There’s a scene in The Windermere Children, the forthcoming BBC drama, in which, Romola Garai’s character, art teacher Marie Paneth, draws on her cigarette, lets out a heavy sigh and says she is so overwhelmed by what her pupils have endured she doesn’t know what to do.
The Windermere Children was commissioned to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. It is based on letters and diaries and tells the true story of 300 Jewish children who survived concentration camps and went on to spend four months in the Lake District, starting to build a new life.
When they arrived they had no possessions, spoke no English and were experiencing deeply embedded trauma. Some had been born in concentration camps and had no memories outside of them. Paneth and a team of teachers and psychologists worked with them, teaching them English, maths and sport and going on walks.
“What do you do with a human whose only experience of life was so horrific?” says Garai, 37, when we meet after a screening of the show with the surviving children, who still meet for an annual drink. She launches into what it meant to her.
“No one knew how to deal with it — I understood Marie’s complete innocence and sense of fear. The children had been to the front line of suffering and come back. The story is relevant now. Our country is going through this seismic change in how we view ourselves, so it’s an important time to put across conversations about coming to terms with refugees. Hopefully this will be a small cog in that wheel, putting across the message if you are a country that is kind that becomes part of your national character.”
Many in the town were unsympathetic to the children. We see Paneth being interrogated by a woman who demands: “Why can’t their own people take them? The war has been terrible for everyone, not just you people.”
“It’s a story of survival,” says Garai. “I was incredibly affected by it.” Her paternal great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew who came to the UK in the 1920s in search of opportunities. Garai has spoken about his horror at discovering his relatives had died in the Holocaust.
As for Paneth, “you could make a whole amazing film about her”. She emigrated from Vienna in the Twenties as an art student and was involved in the movement to memorialise the Holocaust.
“Her nationality meant she couldn’t be in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, so she started play centres for children who had been in the Blitz. Marie had no training as a therapist and we see her finding her way with the children. She believed in the transformative power of creation in recovery.” As she gesticulates, Garai knocks her water onto her skirt. “That happens all the time,” she says, brushing it off.
Garai and her husband, actor Sam Hoare, have two children. “It’s a f***ing nightmare” being a working mother even though she is lucky.
"There are so many practical obstacles to working in film when you’re a woman. It’s embarrassing that this Lefty industry has such terrible working practices. If you want equal representation you must put parameters around the way people work.
"If you want 50 per cent of your crew to be female and the director to be a woman why don’t we not shoot 16 hours a day and why don’t we have a lunch break?”
Garai has spoken about her experience auditioning for Harvey Weinstein, describing it as “an abuse of power”. She now adds that “a lot of people can and have been very damaged by the industry ... The conversations that have happened as a result of #MeToo are really useful. It is unquestionably a better time to be a woman, we can push conversations further.”
So why are this year’s awards dominated by men? She’s sanguine. “It’s a tough one. Not all my favourite movies are award-winning. As more women and people from different backgrounds become directors it will be harder to exclude them. I don’t think we will be having this conversation in 10 years.”
The Windermere Children is on BBC2 on Monday