The early 20th century was a period of great social change in Britain which has been explored numerous times on screen. The breakdown of rigid class structure, universal suffrage and the birth of the Labour Party are all explored in series like Upstairs Downstairs, examining how the characters adapt - or not - to such changes. Wings (1977-1978), set during the First War, explores similar themes, featuring two young men from very different backgrounds as they join ‘C’ Flight of the Royal Flying Corps as pilots in France: Charles Gaylion (Michael Cochrane) joins as a Commissioned Officer by virtue of his background while Alan Farmer (Tim Woodward), originally a blacksmith, becomes an NCO down to his natural aptitude in the air.
The series reveals that not only are the British pilots at war with the Germans, but also they are also struggling with aeroplanes which are both inferior and unreliable, and with an Establishment that classes voicing an opinion to that effect as being tantamount to cowardice. That’s despite the German planes’ patently better speed, rate of climb and forward-mounted machine guns which devastate the already outdated British biplanes - it’s victory enough to get one in the air and down again in one piece. The RFC must also face the backward-looking attitude of the Generals who fail to see that times have moved on, that this is a different type of war - and who blindly refuse to accept that any enemy could be more advanced. Well, they’re foreigners, aren’t they? On a somewhat lighter note, a similar superior attitude meant that an English football team didn’t compete in the World Cup until 1950 - because we knew we were the best. We were proved wrong. In 1950, as it happens.
Early episodes feature the British planes flying reconnaissance missions with a two-man crew, pilot and observer, the latter of whom is equipped with a rifle - that’s against German planes which are both faster and fitted with a machine gun. It’s a neat metaphor for British arrogance at the time; it would be funny if it wasn’t actually true. The series highlights the rigidity of the British class structure when Farmer becomes an officer in the second series - he faces resentment both from some COs because of his class and NCOs because of his new rank. As an officer with a working-class background he is neither fish nor fowl - the fact that he has risen on merit never seems to cross most people’s minds - apart from the commander of ‘C’ Flight, Captain Triggers.
The series really comes into its own with the arrival of Captain Owen Triggers. Nicholas Jones plays Triggers as a man weighed down by the responsibility of command and having to deal with the intransigence of his superiors who have little regard for the safety of the airmen or their opinions of their planes’ deficiencies. Triggers is a man driven close to breaking point yet manages to retain control of his flight. The episode where he has to deliver a female spy behind enemy lines but is captured is a standout. Held overnight in a cell, Triggers is given a last minute reprieve as he is an officer, but the woman is shot as a spy. Swearing revenge, Triggers manages to escape on his way to a prisoner of war camp, surges back to his base in a frenzy, taking a plane and returns to blow the departing German officer’s staff car off the road. Now if this was the plot of a Bruce Willis film, it would sound (and look) far-fetched but between Nicholas Jones’s performance and the verisimilitude of the BBC’s modest videotaped production, it’s nothing short of gripping.
Wings paints the conflict in many shades of grey - the airmen must face the resentment of British soldiers who see them having an ‘easy' life’. Bearing in mind its WW1 setting, it’s no surprise that easy solutions and happy endings are in short supply; when the determined Triggers finally manages to dispose of the German Eindecker, it’s a bitter victory as the stricken plane spirals down onto a nearby church, killing the congregation. It must be said that the flying shots are nothing short of impressive at all times, Michaeljohn Harris getting fantastic results with his 1/6th scale remote control models.
The series takes great care with historical accuracy, covering the early days of the parachute, the fitting of weaponry to British biplanes (lacking the Germans’ technical nous, they must be fired at an angle rather than through the propellers) and the horrors of trench warfare (where a stranded Triggers is shot at by both sides). The series excels in creating a group of strong characters we get to know and like, and who build a great camaraderie despite the risks they take on a daily basis. It rightly shows the conflict as not being as simple as a war between two countries, one good and one bad, and also depicts a Britain that is, in some areas, struggling to adapt in the face of change, at a period that was a turning point for many people’s way of life.