you notice a German Nazi swastika tucked above the lion; a fly in the ointment; something that simply shouldn’t be there. This school was in England, after all.
To poach from Mark Twain, truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. The real-life facts of Augusta-Victoria College in Bexhill-on-Sea—Nazi schoolgirls by the English seaside—beggars belief and challenges our accepted idea of prewar history. This was the hook that snared me when Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones slid a photo of the school badge across a cafe table in early 2017. Before I came on board Eddie had ensnared Cel with the badge too, launching their writing partnership on this project. And like Cel’s response before me, a battery of questions lit fireworks in my head. What was this school? Who were these girls? And what was their story?
We would brainstorm and challenge these questions over cream tea in Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel, our seaside writing retreat, an inspired nod to the end-of-the-pier thrillers we loved. The wronged man trapped in a carnival maze of paranoia and double-cross was a staple of British Thirties-Forties cinema. Cavalcanti. Hitchcock. Carol Reed. The Boulting Brothers. Like pink-sugar text stamped through a stick of Brighton rock the influence of these filmmakers ran through the core of our script. We riffed on Robert Donat dashing over heather pursued by shadowy men in raincoats. Rex Harrison clashing with SS villains armed only with seaside songs and a stiff upper lip. The great British film thrillers of this era used the threat of the Nazis to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. But the very best of these movies dared to go further and ask the question of whether the real evil lurks inside us. Even for a modern audience that’s quite a hot potato to go with your popcorn: do the greatest threats come from within?
A schoolteacher hero seemed like the perfect fit to explore this controlling idea. With the hearts and minds of the young as your vessel how you choose to fill that vessel—humanity or hate?—defines the world you build for tomorrow. How we teach the next generation and learn from the past—or not—is surely the litmus test for who we really are. Eddie would always remind me that fascism was never a German problem, it was and is a human problem. The key to unlocking who we are is not in the accepted propaganda of our DNA—British or German, black or white—but in the way we treat one another and how we pay that forward. This seemed to us, as filmmakers, a strong and relevant message, certainly at a time when the uglier aspects of the 1930s appear to be creeping back into our lives.
We shot this movie before the world stopped turning, before R-numbers and furloughing were part of our shared language. A glorious Welsh summer, Mother Nature’s own production value, illuminated our canvas. Eddie swinging for the fences and bucking convention as a leading man, as watchable as Donat with the horsepower of a marathon runner. I learned this comes in useful when your hero is being chased. Judi Dench, both regal and raw as Miss Rocholl, the guardian angel to our German girls, a blaze of bright young Euro talent who taught me where to find the soul of our story. And Celyn, both behind the camera—our second screenwriting rodeo together—and in front as the scarred Corporal Willis, the best John Huston character you never saw. We survived sandstorms on the mud flats of Wales, stepped in the shadows of Cavalcanti at Ealing Studios and slewed to a halt on our last day of shooting as a guerrilla unit in Bexhill-on-Sea. This felt an appropriate bookend, closing the circle on where this journey began for Eddie all those years ago.
Except it doesn’t. Not quite. The journey continues with you, in the darkness of the theatre, the projector purring into life, the anticipation of a fresh story unfolding. At this present time, if you’re about to watch this film in a movie theatre then you’re lucky. And if you’re really lucky the theatre may even play a little Al Bowlly as the curtain slides back. I hope so. You will see a lot of fine actors making me look good, not least Jim Broadbent, especially when he says, “Childhood is made of a few summers,” another gem from Celyn. When the end credits roll, and Marc Streitenfeld’s score soars like a Spitfire, my hope is that, like the sand we find in our shoes after our childhood summers have faded, you may just carry some of the good stuff home with you; out of the darkness and into the light.
Posted March 15, 2021