Grandson: Number of child refugees means “brilliant” Winton film resonates today

One Life, a biopic that shows how Sir Nicholas Winton saved 669 mainly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, recently received its UK premiere. Meanwhile, some of the now elderly people that the Englishman rescued feature in a new photography exhibition in London. I discussed it, and the movie, with Sir Nicholas’s grandson, Laurence Winton.

“I’ve seen the film One Life three times now and it hasn’t lost its emotional punch. It’s hard for me personally to be objective about it, because it’s based on my mother’s book.

Sir Nicholas Winton with his daughter Barbara | Photo: Jiří Hošek,  Czech Radio

“It’s a very personal story: seeing my grandparents come to life in front of my eyes and have all these conversations that I never would have seen.

“I grew up knowing so many of the kinder, the rescued children, that they’re sort of extended family for me. But I think it’s a brilliant film. I think they’ve done an excellent job.

“They’ve been very loyal to the accuracy of the story, of the facts. But it also gets across Nicky’s character and his values and some of his family context: why he did what he did, his own political awareness, which enabled him to sort of see coming what Hitler was planning to do.

“It just resonates so much today, when there are still so many refugees, child refugees, and so many awful things happening across the world.

“So it’s a positive message about the fact that anyone can do some good, if they’re open to it and they take the opportunities and they have the right kind of moral framework.”

Did any of the surviving Winton children, these now very elderly people saved by your grandfather, make it to the film’s UK premiere?

Photo: Sir Nicholas Winton Memorial Trust

“Yes, there were quite a few. In fact, I’m with one of them now, Lord Dubs, in his office just by the [House of] Lords. There are a lot of the kinder and there were lots of their families, as well.

“So that again was very, very moving, to be with them. And of course they all feel such a strong connection to Nicky and and his story.”

I’m sure a Johnny Flynn is very good as the young Nicholas in Prague, but of course the great Anthony Hopkins plays your grandfather later in life. For you, what does Anthony Hopkins bring to the role?

“I found Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of my grandfather pretty remarkable. He gets a huge amount right about how he speaks and how he moves, little movements that he had.

Photo: See-Saw Films

“In fact, I got to be an extra on the film and I was able to speak with him and I said to him, How have you got all this detail about how Nicky was?

“He didn’t say, Well, I’m an amazing actor, what do you expect, this is what I do? He explained that he had done lots of research; he had watched lots of video recordings and things, so he could get a real sense of Nicky. He has that sort of playfulness, but then also that sort of old school emotional reserve, where he keeps things tight.

“Again, growing up with my grandad, I got to see more of that, that more sort of reserve. So seeing Sir Anthony go behind the mask and reveal some of these emotions is really beautiful.”

In connection with the film coming out in early January in the UK, there’s also a related exhibition of photographs by Simon Hill at the National Portrait Gallery. What exactly is that?

“That’s a series of portraits of the kinder, some of the rescued children, that came over on those evacuee trains. They’re very nice and they do capture… there’s something that comes across in the eyes. Simon, the photographer, talks about the resilience and strength that these people all have, having been such through such a traumatic event.

“In some ways they were the lucky ones, having survived when so many other children, so many families, were all murdered. But still of course very tragic: mostly they never saw their families again.”

Many visitors to Prague know the statue and plaque to you grandfather at the Main Train Station here in the city. What does it mean to you that those tributes are there to him?

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International

“We like the statue at Wilson Station, yes, we’ve seen it many times. We think it’s a fitting tribute. There’s a statue at Nicky’s local station in Maidenhead of him sitting reading a paper.

“But one thing that I think the film does well is that it shows that this effort was a collaboration, with lots of other people involved – British people of course, but also many, many Czechs, working extremely hard to try and take people to safety.

“So we love that it shows Nicky and his role with children, but I think we want people to also recognise that it wasn’t just him on his own.

“But yes, I think if people see that every time they go through the station and they’re reminded of the plight of refugees, that can only be a positive thing – if it reminds people to be compassionate.”