Ghosts of Flanders fields

Actress Penelope Wilton
Actress Penelope Wilton
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Actress Penelope Wilton’s parents moved to Scarborough to help her father recover from the horrors of the Second World War. Now she’s heading back to the county as part of the First World War centenary commemorations. Sarah Freeman reports.

The statistics thrown up by the First World War are almost too large to have meaning. During the course of the four-year conflict, 65 million men were mobilised to fight. Millions never came back or were wounded. The lucky few who survived bore the mental scars of watching friends breathe their last in the muddy trenches of the Somme or on other bleak battlefields where it was impossible to see the ground for corpses.

Ben Nabarro (violin) and Tim Horton (piano) Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.

Ben Nabarro (violin) and Tim Horton (piano) Photo: Benjamin Ealovega.

“Frightening isn’t it?,” says Penelope Wilton who is appearing in Sheffield’s Love and War season which begins next week. “It’s impossible to comprehend loss on that kind of scale. The male population of entire villages was decimated, the death toll kept on rising and young men kept on signing up. I remember growing up I had a lot of great-aunts who never married. I never thought much about it at the time, but as the years went on I realised that 
they had probably lost their fiancés in the First World War and never found love again.”

In previous decades, histories of major conflicts tended to concentrate on the big political issues of the day and the lives of military leaders. What has been notable about this year’s First World War centenary commemorations is the concentration on stories of individual soldiers and the impact on ordinary families. In the Grave of Winter, Wilton, along with the Leeds-born actor Tom Durham, will present the verse and prose of war poet Edward Thomas, including various correspondence between him and his wife Helen.

“Edward began his career as a literary critic and it was his great friend the American poet Robert Frost who really persuaded him to be a writer,” says Wilton. “Thomas never earned very much money from his work and as a result he and Helen, who was mother to his three children, had a fraught relationship.”

Helen may have had good cause to blame her husband’s American friend for their parlous financial state, but Frost’s influence would not stop there. When war broke out, Thomas was torn. Then in his late 30s he was old enough to avoid conscription, but felt a moral obligation to fight for King and country. Regularly suffering from bouts of depression, he often felt a failure as a father, husband and friend and took criticism to heart. He considered himself a coward and after reading an advance copy of Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken, about a man who takes the easy route through a “yellow wood”, he believed his friend also found him lacking. Frost always insisted he had only ever intended to gently mock Edward’s tendency towards indecision, but the damage was done. In July 1915, Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles and in November the following year he was commissioned into the Royal Garrison Artillery.

“He had no reason to be fighting,” says Wilton. “As events played out he was killed soon after arriving in France. Standing up to light his pipe he lost his life in a blast of shells, his name added to the ever growing death toll.”

Wilton herself saw the impact that conflict has on survivors. In the Second World War her father was captured in the Northern Desert during the retreat from Tobruk and was handed over to the Italians. “He spent four years as a prisoner of war and one can only imagine what horrors he saw. My father was a big man, 6ft 2in tall, but when he came back from the war he was in a terrible state and weighed just 10st. “My family came from Newcastle, but my maternal grandparents had a holiday home in Scarborough and they gave it to my mother and father who set up home on the coast.

“Throughout his life he hardly ever spoke about what had happened to him. My sister did ask him about it once and all he did say was that once you went through the gates it was clear there were the haves and the have nots. It must have been awful, but as he said, it must have been worse, much worse for the Jews.

“Words probably couldn’t describe what he had gone through and I think the easiest thing for men like my father was to draw a line under the past that they couldn’t change and concentrate on the future over which they had some control.”

Wilton agreed to take part in the Love and War event partly as a favour to old friend Paul Allen, the Sheffield-based writer, broadcaster and playwright behind The Grave in Winter event, and partly because she has a genuine affection for Yorkshire.

While her father did eventually complete his studies and become a barrister, a profession which afforded them a comfortable family life and paid for a place at boarding school in Surrey she has always had an affinity with the county of her birth.

“I was given an honorary doctorate by Hull University the other year and wonderfully the ceremony was at the Scarborough Spa. I took my elder sister who remembers the place much better than I do, but we had a wonderful couple of days and I managed to pop into to see Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I first worked with Alan very early on in my career and it was wonderful to reminisce a little.

“I’ve always been impressed by the work which is put on in Yorkshire and you are really very lucky to have Sheffield Theatres which has really raised the bar under the direction of Daniel Evans and before him Michael Grandage.

“They have both challenged the idea of the kind of work regional theatre should be staging and I love the fact it has staged entire seasons dedicated to the likes of David Hare and Brian Friel.

“It’s a very unpatronising approach and recognises that audiences like to be challenged, they like to be fed work which is demanding.”

The Grave of Winter will be staged at the Crucible’s studio theatre at 6.15pm on May 10, followed by Fond Farewells, a concert featuring music from Ravel, Strauss and Brahms.