Film starring Hollywood icon Annette Bening makes a star of a Doncaster World War Two hero – at the age of 97

It’s the film that’s made a star of a Doncaster World War Two veteran – at the age of 97!

By David Kessen
Tuesday, 15th September 2020, 12:30 pm

When the credits roll at cinemas this week, moviegoers will see the names of Hollywood star Annette Bening and British character actor Bill Nighy – and then former soldier Les Wales, from Balby.

When the cast and crew of the film Hope Gap rolled into Doncaster in 2018 to film with their big name America star, they wanted a genuine war hero to read to the ‘The Exhortation’ at Doncaster war memorial on South Parade: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

And as one of Doncaster’s last veterans of the war, Les was selected.

Former RBL chairman Thomas Heath, Les Wales, Hannah Kay, Annette Benning and, Jeff Swift (Sprotbrough Branch RBL)

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Now, the film is finally on the big screen – but Doncaster residents have to travel to Sheffield to see it, or watch it streamed on-line, as it is being shown at The Curzon chain.

But Les has already seen it, after his son arranged for him to watch it on the small screen.

The veteran did not expect to hit the cinemas at the age of 97, but was happy with his performance.

Annette Benning with Doncaster veterans on the set of Hope Gap

He said: “I played it through, and it was all right. Evidently I’m also on the credits!

"My grandson saw it at the cinema. I said to him ‘did you tell the cinema manager you grandad was in it?’ he said no, he was too shy.

"I never expected to be a film star. I do think it should be shown in the cinemas in Doncaster though.”

But now it has emerged that it is not the first time Les has appeared on the big screen.

Filming of Hope Gap, an upcoming family drama written and driected by William Nicholson gets underway by the War Memorial in Doncaster. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Hope Gap MC 3

Les, who met his Italian wife, Anna, while serving in Italy during the war. had previously appeared as an extra in the 1959 Italian movie, Hercules Unchained.

"I have taken part in a film before,” he said. “I was in Italy, and my nephew was involved in a film. He got me and his dad in among the extras.

"We had to charge at some Roman walls, while waving papier maché swords. It was very busy, and it was a very hot day.”

Les originally applied to join the RAF, hoping to be an air gunner on Lancaster bombers. But he was turned down because of arthritis in his left foot, which doctors thought could cause him a problem at high altitude. Bomber aircrews had some of the most horrific casualty numbers in the war.

Actress Annette Bening, pictured at the War Memorial, on South Parade, during filming of Hope Gap, an upcoming family drama written and driected by William Nicholson. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Hope Gap MC 1

But three weeks after he was rejected by the RAF, he received his call-up papers from the army, and joined the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). He was trained up as a lorry driver, using his previous experience from the garage.

His experiences in the RASC included being bombed by the Germans as he arrived in Sicily on a tank landing craft, which was damaged in the raid, and being shelled by Nazi artillery in the advance north.

After the war, he returned to his job at British Ropes, later moving to work at Brodsworth Colliery as a diesel locomotive fitter.

Comrades Club

Steve Frost, the club steward at the Doncaster Comrades Club, is hoping to see the film on the big screen, but fears lockdown may affect any hopes of a large group from the venue going to watch it together.

He said: “We looked after a lot of the actors.

“I would love to go and see it at the cinema, and I think it would be great to see it in Doncaster.

"But a lot of our members are older people, and a lot of them are not going out much yet. I’d love to see if so I can see how much our club is in the film. Mind you, we had to cover up the name of the club, because the film was not set in Doncaster, so they didn’t want a sign in the background that said Doncaster Comrades Club!

"But a lot of the extras were our members.”

The scenes shot at the war memorial were among a number of locations in Doncaster used in the film.

As well as the memorial, there was also filming at nearby Elmfield Park, and at McAuley School, in Cantley.

The film crew had also set up a base at the Doncaster Aeroventure aircraft museum, at Doncaster Lakeside.

The stars' caravans were based there, along with the costume and make-up departments. The crew and cast were bussed in from there to the locations used for filming.

In a recent interview, actress Ms Bening said she did not initially want to make her the film, because she thought it had too many words, but later decided she was being daft, and changed her mind.

The movie, co-funded by Screen Yorkshire, is based on the real-life experience of the British film-maker, Bill Nicholson, who is best known as a writer for his work on Gladiator, Les Miserables and Unbroken.

It is based on his own experiences when as a young man when, after three decades of marriage, his father announced he was leaving his mother for another woman, triggering a family crisis with him caught in the middle.

Hope Gap is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now.