Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has ducked Luftwaffe bombs for a cup of coffee.
"I can't ever fix a name to a face."
By the end of Piece of Cake, the officers in the Royal Air Force's Hornet Squadron had trouble remembering the names of their flyers before the men crashed and burned at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Piece of Cake, a six-part miniseries that once aired on Masterpiece Theatre, covers the early days of World War II through the flyers' too-short lives. It's based on Derek Robinson's novel.
Facts of the Case
Squadron leader Rex (Tim Woodward, Vanity Fair) takes command of the Hornets, along with his dog Riley, who likes to pee on flyers. Early on, there's a bit of glamor as the Hornet Squadron billets in a nifty French chateau, enjoying squash and billiards, along with fine food and wine. They're enjoying themselves and feeling confident, enough so that the phrase "piece of cake" could be used in a drinking game. Soon, though, the war will take its toll.
Piece of Cake starts at a crawl. Let's face it, when the dramatic discussion centers around whether to call those potato slices "french fries" or "chips," it's not gripping drama. The aerial sequences are beautiful, though.
Something happens in the second episode, however. One of the men (Tom Radcliffe, A Feast at Midnight) does something daring and stupid, riding a tray down the stairs and getting banged up. Not long after, he does something else daring and stupid, trying to fly under a bridge. As you'd expect, he crashes and burns to death. Even though there's still time for hijinks—the men play rugby or something with a piss pot that the Germans dropped on their unit as a joke—the death toll starts to mount. Even the romantic subplot leads to death as a double wedding is disrupted by Luftwaffe bombing, and only one of the newlyweds will live to see the end of the story. New characters keep popping up and getting shot down, and you will have trouble fixing names to faces, as that officer says.
That certainty of death seems to be the point of Piece of Cake. At first, the war is a fun lark for Hornet Squadron, and then it gets to be, well, war. By the end, you're seeing some strange stuff, like a shellshocked flyer who can't resist getting up to get his morning coffee fix, even though he's getting up out of a trench to cross an airfield that the Luftwaffe is bombing at the time. Even in the miniseries' last moments, as a battle leads to hope, there's one final casualty to frustrate flyers and viewers alike. We're told that the miniseries leads up to September 7, 1940, which signaled "a turning point" for the Battle of Britain, but what we see isn't that hopeful.
Picture quality isn't fantastic. There are lines and flecks at some points, and there's a slight fading. Sound quality is acceptable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While viewers who stick around will get the point of Piece of Cake, it is awfully slow going at first, and when you get the point, it's a depressing one. The drastic shift in the story's mood could leave viewers shellshocked.
Everything in Piece of Cake seems to hit home that bleak message by the end, as when an officer gets the bright idea of attaching cameras to the planes so the men can see just how lousy they are as flyers. Nice going!
It might have been nice to have a bit of history text to see how much of the story is based in fact.
At first, I wasn't too keen on Piece of Cake, but I was impressed by the way it took my early expectations and slammed them into a bridge. This is drama that relentlessly hits home the reality of war. It may be too brutal for some viewers, but it is well-done.
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Scales of Justice
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