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The Windermere Children: 'Listening to the survivors talk is overwhelming'

Tim McInnerny and Iain Glen star in The Windermere Children, a dramatisation of a remarkable true story about hope in the aftermath of the Holocaust

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Pascal Fischer as Ben, Iain Glenn as Jock in The Windermere Children

Pascal Fischer as Ben, Iain Glenn as Jock in The Windermere Children

Tim McInnerney

Tim McInnerney

Pascal Fischer as Ben, Iain Glenn as Jock in The Windermere Children

Silence falls as the credits to The Windermere Children roll - actors and audience moved in equal measure. From screenwriter Simon Block and director Michael Samuels, the BBC Two drama tells the remarkable - and often unknown - true story of a group of young Holocaust survivors who were brought to the Calgarth Estate by Lake Windermere for a new life in the UK.

With only the clothes on their back and carrying a few meagre possessions, the children bear the scars of all they have suffered at the hands of the Nazis, a regime that devastated Europe's Jewish population.

And today's praise is more pertinent than ever due to the fact the crowd is dotted with the now-elderly survivors whose very stories inspired this tale.

"The film was very well made and very realistic - it made me weep from time to time," says Arek Hersh, MBE, the first survivor to stand up.

"It was a true story. This actually happened. You made a very good thing."

"On behalf of the survivors, I want to thank each and every one who has been involved in this project," mirrors Ike Alterman, who, like Hersh, was one of 300 children taken by coach to the Lake District in August 1945.

Commissioned by the BBC, the moving epic makes up a range of content put on to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 - and crucially the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

And it's certainly got the talent - who admit they knew little of this truth beforehand - thinking.

"Precisely how many more times will this group of people (survivors) come together in a public venue and speak together?" muses Strangers actor Tim McInnerny (63) in a chat afterwards. I was thinking this while we were sitting on the stage and they were in the audience, which by the way seemed like the wrong way around. It was odd."

He follows: "Listening to the survivors talk is overwhelming. I just feel very grateful; it's one of those jobs that you just feel is important and I'm glad to be a part of it in some small way."

"Not all the work that we do - if we're all honest - is as valuable, so you really appreciate when you're given the chance to do something like this," echoes his co-star, Iain Glen (58).

"If the (survivors) are saying, which they seem to be, that they really approve of what the filmmakers made, well what more could you possibly ask for as an actor, as a director?" asks the Game of Thrones actor.

"If they think it's okay, well nothing else really matters. It's a privilege."

Based on powerful first-person testimony, the one-off film follows the children as they learn English, play football, ride bikes and forge friendships. All the while haunted by nightmares and yearning for news of their loved ones.

The roles of the children themselves are played by young European actors selected from Polish communities in Germany, London, Manchester and Belfast, as well as from Warsaw.

While charged with looking after the youngsters is child psychologist Oscar Friedmann (Thomas Kretschmann); along with art therapist Marie Paneth (Romola Garai), philanthropist Leonard Montefiore (McInnerny) and sports coach Jock Lawrence (Glen), who have just four months to help them reclaim their lives.

"Jock Lawrence was a real character - he was a retired PE teacher who was in the locale and offered to come and help when they were looking for sports therapy," explains Glen.

"Just being outside, being active in beautiful surroundings was really vital to a lot of their recovery and speeded it," he insists.

"The testimony was that he was well loved."

As for Leonard: "He went over right at the end of the war to see these children because it wasn't just the awful conditions under which they'd lived, but there was nowhere for them to go", McInnerny says.

"Something had to be done and Leonard is the kind of guy who fights until those things happen," he recalls.

"It's humbling to play somebody like that who fights so hard on behalf of others and dedicates their life to it."

Could they put themselves in the shoes of their characters - or the survivors?

"It sounds almost slightly cynical, but in a way you have to forget about that," claims McInnerny. "You have to forget that it's real in a way, because otherwise it's just too much to bear; it becomes about responsibility and that emotional weight becomes very hard to carry."

"That's right," agrees Glen. "The problem with the holocaust, generally, is it has an incomprehensibility about it for those who had no direct contact with the future generations. It's documentary footage, of which there is a lot, but how do you find a new way of telling it?

"It's easy to get lost in despair and it would have been very tempting to go into archive footage, but they found a story and they told it in a very effective way."

As for the trauma: "We're never going to understand - that's what's so moving about hearing (the survivors)," Glen notes.

"They're alive and they went on to do such extraordinary things. And they're incredibly grateful to the UK for providing a safe haven for them."

He follows: "Without getting too political, for me it resonates. We seem to be at a time, globally, where those that have, have a sense of keeping those that have not away, because there's a sense that their nationality, their strength is going to be weakened.

"It's a reminder of the transformative effect it can have, if you welcome people who are suffering and give them love, give them opportunity and give them hope," he attests.

"I hope this helps readdress any balance there may be (as to) whether we shouldn't be accepting refugees into this country anymore," concurs McInnerny.

"Because that's what's built this country, absolutely!"

And unlike many shows that tackle the subject, it's ultimately redemptive.

"This is about people who survived, as opposed to a reminder of all of those that didn't," Glen reasons. "And I think that's what enticed (the production company) Wall to Wall and the filmmakers to take this on."

"I won't forget it," confides McInnerny.

"You hope that as an actor you do something that resonates, that makes a difference, but being there and seeing people who have been through the most awful experience, and for you to have to depict that and for them to have given you the thumbs up...

"Well it's an extraordinary experience," he finishes. "I don't see how you could possibly forget it."

The Windermere Children, BBC Two, Monday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph