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Look back in Camber

Sir Alan Budd recalls his time as an extra on the original Dunkirk movie

03 August, 2017 — By Sir Alan Budd

CHRISTOPHER Nolan’s epic Dunkirk in cinemas brings back memories of my role in Dunkirk, not the actual event (I’m not that old) but the earlier film, directed by Leslie Norman.

My co-stars were John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee. Well, co-star is a slight exaggeration, I was one of the thousands of extras gathered on the beach at Camber Sands, which stood in for Dunkirk.

I was doing my National Service and stationed in Sussex. I assume that Ealing Studios, which made the film, paid the government some appropriate sum for the use of soldiers for a few days. My little troop arrived in Camber Sands and set up tents. I remember that there was a gathering of officers (I was the most junior there) and the officer in charge asked if anyone had actually been at Dunkirk and a few had (it was only 17 years earlier).

Filming started the next day and we were sent to a part of the beach which was rather a long way from the director and the production team. We’d get instructions by radio and mainly wandered across the beach in a rather pointless fashion, avoiding the points where explosives were to be detonated. At one point we were told to run toward the sea with the helpful instruction: “One in 10 of you should fall down.” Needless to say, everyone fell down and the next time no one fell down.

Alan Budd

If I had had the chance I would have pointed out that all soldiers had numbers and we merely needed to be told that everyone with a number ending in two (or what-ever) should fall down.

On the second day, there was a feeling that those who were a long way from the production crew (including us) deserved a reward for our efforts and it was decided that John Mills and Richard Attenborough should get in a jeep and drive down to our end of the beach so that we could see them. Inevitably by the time they reached us the troops were in no mood to cheer and booed and jeered as the jeep passed. I sympathised with the troops but had a sneaking respect for the fixed grin that the stars managed to hold as they passed us.

I wasn’t invited to the world premiere, much to my disappointment, but it’s often shown on television. There’s a scene where I can distinctly see myself leading my troop erratically across the beach (I was receiving confused instructions from the director). We seem to be going round in circles.

That must have been fairly typical of the chaos and terror of the actual event.

Sir Alan Budd is an economist, a founding member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and was chairman of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility in 2010.


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