Legacy of a hero: making the new feature film about the British man who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazis

James Mottram meets the director of One Life, and one of the refugees rescued by Nicholas Winton


Anthony Hopkins plays Nicholas Winton in the eagerly awaited Second World War drama

Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines is holding up a faded brown cardboard label, one that is now 85 years-old. “It was the original label that I was wearing around my neck when we came as children,” she explains to me, when we speak over video call. Born in Prague in 1929, Grenfell-Baines arrived in the UK from Czechoslovakia in 1939, shortly before the Nazis invaded. She was on one of the so-called Kindertransport trains that brought hundreds of Jewish children to Britain as World War II loomed.

Taken in by a family in Ashton-under-Lyne near Manchester, Grenfell-Baines, like so many others, knew little of what went on. “For forty years, we had no idea. I didn’t know how I’d got on the train,” she explains. Then, one day, in 1988, she received a call. “I was in the kitchen, the phone goes and then this voice says, ‘This is Esther Rantzen.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England.’”

Rantzen, host of the BBC’s hugely popular magazine programme That’s Life! was in pursuit of a story that would become one of the most successful and emotional ever broadcast in the show’s history.

The subject was Sir Nicholas Winton, “Nicky” to his friends, whose incredible story is now the subject of a major new film, One Life, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins. A former stockbroker, Winton spearheaded a team, including his own mother, that organised the evacuation of Czech children, arranging both railway transport, visas and foster families, with little help from the British government. Ultimately, he saved 669 children, earning him the nickname ‘the British Schindler’, in a nod to Oskar Schindler, who famously saved 1200 Jewish people during the Second World War.

“He was a perfect example of altruism, doing something without asking to be thanked,” comments Grenfell-Baines. So much so, his achievements could easily have slipped through the cracks. After the war ended, he started a family and continued working in the financial sector, but rarely mentioned his humanitarian achievements – aside from in materials when he unsuccessfully applied to be elected to Maidenhead town council in 1954.

“He didn’t want any thanks,” Grenfell-Baines continues. “He felt what it was what needed to be done. This is how he put it. Something had to be done. Because 10,000 children had already been saved from Germany and Austria. And it wasn’t until the Czech country got occupied, that the Jews in the Czech Republic realized that they needed to save their children. And that’s when it started. And Nicky had always said that something would happen because he’d worked in Germany. In the 1930s, he could see what was happening and he was warning people. But, in those days, nobody wanted to believe it.”

Was Winton, who died in 2015 aged 106, the archetypal unsung hero? “I want to call him a quiet hero,” counters James Hawes, the director of One Life (and, previously, episodes of TV shows Black Mirror and Slow Horses). “Because unsung suggested he had to be sung. And it’s something he would never have sought. And [even] pushed away. And does the hero have to be celebrated to become a hero? And it’s such a quiet thing he did. It wasn’t swashbuckling. I think it’s that gentleness about him that is so powerful.”

Based on the book If It’s Not Impossible by Barbara Winton, his daughter, the film covers the period 1938 to 1939, when the young Nicky (played by Johnny Flynn) visits Prague and begins to mastermind eight successful transportations of children. It also dramatises the years 1987 to 1988 when Winton’s deeds are uncovered, after documents are passed to Elizabeth Maxwell wife to the late Daily Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell and eventually to Rantzen and the That’s Life! team.

Much of the film hinges on the fact that Winton was still haunted by the fact he failed to get a ninth Kindertransport train to its destination, as it was stopped by the Nazis. “He blamed himself and felt guilty,” says Hawes. “Of course, his war career went on and he was involved as an ambulance driver. He went across to Dunkirk. He was then involved in the reparations after the war, so he saw all sorts of ugly sides of humanity through that process. And he just carried on trying to do good. Part of it was to salve his own wounds, I’m sure. But part of it was in some way to make up for what he felt he’d failed, especially those 251 children on the ninth train. And we would all say to him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. That 669 were saved is because of you initiating it.’”

One Life culminates with two hugely emotional scenes where Winton arrives at the That’s Life! studio. The first sees his story told by Rantzen (played by Samantha Spiro), who then surprises Winton by telling him that sitting either side of him are two women he saved when they were children. On one side was writer and translator Vera Gissen and on the other was Grenfell-Baines. “That’s the first time he realized he was sitting next to us, the real children that he had saved 40 years previously. We knew nothing about it till then,” says Grenfell-Baines.

With several others he saved also present, she describes that night, back in 1988, as more of an extreme surprise than an emotional outpouring. “It was a shock to find that they discovered somebody who saved our lives,” she says. The segment became national news instantly, leading to a follow-up piece when many, many more of the children Winton saved were found. Clips from of the That’s Life! segment can still be found on YouTube where it’s been viewed a staggering 41 million times. “The most touching video ever” reads the description.

Hawes was a researcher on That’s Life! back then, making him ideally placed to recreate the scenes, even using real Kindertransport survivors as extras. “[During filming] there was nobody in the building who was not sobbing. You can actually hear with Sam Spiro, there’s a catch in her voice even as she tries to play the lines. She was in bits. The producers and the writers were there that day [and] we were just a mess. The camera, the grips, everybody. I have never seen extras perform like that because they’re not really performing. They’re being, they’re feeling.”

After the shows were broadcast, Winton became friends with many of those he’d saved (some of whom Grenfell-Baines knew, because she was at school with them after arriving in Britain). “He was very sociable, but he himself was not an emotional person,” says Grenfell-Baines. “In the film, where he breaks down and cries, those of us who knew him and we’ve talked about this...we felt that wasn’t really him. He was very jovial most of the time, never liked talking about the past. He was very cultured, loved opera and played bridge. We used to go to his birthday parties.”

This small gripe aside, she praises Hopkins’ performance, calling it “unbelievable…considering he’d never met him”. She first saw the film with Winton’s children. His son, also called Nick, told her it was just like watching his father. “I mean, Anthony Hopkins was completely transformed into Nicholas Winton,” she adds. “I’ve never seen an actor take on another part quite like this.”

That’s Life! finally brought Winton his due. He was knighted in 2003 and his fame spread to the Czech Republic. “Everybody knows him in that country,” comments Grenfell-Baines. “If you go there, every waiter, every taxi-driver knows the name of Nicholas Winton. If you go to Prague railway station, you will see two memorials to him.” One is a statue of Winton, holding a child in his arms with two more children standing beside him. “And then there’s another memorial to the parents, who were brave enough to send their children away.”

Filmmakers from the region also began to document his story. In 1999, Rupert Graves played Winton in the Slovak drama All My Loved Ones. One of several documentaries, the Emmy-winning The Power of the Good also brought his story –– and those he saved to the attention of the world. Yet despite these programmes and the popularity of the YouTube clips of Winton’s That’s Life! appearances those behind One Life feel that the world needs to be reminded again about what Winton did, not least because of rising antisemitism.

“We feel that the story must never be forgotten,” says Grenfell-Baines. “And it’s most important that the young people learn about this because the worry is from what I’m seeing [is] that some of the young or older teenagers and students are almost getting indoctrinated again. Antisemitism is rearing its ugly head and that’s a great worry to us. I believe that high schools now do Holocaust studies. And some of them actually do go and visit Auschwitz. But not enough goes on. And what’s happening in this world today…that is a worry.”

Hawes sounds a note of caution, however, not wanting the film to be seen as a diatribe. “Like Nicky, I’d like it to be quietly political,” he says. With asylum seekers and refugees becoming a hot topic in the UK, however, a film like One Life has never felt more relevant. “Recently there’ve suggestions that we need to redefine what a refugee is, how somebody qualifies to be considered one,” the director sighs. “I mean, how would you assess those children who are coming over without parents? These kids aren’t destitute — at home their parents had jobs, money, status​. I mean, it really does make you wonder about those issues.”

He returns to those who stood up in the That’s Life! studio – so many of whom went on to carve out successful lives after Winton saved them. “They’re not how we would archetypically consider a refugee to look or appear or behave. So if the film ​begs that question and makes us reassess things to some extent now and for the foreseeable future, then that’s something of which I’m proud.”

One Life opens in cinemas on 1 January.

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