I discovered a soldier’s poem etched in the wall in a tunnel under the Somme… Eddie Redmayne recalls how he drew inspiration for Birdsong
The shell-shattered First World War battlefields of the Somme are a long way from the manicured playing fields of Eton, but actor Eddie Redmayne, who studied there with Prince William, made the journey to northern France last summer to research his latest screen role.
He plays a British Army officer in BBC1’s adaptation of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ bestselling love story set against a backdrop of the Great War.
The 1916 Somme offensive, which lasted from July 1 to November 14, was the bloodiest military operation ever recorded, with more than 500,000 British troops killed or injured as they and the French army fought the German invaders.
Heart-breaker: Eddie Redmayne stars in the TV adaptation of Sebastian Faulks' tragic novel, Birdsong
‘You could sense the emotion and the huge human suffering in every blade of grass,’ recalls Eddie, who toured the preserved trenches and tunnels with fellow actor Joseph Mawle, who plays an Army mine layer.
‘The flowers of an entire generation were wiped out. A military historian took us to a tunnel carved out of the chalk, which has only recently been discovered. We had to abseil down, just as our frontline troops did almost a century ago, and it was a pretty eerie experience.
‘The mining and tunnelling that went on is an important part of the story, so we wanted to see the results for ourselves. The claustrophobia was overwhelming. It was impossible to imagine how so many soldiers could cram into such a relatively tiny space, but they had to do it – first, in the hope of advancing behind enemy lines without being seen, and secondly, to survive the constant barrage of artillery fire. And then there was the brightness of the white chalk. It reflected the light from our torches and it was so dazzling we were almost blinded.
'It was all the harder to cope with because we thought there would be total darkness down there and so the light was very disorientating.’
After making their way along the tunnel for 45 minutes, they made a further discovery when their torches flashed over a poem scrawled in pencil on the smooth chalk wall. It read: ‘If in this place you are detained/Don’t look around you all in vain/But cast your net and you shall find/That every cloud is silver lined… Still.’
Eddie says, ‘The words were so poignant, so beautiful and so full of hope. They must have been written by one of the soldiers – I wondered what happened to him. Did he survive Or was he yet another victim – now a name engraved somewhere on a war memorial back home, still mourned by his family I don’t know, but I was so moved by the personal message the unknown soldier wanted to convey that I copied the poem down and kept it.’
Ill-fated romance: Eddie with his co-star Clemence Poesy who breaks his heart in the two-parter
Birdsong, Faulks’ epic tale of a young soldier haunted by a doomed affair as he endures the horrors of the trenches, is directed by Bafta-winning director Philip Martin, whose successes include Prime Suspect, Hawking and Wallander, while Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, The Hour and the award-winning film Brick Lane) has written the screenplay.
Martin suggested that to help the actors grasp what the young soldiers were going through they should look at documentaries about Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘That was very helpful because an actor’s knowledge of war is often through films,’ says Eddie. ‘And we found some great footage of the Somme in black and white.’
Eddie lives close to the Imperial War Museum in London and as part of his research he spent time there. Of the books he bought on the subject, the most inspiring was Voices Of The Somme, which he kept in his trailer in Hungary, where the war scenes were filmed. ‘It’s just snippets of diary entries and letters written by these soldiers at specific moments. I found it very helpful to read in the morning before we started shooting. Nothing in relation to a specific scene, just to get your mindset in place.’
Eddie, 30, tall, fit and handsome, looks every inch the Burberry model that he used to be before becoming an accomplished actor – he received great critical acclaim for his most recent film role in My Week With Marilyn.
‘Being underground must have been a grim experience for the soldiers as the war raged above them,’ he reflects.
‘But to me, it felt like a time capsule. Everything had been perfectly preserved, just as it had been, and it gave me a tremendous feeling of the atmosphere these men must have experienced down there. Strangely, though, there was a weird sense of peace down there too. I hope we capture that in the film, because there is a moment where I get pulled out of the trench and the soundtrack goes from the uncanny quiet down below to the raging gunfire above. It’s like two wars, one in silence underground and one in overwhelming noise going on outside.’
He considers his leading role in Birdsong as 'the most physically punishing thing I’ve ever done. I think the hardest challenge was trying to imagine what the war was like for men aged from 26, the age of my character, to as young as 17; to imagine the extremity of what they went through and to deal with the fact that once you’ve seen an accumulation of deaths, you become numb to it.’
The two-part story begins in 1910 in Amiens, northern France, focusing on the character played by Eddie – a dashing young Englishman called Stephen Wraysford who falls in love with an attractive French woman, Isabelle Azaire, who is unhappily married to the brutal owner of a textile factory. The passion of this illicit affair drives them to run away to start a new life together.
One day, while Stephen is out, she packs her things and without even leaving a note disappears from his life. The shock tears Stephen apart emotionally and haunts him throughout his wartime service which follows. He can never understand why she ran away from him without either explaining or saying goodbye. And he never gives up hope that he will one day find her again.
Ready for a close-up: Eddie on set with some of the crew in Hungary
Eddie adds, ‘It’s a unique story and, I feel, one that’s grounded in real truth.
This man is an anomaly. He was born working class and then given an education by local magistrate and philanthropist Mr Vaughan, who remains a remote figure. His parents have passed away and the moment when he finds someone for the first time in his life who he emotionally connects with is overwhelming for him. There’s no glib perfect ending, which I think gives it a wonderful truth reflecting the complexity of human relationships.
‘After Isabelle leaves him and he hasn’t seen her for many years, there’s a moment when they meet again. His thoughts and affections towards her have been concentrated by the void of war, when his life is at risk every day.
'He comes back to Amiens despite all this and is excited by the thought of seeing her again. He’s kept asking himself over and over again, why did she leave him. Why While she gives excuses, he keeps persisting with her and not engaging in the romance. He is really trying to find answers for the way she behaved. I certainly relate to that in my life. There are moments when you need completion. Whether it’s from grief or in relationships or everyday experiences.’
SHOOT! The trenches of the Somme were recreated on location. Here the cast assemble for an over the top scene
Richard Madden (Sirens, Game Of Thrones), a fireman’s son from Elderslie, near Paisley, plays an unworldly Army captain. He admits to getting emotional while reading Birdsong, which has sold more than three million copies in the UK alone. ‘I finished it and wept for hours – it made me ask why we can be so terrible as human beings. Life meant nothing to so many people – the people in charge. But for these boys… I don’t know how anyone survived it.’
French actress Clmence Posy, a blue-eyed beauty who portrays Stephen’s love, Isabelle, has starred in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire. She says of her experience of making this wartime drama, ‘I think it is a brilliant story about life at its peak, and then death. You don’t feel as if you’re in a period drama, wearing the clothes of a century ago and expressing the attitudes of those times because the characters and their dilemmas are so very modern.
‘My character is given freedom by her affair with Stephen – she’s not just a wife or a lover, but realises she is now a person in her own right. So much so that she’s able to walk out on Stephen, which some people will find very hard to understand. But it happens in real life, not just in books.
‘It’s just so sad that what is basically a very tender, passionate love story centres around such a tragic time and such terrible events. Hopefully, the world will have learned something from the lessons of history by now.’
Birdsong is on BBC1 tomorrow and Sunday 29 January at 9pm.