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Chatting with Jeremy Irons between takes while filming Netflix blockbuster Munich: The Edge Of War, Robert Bathurst found himself accidentally jostled from behind. “I heard the person say, ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,'” recalls the genial actor, who plays British ambassador Sir Neville Henderson in the new drama based on the crunch peace talks. “I turned around and Hitler was apologising to me!”
If that sounds surreal, being part of the noexpenses-spared production – bringing to life the 2017 novel by Robert Harris and set mostly over four dramatic days in September 1938 as Europe teetered on the brink of warfare – must have been quite the experience.
A large amount of the action takes place in the actual Führerbau (or Führer’s building) where the Munich Agreement was negotiated, ceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten territory to Hitler in a bid to prevent further German aggression and a slide into the second world war in two decades. Now home to the city’s university of music and performing arts, it was returned to its pristine 1938 condition for the production.
“When we were arriving in the antechamber to Hitler’s office, it was quite extraordinary – a huge room packed with lookalikes of Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler and people like that,” says Bathurst, 64, talking over Zoom from his comfy Sussex home. “Netflix doesn’t do half measures. It was done in the proper locations and there was nothing small about it. It was strange for us, but strange also I imagine for the local Germans, not only to see everyone in uniform, but to have the Führerbau where they signed the Munich agreement decked in giant [Nazi] banners.
“I thought perhaps the banners would be done with CGI [computer-generated imagery] afterwards, but they were real. The council obviously gave the say-so but it must not have been easy to see.”
The result however is a stunning recreation of some of the most dramatic moments in twentieth century history as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, judged weak and dithering by posterity for appeasing the Nazi dictator, tried to keep the peace in Europe.
German actor Ulrich Matthes, who played Goebbels in the acclaimed 2004 war film Downfall, is a thrillingly sinister Führer.
While 1917 star George MacKay, 29, plays Hugh Legat, a young British civil servant at the heart of the action, Downton’s Jessica Brown Findlay is his wife, and Jannis Niewöhner is Paul von Hartman, Legat’s German former university friend.
Fortuitously, it is an era that has always fascinated Bathurst.
“To put into context the situation, less than 20 years before Munich, we’d come out of the First World War,” he says. “Just try to imagine the First World War having finished in 2002 and then thinking what you’d do to avoid another now? You’d do anything.
“And you’d almost desperately want to believe that what people are telling you was something they mean. When Chamberlain was waving his piece of paper at Heston Aerodrome [in Hounslow, Middlesex] and being cheered all the way to Parliament to present it, there was a real, burning desire for us not to go back to war again. He was riding on a wave of that.
“You could say he was misguided, but that’s with a dollop of hindsight. There were voices at the time saying, ‘Watch out for Hitler,’ but you’d have done anything to avoid war again. In 1933 the Oxford Union voted against fighting for King and Country and there was a big push not to play the sabre-rattling game.
“By the time of Munich, we were busily rearming, and there is a good argument to say it did delay matters. But the underpinning sense of it was to avoid war at many costs, but not at all costs, of course.”
Author Robert Harris wanted a reappraisal of Chamberlain, an objective his bestselling novel and the subsequent film adaptation have more than succeeded in providing.
The Fatherland writer explains: “In the end, Hitler was never going to honour a deal but that didn’t mean it was wrong to try. The value of Munich is twofold: one, obviously, the chance to rearm, the building of Spitfires and radar, but perhaps even more importantly, the moral authority it gave Britain to wage war.That was crucial.
“If it had just been a matter about whether the Sudeten Germans should be in Germany or Czechoslovakia, people would have packed it in.
“They would have said, ‘This is absurd, we’re not going to destroy the country and have London bombed in order to stop a load of Germans being part of Germany.'” It is telling, says Harris, that Czechoslovakia no longer exists.
“It was an artificial state yoking together people who didn’t want to be together. Particularly the Czechs and the Slovaks but also Germans. There were all sorts of ethnic minorities who felt themselves second class.
“None of this is to detract from the fact the Nazis were evil and appalling. But I don’t think Britain would have gone to war. Hitler regarded Munich as a disaster, which is a point of view that only really began to become known quite recently with Albert Speer’s book [Inside The Third Reich]. Speer describes Hitler fuming for two weeks after the Munich conference about having been duped.”
However, despite keeping the peace short-term, Chamberlain was replaced by Winston Churchill the following May when Germany invaded the Low Countries, and died six months later aged 71. History has not been kind to him in the intervening decades.
Harris adds: “When Chamberlain was dying, he said of the Spitfires flying over- head, ‘Who do you think built them?’ He felt that in the end he’d be vindicated but he wasn’t, in part, because there’s a massive Churchill lobby that goes on relentlessly.”
For Bathurst, who has often found himself as the repressed upper-class husband or father during a brilliant 30-year stage and screen career – most famously as David Marsden in the drama Cold Feet – portraying Sir Neville Henderson, who had gone to Berlin in 1937 as British ambassador, brought its own challenges.
Like many of Britain’s governing elite, Churchill being a notable exception, the diplomat mistakenly believed Hitler could be controlled – if handled carefully.
Well hidden under padding and a generous moustache, Bathurst is betrayed only by his evocative voice.
“Henderson’s not as familiar as Mark Thatcher or John Le Mesurier or the other people like that I’ve taken on,” he admits.
“But he was an interesting character, he was rather dimly regarded in Whitehall circles because he was very close to the German regime. Not necessarily politically but he was slightly intending, I think, to have the ear of the regime so he would go hunting with Göring. There was a hint he rather enjoyed it a bit too much.
“When you do take on somebody like this, it’s important to get their essence rather than doing a straight impersonation. In this case, I’m beholden to Robert Harris for the interpretation.
“The research in any job is really done by the author. You can look for ticks and mannerisms and the rest of it but really you’ve got to work from what’s on the page.”
Having the Oscar-winning Irons, 73, play Chamberlain in the drama, which arrives today on Netflix following a limited cinema release, was a masterstroke by Harris – lending a much-needed muscularity to the beleaguered former PM.
Bathurst is full of praise for Irons’ portrayal: “It’s all behind the eyes. There is a prime example of an impression which gets the essence of the person.That’s the key to playing a real character like that. I thought the rest of the cast were excellent too.”
Happily married for more than three decades to his artist wife Victoria, with whom he has four daughters, Matilda, Clemency, Oriel and Honor, Bathurst says his family has kept his feet on the ground.
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Having appeared in dozens of roles from Sir Anthony Strallan in Downton Abbey and, more recently, a retired actor in the BBC’s Toast Of Tinseltown, Bathurst remains best known for Cold Feet.
Which makes it all the more ironic that he nearly lost the role, having auditioned but then refused to return for a recall because he was busy with a stage project.
He says with a smile: “I was in theatre and it was the day of the technical rehearsal and I said, ‘No, I’m not going up there, I’ve already auditioned for them once, they can decide on that.’ It was completely arrogant but I would’ve mucked up the show by going up to London to do the recall. Luckily, they cast me anyway.”
He snorts: “If I’d known that the job was going to last for 22 years plus, I probably would’ve left the theatre, ‘Bye-bye everybody, I’m off now, you lot get on with it…’ But it was never projected as the next big thing, it just sort of turned into that.”
While he has become synonymous with upper-class characters, there is no trace of snobbery about Bathurst, best demonstrated by two appearances in the loved-by-viewers, hated-by-critics comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys.
“People are very snotty about it,” he admits. “But I love it and I’m happy to blazon my involvement with Mrs Brown’s Boys. I did the film and a New Year’s special, and I know the cognoscenti sneer but I don’t care.
“It’s straight out of the music hall tradition, it’s pure Old Mother Riley and beyond the interest of smart, metropolitan critics. In the special, I played a love interest. I found myself making a pass at Mrs Brown and getting hit with a mousetrap. It’s very broad, very vulgar and, if you go to their stage shows, people are just falling about.”
As we wrap up, I wonder what Bathurst was talking to his co-star Irons about when he was bumped by Hitler? Have the pair worked together previously, for instance?
He laughs: “I hadn’t worked with Jeremy but I did tell him I had his autograph from Godspell in the early 1970s.
“I was very small and we got taken to the theatre so I got his autograph. That was the only other time we’d encountered each other, not that he remembered.”
- Munich: The Edge Of War is in select cinemas now and streaming on Netflix from today
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