EARLY June, 1944. The largest amphibious invasion force in history has been assembled in secrecy on the south coast of England. But their principle enemy is not Hitler, it’s the weather.
At Southwick House near Portsmouth, while assembled military leaders wait to launch 350,000 troops in the key Allied counter-offensive of the Second World War, a Scottish meteorologist is about to make the most important weather forecast of the 20th century. James Stagg, head of the Allied Forces Meteorology Unit, the son of a plumber from Dalkeith, has a lot on his shoulders. Now, Stagg’s story is about to be told in a new play, Pressure, at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, written by well-loved stage and television actor David Haig, who also stars.
“There was a serious difference of opinion at Southwick,” says Haig, tucking in to a cooked breakfast to set him up for a day of rehearsals. “The American meteorologists had a system which was based on looking at past charts. They said D-Day was going to be a glorious day. Stagg was looking at the jet stream, which was very new science. He said there was going to be a storm, but the Americans, and a lot of other people, didn’t believe it.
“Everything depended on getting the forecast right. If they went in terrible weather, as many as 70,000-80,000 men could die because the landing craft would capsize. But if they postponed, they were looking at the probable cancellation of D-Day and lengthening the war, possibly by as much as two or three years, with huge numbers of casualties.”
The drama of Stagg’s forecast is played out against a backdrop of colourful real-life characters, including Irving P Krick, arguably America’s first celebrity weatherman; Eisenhower, then the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and his chauffeur, confidante and lover, Kay Summersby.
Haig says: “Kay is one of my favourite characters. She was loved by Eisenhower and respected and liked by Churchill and Roosevelt. There’s an incredible story in her memoir about going for a picnic with Eisenhower and Roosevelt, Ike is driving and she’s sitting in the back chatting with FDR. She had this ability to calm and stabilise people who were under extraordinary pressure. But it’s sad too, because she wanted things to work out with Eisenhower, and he had his political career to think of and a wife back in Washington.”
Haig is best known as a comic actor, for his roles in TV shows such as The Thin Blue Line and The Thick of It, and as Bernard, the moustachioed groom who causes Hugh Grant an embarrassing moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral. But his long career had taken in a much wider variety of parts, from Mr Banks in Mary Poppins to King Lear. He won an Olivier Award for the lead role in The Madness of George III on stage.
He says he started writing because “as an actor you’re part of the picture, and I wanted more intellectual, artistic control over the entity”. His first play, My Boy Jack, about Rudyard Kipling’s relationship with his son, was directed by John Dove at Hampstead Theatre in the late 1990s, and was later made as a screenplay for television where he starred opposite Daniel Radcliffe. Dove was keen to work with him again on a co-production for the Lyceum and Chichester Festival Theatre, and as soon as Haig read about Stagg, he knew he had found his subject.
He had no intention, however, of playing the role himself, saying he had doubts about “whether I could play a Scot authentically”. He has been working for six months on his Scottish accent, listening daily to voice recordings, and trying out his Edinburgh brogue on his wife and children. “My family are delighted that I’m in Scotland and not in London now because this character called Jimmy has been living with them for months. Jimmy was not very convincing in the early days, so they have a very different feeling towards him!”
The man beneath the accent, however, is one he understands well. “I’ve met many Scots who I’ve liked very much who are like him, quite superficially stern but have something underneath, a humour and an integrity which makes them much more interesting than people who can superficially charm everyone around them.”
And he identifies deeply with Stagg’s determination to hold it all together, despite the pressure he is under. “One thing I am drawing on is people who carry anxiety well camouflaged within an apparently confident exterior. That’s me, but it also happens to be James Stagg. His brusqueness, his efficiency, his professionalism is what came out on the top, but inside he’s extremely anxious about the whole scenario. He goes through a journey in trying to keep it together.” He smiles: “It’s not unlike being on stage.”
• Pressure is at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 1-24 May