Just a day after handing out our 2019 Funding Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest, we got a chance to see just how much of a difference £80,000 can make to an aspiring documentary maker. When Alex Bescoby won our inaugural Funding Award in 2016, he had never made a film in his life. But with the help of The Whickers he was able to tell the story of Burma’s lost royal family in We Were Kings.
Now this historian-turned-filmmaker has gone from strength to strength and completed his second feature-length documentary. Forgotten Allies tells the story of the Burmese soldiers who fought alongside Britain in the Second World War. We were lucky enough to join Alex for its world premiere. I say lucky, because the premiere was completely sold out. Hundreds of people packed into the National Army Museum in Chelsea and such was the demand that they needed to set up two screening rooms!
Alex had the premiere for his first film in The British Library, complemented by a Burmese illuminated manuscript known as a parabaik, which told the story of the royal family. This time, the National Army Museum made for an equally appropriate venue, as the film was screened in the presence of artefacts from the war itself. Historian Michael Wood of Maya Vision introduced Alex and commended The Whickers for giving him the opportunity to pursue documentary making.
Resplendent in a dapper suit, Alex addressed his adoring crowd from a balcony and went on to thank a long list of people who had made the film possible. Unlike his Whicker-funded first feature, he had to rely on crowdfunding to make this one a reality. Supporters of the film included Dame Vera Lynn and The Royal British Legion. In attendance were numerous distinguished guests including veterans of the Burma Campaign and our very own Valerie Kleeman, Alan Whicker’s partner in life and chair and founder of The Whickers.
The film itself was both extremely poignant and also highly informative about one of the most overlooked conflicts in recent history. We followed the charity Help For Forgotten Allies as they ventured across Myanmar, often to very remote locations, providing assistance to the last surviving veterans. It was extremely touching to see the memories of their service come flooding back: in a particularly powerful scene, one Burmese veteran sheds a tear whilst belting out a rendition of God Save the King. The film contains humour as well as solemn remembrance. It masterfully uses archive material to bring the experience of war out of the history books and onto the screen. My own grandfather was a veteran of the Burma Campaign and it was deeply moving to see in such vivid detail what he went through when he was a young man. The film shows what became of Burma once Britain left its allies behind, and how Burma’s colonial history echoes into the present.
There is a close connection between Forgotten Allies and Alex’s first film, We Were Kings. Indeed, in the Q&A afterwards, Alex said that it was in speaking to one of the members of the Burmese Royal Family that he got the inspiration for his latest film. Prince Taw Phaya appears in both films – at the end both he and many of the others featured in the film are poignantly revealed to have passed away. This only reinforces how important it was to make this documentary now, as the last veterans will soon no longer be able to share their stories.
Alex is planning more screenings of the film, including a Burmese premiere, but you will be able to watch the documentary on the History Channel if you can’t get a ticket. He also screened a trailer for his next project, another tale with a South-East Asian connection. Alex will join Tim Slessor in recreating a journey he made over 60 years ago: the first overland trip from London to Singapore by car. Watch this space for updates about Alex’s latest adventures: www.grammar-productions.co.uk/project-the-last-overland
What is certain is that Alex Bescoby has come a long way from winning that £80,000 in Sheffield and he won’t let anything hold him back from telling the stories he wants to tell. I think it’s best to let him have the last word: “When The Whickers chose us, I had no idea it would allow me to have a career in filmmaking. So, anyone who wants to apply for The Whickers – do it, it’s a life changing experience!”.
– By Curtis Gallant. Curtis is a BBC Researcher and has been a founding researcher for The Whickers since it was established in 2015.