Remembering RICHARD BRIERS (aka-'Tom')
For those of us who remember just how good British comedy programmes used to be, way back in the 1970s and '80s, the names of 'Tom' and 'Barbara' really need no introduction. Richard Briers, who brought 'Tom's' character so wonderfully to life, was very much a 'one-off' - an actor whose roles were inextricably bound up with a time when nothing seemed impossible. I never had the good fortune to meet Richard in person; however I reckon I can understandably feel very proud that words I wrote as the prologue to the film 'The Only One Who Knows You're Afraid', were voiced by him in the role of an anonymous Commando about to be thrust onto the shores of a very hostile France, as part of Operation Chariot, the greatest ever raid on the shores of Occupied Europe.
The text is given below. So just imagine Richard's soft, melifluous delivery, and remember a truly extraordinary man.
'The Only One Who Knows You're Afraid'
(© James Dorrian)
Tonight we’re going to take you on a journey back in time.
It’s just after one o’clock on the morning of March 28th, 1942. It’s cold. It’s pitch black. And you’re a soldier, crouched on the deck of a small boat, almost within sight of the coast of Occupied France.
The proximity of land brings with it the first stabs of real fear, and you wonder if the other Commandos in your small party are feeling it too. They’re all around you, their faces dark beneath the dull steel of their helmets. Everyone’s weapons are at the ready, packs full of explosive charges, pouches stuffed with ammo and grenades. Aside from muffled orders to the sailors at the after Oerlikon cannon, the only noise to be heard is of the boat’s own powerful engines, a roar so loud they must surely be able to hear it in Paris.
Just before leaving Falmouth, they’d finally mentioned all the guns that were going to be waiting for you on your approach to Saint-Nazaire. A lot of U-Boats lived in the port, just like the one your escorting destroyers had put under yesterday. Silly bugger to show himself anyway: must’ve imagined no British ships would dare be seen where we were.
Hard to tear your thoughts away from all those unseen guns. How many are even now pointed straight at you? You twist around, and search the darkness for the rest of the fleet. Up ahead, that darker patch, that must be Campbeltown, with tons of high explosive packed in her bow. Somebody’s going to get a nasty surprise. Trailing on either side of the old destroyer, feathers of phosphorescence breaking from their bows, are the remaining 17 ships – built of wood, just like your own. … . Bloody tinderboxes still, after all this way, with 2,000 gallons of petrol in each of their tanks. Some “Royal Navy” if that’s all they can afford to give a person. At least Campbeltown, rusting relic though she might be, was built from good old steel! To aid in identification each boat bears a number painted in white – just like they were on a Blackpool pond. Maybe there won’t be any firing after all. Maybe the enemy’ll just grab megaphones and call out from the shore, “Come in number so and so: your time is up…”.
Hard to take your mind off all the fuses, detonators and plastic explosives filling the pack you’re going to be lugging ashore – a pack which, now it’s become a target, seems to have grown to twice it’s former size. Another stab of fear, this time almost crippling as the brilliant, ice-cold pencil of a searchlight sweeps across the waves, only just missing the last boats’ wakes. As it goes out, there’s a loud metallic clicking next to you as one of your Protection Party cocks his Tommy gun. Nerves stretched so tight you could probably play a tune on them. A drink would be good, just about now…..
Your officer appears out of the gloom. It’s the Navy’s job to defend the boat, but with nothing but these tiny Oerlikons against the whole might of the enemy, they’ll need all the help you ‘brown jobs’ can give them. Orders are to be ready at a second’s notice – but absolutely no firing until the klaxon sounds.
Up ahead the Navy are exchanging stolen signals with the Germans, hoping they’ll accept the fleet of strange ships as their own. Can 'Jerry' really be that stupid? You’ve been told they believe the port to be impregnable. Complacency on their part was to be the fleet’s trump card. The British would never dare come here – ergo the British can’t be here – ergo the ships must be German: simple.
Flashes up ahead now; coming from the shore. Then the thud of heavy guns heard only microseconds before first Campbeltown’s klaxon, then all the klaxons on the following boats, shriek out the signal to return fire. The sudden hammering of an Oerlikon only feet away from your ears stuns your senses; then the Commandos’ Tommy guns and Brens join in. You think you hear the sound of somebody beneath your feet, banging on the hull with a mallet: then you realise it’s enemy fire tearing through the thin mahogany skin.
You feel so bloody helpless. As part of a demolition team, all you can afford to carry in addition to your weighty pack, is a Colt pistol. May as well chuck it at the shore for all the good it’ll do. So you make yourself small, very small, and you pray. And maybe you think how long it seems now since you and your mates were swanning round Scotland, taking full advantage of the effect your Commando flashes had on all the girls. And not just the girls –sometimes their mothers too….
A muffled choke, and the Oerlikon gunner is hit, slumping dead in his sling. A flurry of activity as he is quickly replaced - and the dreadful racket of the gun begins all over again.
A wall looms on the port beam: an enemy gun on top of some building is firing over your head at the starboard column. You’re in the outer harbour already. Only few hundred yards to go and you’ll be ashore on the soil of France. No passport control on this trip…..
Your officer gets the various parties sorted out – Protection in front, Demolition behind, while the crew begin to pull down the side stanchions. Stand up: pack on: my God it’s like slinging a bag of cement. Ahead are the silhouettes of the twin pill-boxes that defend the Old Mole, the landing point for all the boats in your column. You wonder if anybody’s made it: then find your answer in the gush of flame that suddenly engulfs the boat just in front of yours. Poor bastards. What a way to go.
Your own boats heels sharply to port as it breasts the lighthouse at the tip of the Mole. For a brief moment you catch a glimpse of Campbeltown, the old girl lit up like a Christmas tree, shell after shell crashing into her sides. She must be almost there. Going fast as hell, from the size of her bow wave. It’s a sight you’ll remember as long as you live – as long as you live!
Amidst the dreadful racket you can still make out the tinkling of broken glass falling from the shattered lantern room above your head. The streams of tracer from the Mole guns can no longer depress enough to hold you as a target, so your boat slides easily beneath them and comes to a stop alongside a slipway. More thuds; this time from grenades tossed down from its upper surface and landing on the deck where you’d just been. A bark of orders and you’re off, stumbling over the bodies of the forward gun crew. There’s seaweed on the slipway. You stumble: can’t fall over or you’ll be helpless as an upturned turtle. A rattle of Tommy gun fire up ahead and then you’re off the Mole, heading for the shelter of the dockside buildings and the deepest, darkest shadow you can find.
Ahead of you, empty as a Scotsman’s wallet after a night out in Glasgow, lies the broad square that separates the Old Town tenements opposite, from the sprawl of silent dockyard buildings to your rear. You can still see the estuary – but you might have wished you couldn’t: for a rippling horizon of flame and smoke seems to be all that now remains of all your comfy, floating billets.
A staccato metallic clatter and a long spray of bullets shreds a nearby metal waste can. The Germans must’ve put machine-guns in the tenements’ upper windows. Beneath the shattered can, your Protection party officer lies sprawled, like he was still on a firing range, his Tommy gun kicking as he seeks them out. He only looks about eighteen. Wants to be a doctor, so they say: maybe should’ve stuck to that – instead of this.
It’s all going pear-shaped. The square you have to cross to get to your target looks about as welcoming as a shark’s smile. Your own officer tries to pick his way across – but soon collapses to the ground, dead, like as not. Nobody’s getting across there tonight. No way ahead. No way back - not now all the boats have gone. Outnumbered twenty to one. But are we downhearted? No, we’re bloody not. We’re Commandos chum – and we’ll do the job and get back home one way or another. Just like we always do……
Ah well; better get a move on then.....