Military Wives star Kristin Scott Thomas opens up about father’s tragic death
The emotional toll of being married to someone in the Forces is laid bare in new film Military Wives and star Dame Kristin Scott Thomas knows how devastating being in a military family can be.
And if there are echoes in her character of her mother, it is hardly surprising as she had a secret family trauma to draw upon – as aerial tragedies robbed her not only of her father but later her step-father, too.
For Kristin, saw her mum Deborah struggle to bring up her children alone after her RAF fighter pilot father was killed in a jet crash when she was just five. But when her mother later married another jet pilot, a horrible twist of fate saw him also die in a plane crash years later.
Deborah coped by hiding her sadness behind a matter-of-fact persona – as Kristin’s character does in the new fictional tale, inspired by Gareth Malone’s 2011 choir documentary.
She plays Kate, an officer’s wife whose cheery exterior masks the fact she’s struggling to keep a lid on her emotions.
Recalling the moment her mum broke the news of her father’s death, Kristin, 59, said: “Mummy was pregnant and I can remember when she told us. In one breath it was: ‘Daddy has had an accident and won’t be coming home and I’m going to have a baby’. So it sort of took the sting out of it.”
Kristin’s mum was left to bring up five children alone. As the eldest, she was encouraged not to cry in case it upset the younger children. Hiding behind a stoic, stiff-upper-lip facade that made her appear aloof, coupled with a cut glass accent from boarding school, made Kristin the butt of jokes among fellow students on a drama teaching course in London.
She said: “I got needled a lot for being middle class. They thought they were so right-on and took the p**s out of me. I thought, ‘You don’t know anything about me’.
“Just because I’d been to a convent school and spoke a certain way, did not mean I was loaded. It was a struggle growing up. You can’t bring up five kids on a naval pension and have it be easy and comfortable.
“My mother had to fight tooth and nail to give us the education she gave us, ringing on doorbells, telling people, ‘I went to this school – my children need to go there’.
“I’m fantastically in awe of her courage. It made me so angry when people assumed I had this easy life.”
For almost 50 years, the circumstances behind the death of Kristin’s father were kept secret. But in 2015 – the year she received her damehood from the Queen to reward a lifetime of achievement – the air investigation report was declassified.
It revealed how, on March 17, 1966, Simon Scott Thomas – a Lieutenant Commander with the Fleet Air Arm – was killed during a dangerous night-time training mission in a Sea Vixen plane.
The new high-speed jets could achieve near-supersonic speed and were designed to attack Soviet ships in the event of a war.
But of the 145 Sea Vixens built, 54 were lost in accidents and 55 crew members killed during the 13 years of frontline service from 1959 to 1972.
It was a worse rate than the notorious F-104 Starfighter, which became known as the ‘Widowmaker’ in Cold War West Germany.
Simon’s mission was to lead three other planes to fly above a target, light it with flares, then roll in to a dive before firing rockets in an attack on a dummy ship.
It has since been described as “perhaps the most stupid, and potentially suicidal attacks ever invented”.
The mission was dogged by bad conditions and worse luck. After the first attempt failed, Lt Cmdr Thomas began a second when pilots from one of the planes remember seeing a flash, and ten seconds later an explosion as his aircraft hit the water off the Dorset coast. He was killed instantly and his co-pilot, Lieutenant John Harvey, was listed as missing.
Kristin said of her dad’s death: “We went down to school and everybody had to be nice to us and we didn’t really understand why.
“It’s only later that you realise what a terrible shock it was. I can still remember him. It’s like having a little film playing in your head. I can still remember his smell, it’s really weird.
“The thing that breaks my heart is the smell of engine oil.”
Deborah went on to find love again with Simon Idiens, also a lieutenant commander. In a cruel coincidence, he died in 1972 when the Phantom jet he was piloting crashed into the sea off Trevose Head in Cornwall.
Growing up, Kristin’s grandfather, who lived in Flintshire, North Wales, was a strong presence in her life. And although she wasn’t aware of it at the time, he was also a military hero.
Lieutenant Commander William Scott Thomas joined the Navy aged 13, and by the Second World War was commander of the Destroyer HMS Impulsive. At Dunkirk, his ship evacuated 2,900 men as German bombs dropped all around him.
Following the Dunkirk evacuation, HMS Impulsive was converted into a mine-laying ship and sent on a series of covert night-time operations into Nazi-occupied waters to plant mines. Then as captain of HMS Verulam, William Scott Thomas helped provide essential naval firepower off Sword Beach for allied soldiers during the Normandy Landings in June 1944.
He was awarded the distinguished service cross for his brave actions.
But Kristin’s grandfather always made it clear that talking of his war service was off limits. And although the death of their son was heartbreaking for him, he saw it as “military duty” and it was rarely discussed.
Kristin said: “It really makes sense now thinking about my grandparents – how quiet he was and how non-stop talking my grandmother was. It must have been so difficult with your family, your children or your wife.
“And how on earth can they ever begin to understand what you’ve been through? Nowadays we are far more open to talking about the damage that violence and trauma causes.”
Kristin’s grandfather died in 1983 before he saw in any of the films she starred in from 1985, including The English Patient, Gosford Park and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
But he was at the forefront of her mind while working alongside co-star Sharon Horgan on Military Wives.
She said: “When you’re the captain of a ship, everybody looks to you; and if you show fear or anxiety that will immediately cascade through the ship. You have to be a stalwart and really, really strong.
‘That’s what Kate’s trying to do. Keeping everybody together – which is her way of keeping herself together.”
Military Wives is released in UK cinemas on March 6, 2020.
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