"Piece of Cake" takes the viewer from Chamberlain's broadcast, through the so-called phony war, the fall of France and finally, the Battle of Britain. "Cake" tells the story of these historic events, not on the grand scale of a "The Longest Day", but on a small, intimate scale. Life and death, love and war, sorrow and joys are told through the stories of the men (boys in many cases) of this squadron - individually and collectively.
"Piece of Cake" is an example of what British television does so well - the ensemble production. There are no stars in this series, except perhaps the half-dozen or so antique Spitfires rounded up to perform the aerial sequences. The cast assembled were relative unknowns, although some have subsequently became familiar faces to viewers of PBS series such as "Masterpiece Theater" and "Mystery". Certainly the absence of big-name stars contributes to the realistic feel of the series. You are meeting each actor and the character he portrays for the first time.
Another factor contributing to authenticity of the series was the way "Piece of Cake" was filmed. According to an article that appeared in the October 1988 issue of "TV Times", the cast lived and worked together on location during the filming - even going as far as calling each other by their fictional nicknames and attending "funerals" for those cast members when they written out of the series.
While there are no stars in "Piece of Cake" and all the roles are well acted; several stand out and are worthy of being singled out for special mention. As Squadron Leader Rex, a career RAF officer who leads Hornet Squadron during the first half of the year, Tim Woodward plays Rex as a generous country squire - paying half of his squadron's mess bill. But this benevolence comes at a price - Rex insists upon his pilots flying tight, tidy formations and he tolerates no questioning of these tactics.
The pilot who most often dares to question Rex's tactics is the American Christopher Hart III, ably portrayed by Boyd Gaines. A rich-kid and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Hart is the officer best positioned to take on Rex. He's the only pilot who has had combat experience against the Luftwaffe.
Neil Dudgeon appears in all six episodes as Flying Officer 'Moggy' Cattermole, a cynical pilot who is out - at all times -- for number one. A quick-witted, sarcastic bully, 'Moggy' is - by his own admission - not "an officer and a gentleman". Although his constant sniping gets on everyone's nerves at times, his skill as a pilot and his killer instinct is appreciated - as long as it's aimed at the enemy.
The two actors whose characters evolve the most during the course of the year are 'Fanny' Barton and 'Flash' Gordon. Through Tom Burlinson's portrayal, 'Fanny' grows from a conscientious pilot to the leader of Hornet Squadron during the tumultuous days of the Battle of Britain. Nathaniel Parker takes 'Flash' from a well-scrubbed young pilot to a romantic young husband and eventually into madness. His appearance during the first episode is little more than "wallpaper", lounging against a fireplace during the declaration of war radio broadcast. By the final two episodes we find an unshaven 'Flash' shooting seagulls from a shabby beach chair atop the cliffs of Dover, flying his Spitfire upside down, and quoting large "chunks of Churchill" to an RAF medical officer.
Supporting the pilots of Hornet Squadron were the Adjutant and Intelligence officers - Flight Lieutenant 'Uncle' Kelleway and Flying Officer 'Skull' Skelton - convincingly played by David Horovitch and Richard Hope. As a veteran pilot of Word War I, Horovitch's Kelleway is the calm, pipe smoking, voice of experience. Hope's "Skull", on the other hand, is a Cambridge don, a Flying Officer who calls flying "unnatural".
"Piece of Cake" is visually beautiful. The sequences with the Spitfires are aerial ballets - so graceful that one almost forgets the real horrors these scenes represent. Derek Robinson's excellent novel was well adapted by Leon Griffiths and the excellent cast was well directed by Ian Toynton. Lynnette Cummin's costume designs capture both the spirit of time and the individual eccentricities of pilots of Hornet Squadron.
In his speech before the House of Commons at the height of the battle, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said - "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The creators, cast and crew of "Piece of Cake" have created a fitting tribute to those "few".
A point worth making is that at the begining of every war, the troops have to find out what works and what doesn't, often at the cost of lives. Tight formation flying was a case in point. Essential in WW1, deadly in WW2.
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