Falmouth to Land's End Coast


Falmouth to Land's End

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.

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We're heading to Falmouth,

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one of the deepest natural harbours in Europe.

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Early in the Second World War, Falmouth was a frequent target for German bombers,

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but by 1943, the tables were turning.

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The port played its part in a key moment of Anglo-American history -

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the liberation of Europe.

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Prior to D-Day, the south coast was transformed into a vast military base.

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Nearly three million Allies assembled to fight a common enemy.

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But the American military was far from united.

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Between their white and black troops,

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there were deep racial divisions.

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'John Stockley's father was one of those black GIs,

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'over here making ready for D-Day.'

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How much DO you know about your dad?

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Well, very little really, I'd..

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I believe his name was Brian,

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I believe he was very tall, but actually...

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that's about it, not much else.

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My mother never spoke to me about him at all,

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it must have been quite a thing for her to...

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to have me,

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but it's as if there's this wall of silence.

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'All John knows is his dad was here preparing for D-Day,

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'but what did that entail?

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'We're following in his father's tracks to discover what life was like for him.

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'Tony Warner has researched the experience of black GIs in Britain.'

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Tony, could you start by just giving us an idea of what

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the black GIs in particular were here to do in 1943/44.

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Well, there were 130,000 GIs who came from America, and they...

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mostly they were involved in quartermastering, building things, engineering battalions,

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because, even though Americans were employing black soldiers,

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they weren't that keen on training them to fight.

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In 1943, black GIs in Northern Europe weren't allowed in combat units,

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they were assigned exclusively to support work.

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Black troops widened Cornwall's narrow lanes to take trucks and tanks

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and they built new roads like this one down to Trebah Beach.

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So this is the limit, then?

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Yes, this beach here was the most westerly embarkation point

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for the troops that were going to land on Omaha Beach as part of D-Day, June 6th, 1944. All this.

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And this concrete we're standing on, would have been laid by black American GIs, like your dad,

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to enable the D-Day landings to take place at all.

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And I wonder how many holidaymakers even stop to wonder why there's concrete here.

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'Concrete like this dots the south coast.

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'It's one of the enduring reminders of the black Americans' war effort.'

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Just like American society, the US Army was segregated, men separated by skin colour.

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The Black GIs were used to racism at home,

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but now they found themselves in a new culture.

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Tony, what was the treatment like to the black soldiers in this area from the locals?

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On the whole, it was much better than they got in America.

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They could talk to people, have a meal in a restaurant,

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they could walk down the street, they could go dancing,

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and they found that England was much better

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when it came to the racist behaviour of white people, than America was.

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The US Army made training films to prepare their troops for the shock of British attitudes.

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Now let's be frank about it, there are coloured soldiers as well as white here,

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and there are less social restrictions in this country.

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Freed from rigid segregation, the way was open

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for relationships between the black Americans and the locals.

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But John's white mother refused to tell him about her mixed-race romance with his GI father.

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I don't know if he went into Europe in the theatre of war,

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I don't know where he went to, or whether he went back to the States,

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posted back to America.

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Em, I don't know, so...

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we lost track of him then.

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If he got killed in the Second World War, I'd like to go and see his resting place.

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If he went back,

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I'd certainly like to go and meet his family.

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John's a living legacy of a time when, against all the odds,

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people on this coast were able to find love in a world at war.

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The Lizard Peninsula.

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We've reached the most southerly point on the mainland.

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Living on the edge, coastal folk must turn their hands to anything.

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For millennia, the Cornish mined tin.

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That metallic thread stretches along this coast to here at Mount's Bay, dominated by an iconic island.

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This is St Michael's Mount.

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In classical times, traders took tin from here,

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mixed it with copper from Cyprus and fuelled the bronze-age arms race.

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My last stop approaches.

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One of Britain's most remote artistic attractions -

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the Minack Theatre.

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One of the great seaside traditions is taking in a show.

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I'm not going to take in a show. Heaven help us all, I'm going to be IN one!

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On this windswept headland, stands the Minack,

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a unique temple to the performing arts.

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Less theatre of dreams, more place of my nightmares.

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Well, would you look at that? You'd expect to find that in ancient Rome.

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Maybe it's the scene of a Greek tragedy.

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'My co-star in this personal drama is local thespian, Sarah Lincoln.'

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-Hi, Sarah.

-Hi, welcome to the Minack.

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They tell me I'm going to perform here.

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You are, yes. Tonight, on this very stage.

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Ohh... Show me what I'm going to do.

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The very first performance that was given here on this stage,

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was a production of The Tempest in 1932,

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so we thought it was really apt that YOU would play Prospero, and I will be your Ariel.

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-And here are your lines.

-Shakespeare, what a nightmare!

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No, Shakespeare's easy, he tells you exactly what to do,

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and he's great at commanding the elements, just like Prospero.

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You've got the real sea and the real wind, and potentially even the real rain tonight.

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-Right, let's go.

-Shall we start rehearsing?

-Let's go.

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-Let's go hence to another place.

-SHE LAUGHS

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'This extraordinary amphitheatre exists thanks to The Tempest,

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'Shakespeare's play set on a small island.

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'In 1932, Rowena Cade wanted somewhere suitable for her friends to perform it.

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'She chose this spot, at the end of her garden.

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'The play's lead part, Prospero, has starred all the greats -

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'Redgrave, Gielgud, McKellen,

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'and now me!'

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-And our little life is rounded with a sleep.

-Brilliant.

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So what does the venue bring that isn't there in another kind of theatre?

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I think the first thing it brings is scale.

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I think the fact that the theatre is surrounded by nature,

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surrounded by the sea, the elements, the cliffs,

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and the fact that you've got a real horizon.

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When you stand on stage, as an actor,

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often you have to create a horizon, and there it is, looking at you,

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and the audience are looking at you with that fantastic backdrop.

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The early performances of The Tempest were such a great success,

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it was repeated down the years.

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Rowena Cade - and her long-suffering gardener -

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spent the next 40-odd years building a unique theatre.

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-Here we are.

-OK.

-Oh, the gorgeous white shirt...

-Nice blouse(!)

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-Pair of britches for you.

-I'll look like little Jimmy Krankie!

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I feel sick to my stomach.

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-Slight problem, there!

-SHE LAUGHS

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I offer you...Prospero.

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Outside, suitably ominous weather,

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and a frankly certifiable audience are rolling in.

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-We're English, we do this all the time.

-It's all part of the fun.

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Absolutely bonkers!

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There must be something strange about the fact that behind you,

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rather than a painted backdrop or a set,

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there is uncontrollable...nature.

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No actor on this planet can compete with a pod of 20 dolphins

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doing a sort of, you know, moon-walking across the top of the water which they seem to...

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It's like they rehearse round the corner and go, "We'll show them!"

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and they come and do this fantastic display.

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And do the audience..?

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-Yeah, you haven't got a hope in hell.

-They just turn to the...?

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To the dolphins. You can stand there stark naked, chop your own head off

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and "Oh, look at the dolphins!"

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This season, I had a performance I was directing

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and we had to stop the show because there was an air-sea rescue.

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This is not the easiest theatre in which to make one's debut, is it?

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If the elements are raging, people really, really remember if you get through it, and they love it.

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Well, the elements are certainly raging.

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We've only a short scene, but I've never been on stage before.

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Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Welcome to the Minack.

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I've never felt so ill in my entire life, I think I'll break my own leg.

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There's something we want you to share with us this evening.

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CHEERING AND APPLAUSE

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Our revels now are ended.

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These, our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.

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We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

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Come with a thought, I thank thee, Ariel, come.

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Thy thoughts I cleave to. What is thy pleasure?

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Spirit, we must prepare to meet with Caliban.

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Say again, where didst thou leave those varlets?

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I told you, they were red-hot with drinking.

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So full of valour that they smote the air.

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The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither, for stale to catch these thieves.

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I go, I go.

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APPLAUSE

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Land's End and journey's end.

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Hollywood will never find me out here.

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Well, the bard said all the world is a stage. It turns out that's even true of the coast.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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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.


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