tue 16/04/2024

DVD: Turned Towards the Sun | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Turned Towards the Sun

DVD: Turned Towards the Sun

An extraordinary 20th-century life recalled in age

Wisdom of age: Micky Burn, back in the surroundings of the Colditz prisoners' secret radio-room

The phrase “improbable life” crops up more than once in Greg Olliver’s highly engaging documentary Turned Towards the Sun about the poet Micky Burn (its title is that of the writer’s autobiography).

It’s a contradiction in terms, perhaps, but as a way of expressing the sheer richness of a life-story, one that overlapped with some of the notable events of the 20th century, encounters with Fascism and Communism, participation in one of the most daring World War II commando raids, imprisonment in Colditz, a complicated sexuality, and 50 years as a writer, it works rather well.

It reminded me somewhat of George Carey’s Hitler, Stalin, and Mr Jones, about the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, some of whose points of contacts in the 1930s were similar to those of Burn. Burn was no born Welshman, but he lived rather more than the last half of his 97-year life in Wales (he died in 2010), and the spirit of that country, especially its landscapes, suffuse Olliver’s film.

The director had the immeasurable advantage of the full participation of his subject. In his mid-nineties, Burn proved a sometimes eccentric treasure, full of reflection and humour, bemused on occasions, but concerned with detailing his legacy throughout, explaining the complexities. He gamely flew off on a small aircraft to St Nazaire, the site of the 1942 “Operation Chariot” commando raid that saw him awarded the Military Cross, and went on from there by train to Colditz. Coming from an establishment background (including links to the royal family), there was a reunion with Deborah Devonshire, whose Mitford sister Unity was so prominently involved with the Nazis, and through whom Burn met Hitler. He expressed due regrets about his ignorance of the realities, though it brought home just how sympathetic a part of the British establishment was at the time; oddly nothing, though, about his brief post-war career as a Times journalist that saw him witness the Communist take-over in Hungary.

We may have wondered occasionally how much Burn was “editing” his own life, not least concerning his bisexuality. The love of his life was his wife Mary Booker, though he struggled to feel sexual attraction towards her. Soviet spy Guy Burgess was a lover in the 1930s, which saw Burn told by a policeman that one day he’d find the right woman: in that sense, he did. His liaison with Dutch aristocrat Ella van Heemstra arguably saved the life of her daughter Audrey Hepburn, through an exchange of Colditz cigarettes that helped Hepburn get the penicillin she needed.

That was just the kind of unlikely anecdote of which this rich life was made up: how lucky that we have it preserved for posterity with the participation of its subject. Olliver’s film drew interest at the 2012 London Film Festival but never found wider distribution, making this DVD release very welcome: it would well deserve broadcast in the BBC’s Storyville strand.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Turned Towards the Sun

Burn proved a treasure, full of reflection and humour, perhaps bemused on occasions, but concerned with detailing his legacy throughout, explaining the complexities


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters