Comedian Eddie Izzard brings the life of Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the Brechin-born “father of radar”, to the screen in BBC drama Castles in the Sky. Gayle Ritchie watched filming taking place in Edinburgh ahead of tonight’s screening.
The film crew are desperately pinning down the flimsy canvas gazebo which houses all their equipment as a wild wind threatens to topple it. They’re clad in voluminous padded jackets and beanie hats and no wonder it’s freezing.
I was invited on to the set of Castles in the Sky during filming in October last year and this particular scene is at Edinburgh’s New Parliament House.
Eddie Izzard is nowhere to be seen (he’s done his bit, I’m told), but what I witness gives me great insight into the factual drama.
I recognise Emmerdale and Game of Thrones actor Karl Davies, who plays meteorologist Skip Wilkins. Other actors on set include Joe Bell, Iain McKee, Celyn Jones and Nick Elliott.
Filming has taken place all over Scotland’s east coast on Dunbar Beach, Hedderwick Sands in East Lothian, Arniston House in Midlothian, Gosford House in Longniddry, and here in Edinburgh. It’s a period piece set in the 1930s, and the crew have a tough job blocking out all modern day references; ugly air vents, flapping tarpaulins and, strangely enough, piles of plastic boxes.
Castles in the Sky is the previously untold story of the fight to invent radar by Watson-Watt and a team of unknown British scientists. It conveys the genuine human drama of determination and genius versus establishment prejudice behind the invention which was to prove decisive in the Battle of Britain.
Watson-Watt’s ambition to invent radar was initially dismissed by the Oxbridge-dominated establishment, including Winston Churchill, as “castles in the sky”. He and his fellow scientists, who were his meteorologist colleagues, were disregarded as a bunch of “weather men” from provincial universities.
Yet these men continued to strive to achieve their dreams against all odds, to the detriment of their personal lives and at the cost of some of their marriages.
Eddie Izzard takes on the lead role of Watson-Watt, while Laura Fraser plays his long-suffering wife. The cast also includes Alex Jennings as Henry Tizard; Tim McInnerny as Winston Churchill and David Hayman as Frederick Lindemann.
Producer Simon Wheeler hopes the film will illuminate the “sex appeal” of science. “The time is right for a contemporary approach to this rich and under-reported vein of British history it’s not like other war stories if anything it’s more akin to a combination of The Social Network and Chariots Of Fire than The Dambusters or Reach For The Skies,” he says.
“It’s an important story about a bunch of men who realised that their seemingly crackpot ideas and incredibly hard work could save the nation and its poignancy and meaning still resonate today.”
The scene being filmed today in Edinburgh is supposed to be at an HM Naval base in Portsmouth. Watson-Watt’s team of scientists are attempting to bluff their way into a yard to liberate equipment. So why was this corner of Scotland chosen for some scenes, when the real story took place down south?
“Because it’s a Scottish story about Watson-Watt and Creative Scotland are involved,” Simon tells me. “The whole story is mainly in Suffolk so it might seem strange to use bits of East Lothian but it’s quite like the Suffolk coast. This area has a good mixture of buildings, beaches and landscape. Arnisiton House doubles up as Churchill’s house and there’s an old army base at Newbattle.”
Without radar, the Nazis would probably have been able to invade and occupy Britain. Simon hopes the production will allow Watson-Watt and his team to take their places alongside the British greats of the Second World War as the inventors of radar.
“Their names are not famous and that’s something that needs to be rectified. This is their story.”
As the cast cut between shots, they sing witty ditties, bounce a football and devour chocolate. Passing me a box of sweets, Karl Davies asks my opinion on Quality Streets. What’s my favourite? “Breakfast is a glass of milk and a Ferrero Rocher,” he tells me, before Joe Bone informs me of a Ferrero Rocher challenge. “You can’t eat more than five in a minute!” he booms, stuffing one into his mouth.
Castles in the Sky is on BBC2 tonight at 9pm. It was produced with support from The Open University, BBC Scotland, BBC Worldwide, Creative Scotland, the Robert Watson Watt Trust and Brechin Civic Trust and co-produced by Black Camel Films, the company behind hit movie Sunshine on Leith.