Binbrook's Memphis Belle by Gary Parsons
It's many years since the cameras rolled to produce the latest version of the classic wartime story. Five B-17 Flying Fortresses came together in that glorious summer of '89; 'Sally B' G-BEDF, 'Lucky Lady' F-AZDX, 'Chateau de Verneuil' F-BEEA, N3703G and N17W. Such a sight had not been seen for forty-four years, and possibly won't be in the UK again.
Inspired by her father's wartime film of the actual final mission, Catherine Wyler had succeeded in persuading Warner Bros. to finance a new version of the story, and had also attracted the interest of producer David Puttnam. A cast of relatively new faces was employed, the only 'star' being Matthew Modine, an up and coming actor.
The principal location for much of the film was RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire, recently vacated by the air force in the April of that year. Although a station at the forefront of the defence of the realm since the end of the war, it had never been developed to its true potential and consequently meant little alteration was necessary to return it to a typical mid-forties bomber airfield of East Anglia. The real Memphis Belle had been stationed at Bassingbourne in Cambridgeshire, an expansion period airfield of the late thirties equipped with 'C' type hangars, but today an Army Barracks, the runways having been removed in the sixties. Binbrook's layout was very similar, although the hangars were of a slightly younger type of that at Bassingbourne, having gabled ends. To add to authenticity, a mock church tower was constructed in the valley to the west of the airfield, to hint at the close proximity of the village.
Alterations to the airfield comprised of dismantling the ASP lighting and associated pylons, disguising the sixties style control tower and removing modern-day 'furniture' such as direction boards and aerials. A typical wartime control tower was erected in front of number one hangar, where many of the initial scenes of the film were done.
Filming at Binbrook began on 16 July, after a spell at Duxford. Binbrook was used for most of the aircraft and actor set pieces, with the hangars providing space for internal sets, such as the hangar dance sequence. A chance to star in the film was missed by yours truly as he didn't see the advert in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph asking for willing volunteers to become extras; many locals made their acting debut at Binbrook that summer, whether as drivers, nurses or dancers at the hangar dance.
Production at Binbrook lasted some three weeks, throughout which the sun shone and the evenings were long and warm. many people ventured to the old spotting haunts of the Lightning days to try and catch a glimpse of the action, but security was tight and some minor roads were cordoned off, quite understandable as a Ford Sierra in the background with some anorak sporting binoculars would have dented any authenticity somewhat. Views were afforded from afar, the sight and sound of B-17s landing over the hedge with one prop feathered and smoke billowing from the dead engine is one that will remain in the memory for many years; it was as if you had been transported back in time.
All five Fortresses sported many different identities during the three weeks, often carrying differing schemes on each side of the aircraft. All were fictional, but well in keeping with the spirit and style of the times, with names such as 'Windy City', 'Cloony Baby' and 'My Zita'. With all the changes it was impossible to know which aircraft was which, but generally 'Sally B' stood in for the 'Memphis Belle' for much of the time.
Tragedy for one of the airframes, although fortunately not the crew, struck on 25 July when F-BEEA swung on take-off, struck the ground away from the airfield and was totally destroyed in the ensuing fire. Thankfully all ten crew members evacuated the aircraft swiftly, only receiving minor injuries. It was suspected that a fault had occurred on the number three engine during take-off from runway 21, causing the aircraft to swing off to the right.
With filming completed, Binbrook returned to its role as a relief landing ground for Scampton, its place in cinema history now confirmed. The film was released in the Autumn of 1990 to mixed reviews, but it has many fine flying sequences and captures the mood of the era, even if reality has been stretched somewhat. Only the special effects towards the end of the film let it down slightly, the aircraft obviously being models, but overall it stands as a fine piece of atmospheric nostalgia.