This is one that I’ve had in mind for a long time. There’s at least one remake of “The Battle of Britain” movie that might be underway (I say “might be”, because I’m not sure of its current status), but even without that, I think Mr. Malahide would be an ideal candidate to play Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, the man responsible for much of the Royal Air Force’s success during the Battle of Britain in World War II.
Why? Well, for starters, just look at them! I think there’s quite a resemblance. We already know that Mr. Malahide looks smashing in an RAF uniform (see the “Dead Letter” episode of “Danger UXB” for proof), but there’s also the fact that Dowding was an extremely interesting character in his own right.
A fighter pilot himself during World War I, Dowding was brought in to assume command of the newly created RAF Fighter Command in 1936. When war became imminent, he postponed his retirement in order to stay in command until the conclusion of the Battle of Britain in November 1940. During his tenure, he instituted such innovations as the use of radar, a network of volunteer observers, ground-controlled raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft movement (unheard of in WWI). He also supported the development and use of more modern aircraft, such as the Hurricane and Spitfire. However, he could also be a bit stodgy; he was reluctant to allow foreign pilots to undertake combat sorties until the RAF was so pressed for available manpower that he had no choice. But his conservative approach to allocation of resources and planes – hotly contested at the time – was likely one of the decisive factors in Britain’s victory.
He was nicknamed “Stuffy” and, depending on the version you read, he either earned the name during his school days for his tendency to be somewhat aloof and unapproachable even then, or had it bestowed upon him later by the pilots under his command. Dowding had a tremendously soft spot for his pilots, referring to them as his “chicks” (his own son Derek was among them) and feeling their losses keenly. I think it was a combination of factors that led to his forcible retirement (he didn’t want to go) – the varied aspects of which are still vigorously debated today – but Dowding certainly seems to have felt unappreciated for the effort he put in, and was somewhat bitter about the outcome.
Following the Battle of Britain, Dowding was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory in 1942. He also started to take an interest in spiritualism in a way that reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle. He apparently reported seeing some of his “dead RAF boys” in his sleep and began to believe in reincarnation, even delivering lectures and writing about his experiences. He married his second wife, Muriel Whiting, who was twenty-six years his junior, in 1951. Although they were both vegetarians, they advocated for the humane killing of animals intended for food and were prominent anti-vivisectionists. And Dowding also became a member of the Fairy Investigation Society – so he really did have something in common with Conan Doyle.
So, for all of Dowding’s fascinating qualities and contrasts in his personality – the dedication and perseverance that led him to put off retirement to oversee the Battle of Britain, his desire for innovation sometimes colliding with his Victorian ideals, his seemingly cool demeanour contrasting with the warmth and affection he evidently felt for his pilots, his struggle to manage resources during the Battle – and for the quality of imagination and (I assume) answer-seeking that led to his interest in theosophy, fairies, and spiritualism – I think Mr. Malahide would be ideal to bring Lord Dowding to life. I would especially like to see how he would portray Dowding’s clashes with his peers, such as Sholto Douglas, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Douglas Bader, or even Winston Churchill – all of whom had roles in ushering him out of Fighter Command. Plus – and this is purely self-serving on my part – I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Malahide’s forays into a Forties milieu and I’d love for him to have the opportunity to do it again. Dowding seems to be often overlooked in the desire to get the splashier bits of the Battle of Britain on screen (all those lovely planes! 😉 ), but he’d be an intriguing character for a more in-depth biographical study.
Note: The portrait of Mr. Malahide in RAF uniform is from a set detail that appeared in “The Franchise Affair“. Other pictures are from “Into the Storm“, in which he portrayed Major-General Bernard Law Montgomery.