By now, TV viewers might figure they know every aspect of World War II. Or not.
How about the Swedish-born princess who became Norway’s best lobbyist? Or the bankers behind bars, performing Shakespeare? Or a Spanish diplomat, defying rules to help Jews flee from Nazis? Such stories show up in two PBS shows that debuted on Easter and continue on Sundays:
– “My Grandparents’ War” has British actors learn about their kin. It started with Helena Bonham Carter and now has Mark Rylance (April 11), Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan.
– “Atlantic Crossing” traces Princess Martha, the niece of three kings (Norway, Denmark and her native Sweden) and the wife of her cousin, Crown Prince Olav of Norway. In the opener (shown here), they barely escaped the Nazi invasion; on April 11, a plan emerges: Olav will stay in London with his father (the king) and the government-in-exile; Martha will attempt a sea journey to the U.S. with their children.
These stories are new to most of us … including the people in the shows.
“Even though she’s Swedish, …. I’d never heard of her,” said Sofia Helin, the Swedish actress who plays Martha. “I guess that’s a result of telling the story from the male perspective for 80 years.”
Martha never did become queen – she died of cancer at 53 – but her widower was King of Norway for 34 years and their son is now in his 30th year as king. Her legacy involved her wartime friendship with Franklin Roosevelt, played by Kyle MacLachlan.
“Princess Martha had more access to President Roosevelt than any other person, say for his advisors,” said director Alexander Elk.
By various views, he was smitten and/or a very good friend of Martha. Either way, he nudged the U.S. out of its isolationist years, while helping her country. “She was Norway’s secret weapon, more or less,” said screenwriter Linda May Kallestein. “She was a lobbyist.”
Other stories emerge in “My Grandparents’ War,” giving British stars fresh details about their ancestors. Carter knew about her paternal grandmother, an activist (and air-raid warden); she learned more about her maternal grandfather, a Spanish diplomat who violated rules to get Jews out of France in 1940. “It was a mythic weekend, when he wrote all these signatures and these visas,” she said.
And Rylance saw a new side of the gentle figure from his youth.
Rylance was 2 when his parents (both English teachers) moved to the U.S. and 9 when they moved to his father’s job at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. But summers would be spent with his mother’s father, “a wonderful man” in England.
“He sang in the little village church, a tiny little church,” Rylance said. “And was a treasure …. He ran a youth club and let the kids do archery on his land. He was very, very community-minded.”
He was a serene man who started and ended each day in his orchard. And Rylance had no idea of the pain he had once known.
When the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, his grandfather (a banker) was one of the civilians in a defense corps. Many were killed; he was captured and spent four years in a prisoner-of-war camp.
With the other prisoners, he performed Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” which Rylance finds remarkable. Either they got a copy of it (“there were people coming to the fences and giving them thingts”) or someone had an amazng memory. “I find it hard-pressed to remember the whole play, and I’ve been in it 400 times or something.”
Either way, doing Shakespeare in a POW camp seems like something that also rings true during a pandemic. It shows, Rylance said, “the value of theater when people are in a very difficult time– how helpful it is to be creatively involved (or) watch other people who are being creative.”