Series exploring Britain's coastline. Neil Oliver performs an extract from The Tempest on the stage of a remarkable coastal amphitheatre near Land's End.
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With its jagged shore and sheltered inlets, Cornwall is England's most coastal county.
We're heading to Falmouth,
one of the deepest natural harbours in Europe.
Early in the Second World War, Falmouth was a frequent target for German bombers,
but by 1943, the tables were turning.
The port played its part in a key moment of Anglo-American history -
the liberation of Europe.
Prior to D-Day, the south coast was transformed into a vast military base.
Nearly three million Allies assembled to fight a common enemy.
But the American military was far from united.
Between their white and black troops,
there were deep racial divisions.
'John Stockley's father was one of those black GIs,
'over here making ready for D-Day.'
How much DO you know about your dad?
Well, very little really, I'd..
I believe his name was Brian,
I believe he was very tall, but actually...
that's about it, not much else.
My mother never spoke to me about him at all,
it must have been quite a thing for her to...
to have me,
but it's as if there's this wall of silence.
'All John knows is his dad was here preparing for D-Day,
'but what did that entail?
'We're following in his father's tracks to discover what life was like for him.
'Tony Warner has researched the experience of black GIs in Britain.'
Tony, could you start by just giving us an idea of what
the black GIs in particular were here to do in 1943/44.
Well, there were 130,000 GIs who came from America, and they...
mostly they were involved in quartermastering, building things, engineering battalions,
because, even though Americans were employing black soldiers,
they weren't that keen on training them to fight.
In 1943, black GIs in Northern Europe weren't allowed in combat units,
they were assigned exclusively to support work.
Black troops widened Cornwall's narrow lanes to take trucks and tanks
and they built new roads like this one down to Trebah Beach.
So this is the limit, then?
Yes, this beach here was the most westerly embarkation point
for the troops that were going to land on Omaha Beach as part of D-Day, June 6th, 1944. All this.
And this concrete we're standing on, would have been laid by black American GIs, like your dad,
to enable the D-Day landings to take place at all.
And I wonder how many holidaymakers even stop to wonder why there's concrete here.
'Concrete like this dots the south coast.
'It's one of the enduring reminders of the black Americans' war effort.'
Just like American society, the US Army was segregated, men separated by skin colour.
The Black GIs were used to racism at home,
but now they found themselves in a new culture.
Tony, what was the treatment like to the black soldiers in this area from the locals?
On the whole, it was much better than they got in America.
They could talk to people, have a meal in a restaurant,
they could walk down the street, they could go dancing,
and they found that England was much better
when it came to the racist behaviour of white people, than America was.
The US Army made training films to prepare their troops for the shock of British attitudes.
Now let's be frank about it, there are coloured soldiers as well as white here,
and there are less social restrictions in this country.
Freed from rigid segregation, the way was open
for relationships between the black Americans and the locals.
But John's white mother refused to tell him about her mixed-race romance with his GI father.
I don't know if he went into Europe in the theatre of war,
I don't know where he went to, or whether he went back to the States,
posted back to America.
Em, I don't know, so...
we lost track of him then.
If he got killed in the Second World War, I'd like to go and see his resting place.
If he went back,
I'd certainly like to go and meet his family.
John's a living legacy of a time when, against all the odds,
people on this coast were able to find love in a world at war.
The Lizard Peninsula.
We've reached the most southerly point on the mainland.
Living on the edge, coastal folk must turn their hands to anything.
For millennia, the Cornish mined tin.
That metallic thread stretches along this coast to here at Mount's Bay, dominated by an iconic island.
This is St Michael's Mount.
In classical times, traders took tin from here,
mixed it with copper from Cyprus and fuelled the bronze-age arms race.
My last stop approaches.
One of Britain's most remote artistic attractions -
the Minack Theatre.
One of the great seaside traditions is taking in a show.
I'm not going to take in a show. Heaven help us all, I'm going to be IN one!
On this windswept headland, stands the Minack,
a unique temple to the performing arts.
Less theatre of dreams, more place of my nightmares.
Well, would you look at that? You'd expect to find that in ancient Rome.
Maybe it's the scene of a Greek tragedy.
'My co-star in this personal drama is local thespian, Sarah Lincoln.'
-Hi, welcome to the Minack.
They tell me I'm going to perform here.
You are, yes. Tonight, on this very stage.
Ohh... Show me what I'm going to do.
The very first performance that was given here on this stage,
was a production of The Tempest in 1932,
so we thought it was really apt that YOU would play Prospero, and I will be your Ariel.
-And here are your lines.
-Shakespeare, what a nightmare!
No, Shakespeare's easy, he tells you exactly what to do,
and he's great at commanding the elements, just like Prospero.
You've got the real sea and the real wind, and potentially even the real rain tonight.
-Right, let's go.
-Shall we start rehearsing?
-Let's go hence to another place.
'This extraordinary amphitheatre exists thanks to The Tempest,
'Shakespeare's play set on a small island.
'In 1932, Rowena Cade wanted somewhere suitable for her friends to perform it.
'She chose this spot, at the end of her garden.
'The play's lead part, Prospero, has starred all the greats -
'Redgrave, Gielgud, McKellen,
'and now me!'
-And our little life is rounded with a sleep.
So what does the venue bring that isn't there in another kind of theatre?
I think the first thing it brings is scale.
I think the fact that the theatre is surrounded by nature,
surrounded by the sea, the elements, the cliffs,
and the fact that you've got a real horizon.
When you stand on stage, as an actor,
often you have to create a horizon, and there it is, looking at you,
and the audience are looking at you with that fantastic backdrop.
The early performances of The Tempest were such a great success,
it was repeated down the years.
Rowena Cade - and her long-suffering gardener -
spent the next 40-odd years building a unique theatre.
-Here we are.
-Oh, the gorgeous white shirt...
-Pair of britches for you.
-I'll look like little Jimmy Krankie!
I feel sick to my stomach.
-Slight problem, there!
I offer you...Prospero.
Outside, suitably ominous weather,
and a frankly certifiable audience are rolling in.
-We're English, we do this all the time.
-It's all part of the fun.
There must be something strange about the fact that behind you,
rather than a painted backdrop or a set,
there is uncontrollable...nature.
No actor on this planet can compete with a pod of 20 dolphins
doing a sort of, you know, moon-walking across the top of the water which they seem to...
It's like they rehearse round the corner and go, "We'll show them!"
and they come and do this fantastic display.
And do the audience..?
-Yeah, you haven't got a hope in hell.
-They just turn to the...?
To the dolphins. You can stand there stark naked, chop your own head off
and "Oh, look at the dolphins!"
This season, I had a performance I was directing
and we had to stop the show because there was an air-sea rescue.
This is not the easiest theatre in which to make one's debut, is it?
If the elements are raging, people really, really remember if you get through it, and they love it.
Well, the elements are certainly raging.
We've only a short scene, but I've never been on stage before.
Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Welcome to the Minack.
I've never felt so ill in my entire life, I think I'll break my own leg.
There's something we want you to share with us this evening.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
Our revels now are ended.
These, our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.
We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
Come with a thought, I thank thee, Ariel, come.
Thy thoughts I cleave to. What is thy pleasure?
Spirit, we must prepare to meet with Caliban.
Say again, where didst thou leave those varlets?
I told you, they were red-hot with drinking.
So full of valour that they smote the air.
The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither, for stale to catch these thieves.
I go, I go.
Land's End and journey's end.
Hollywood will never find me out here.
Well, the bard said all the world is a stage. It turns out that's even true of the coast.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Neil Oliver explores the lasting legacy of black American GIs who came to Britain to prepare for D-Day.
Neil also performs the lead role in an extract from Shakespeare's The Tempest on the stage of a remarkable coastal amphitheatre near Land's End. He discovers how the unique theatre was built thanks to a woman determined to stage the Bard's famous play in the open air next to the sea at her home in Cornwall.