Not a lot of people know this – but the Vale is home to a
rising star of the big screen who recently worked alongside
an Oscar-winning actor.
That dashing leading man is World War Two veteran Laurence Henry, who is set to make his unexpected big-screen debut alongside Sir Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson CBE – at the age of 100.
His journey to the film set started some 83 years ago when Laurence, who hails from Leeds but now lives in Sherborne, became an engineer with the RAF at the outbreak of the second world war and spent much of his service looking after Wellington bombers.
After serving in Africa and returning to Melksham, Laurence met his wife, Cymbeline. The couple went on to have seven children and later made the town their home, in the early 1970s, before returning up north and splitting their time between England and a villa in Spain.
Laurence returned to Sherborne after his wife passed away in 2001.
Fast-forward more than eight decades and a chance perusal of a casting call found by an acting friend looking for veterans took Laurence on a journey that ended in the bright lights of movie making – in Camber Sands. The call was for The Great Escaper, which tells the true story of veteran Bernard Jordan, who in June 2014 absconded from his care home to attend the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations in France.
Bernard sparked a police search after fleeing the Hove facility and making his way to Normandy, where he joined other veterans to remember the D-Day landings.
And recreating the scenes at Normandy for the film is where Laurence came in.
“I was told about the film by a friend, who’s an actor, that they were asking for veterans for small, bit parts,” Laurence explained. “So I said, ‘why not?’ I had never done anything like that before, although I did some amateur acting, you know. I was a bit of a comedian.”
A fan of JB Priestley and George Formby, Laurence was determined to make his own mark on cinema.
And with the help of family, he made it to his first shoot on 29 September, in Twickenham, where he took part in scenes during a day of filming.
But it was the following month when Laurence got a full experience of the A-list movie actor life, when he came face-to-face with two-time Oscar winner Sir Michael, albeit in a rather unglamorous setting – a 400-mile round trip to Camber Sands, in East Sussex.
Taking the opportunity of a lifetime, Laurence was keen to confront the legendary actor about something from his own service.
In 1952, Sir Michael was called up to do his national service and saw active service in the Korean War.
Due to the ongoing conflict, the likes of Laurence could not be decommissioned.
And staying true to his comedic instincts, the cheeky veteran was quick to remind the Knight of the Realm how that had impacted him. “I told him, ‘I blame you for the last years’ (of my service),” he said, jokingly.
“He was laughing and apologised – he is a lovely guy, he really is.
“He is a man of great character.”
Sir Michael even gave Laurence some acting advice when posing for pictures on-set, telling him to make sure he looked ‘at the camera’ in his distinctive cockney tone.
The pair went on to spend much of the three-day shoot in close proximity, as well as Laurence taking the opportunity to make more friends among the cast and crew.
However, there was one mix-up with the wardrobe department Laurence was quick to complain about – in true celebrity ‘diva’ style. “They gave me an Army cap,” he said. “I said I wanted an RAF beret and they said, ‘it’s the same’! I said, ‘It’s not!’
“They looked everywhere to get me a beret and they did get one in the end.”
But overall, the long days paid off and Laurence is hopeful of making a mark in the final edit when the film is released. “I might be cut out,” he said. “But you never know.”
Away from his acting career, in recent years Laurence has given talks to youngsters at a local primary school in Hazelbury Bryan looking back over his 100 years and his experiences in the war, ensuring the conflict – and those who gave their lives – are not forgotten.
“A child asked me if I was ever afraid. I said I can’t remember being afraid. At night, with aircraft above, it could be frightening, but because of the camaraderie, there’s no fear. You were all in it together.
“They were brave boys,” Laurence adds, a tear in his eye.
On 26 October, Laurence turned 100. He received cards from King Charles III and the Air Chief Marshal, Sir Mike Wigston, chief of the Air Staff. He also received a card from the cast and crew of The Great Escaper, signed by Sir Michael.
In his card, Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike wrote: “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to you and all your generation, who fought for our freedom in the Second World War.
“Your bravery and resilience impress us to this day.”
One thing is clear, whether Sherborne celebrity Laurence Henry makes the final cut of the movie or not, he has already left a lasting impression on his community and further afield.
He is a true hero – and it’s right that a lot of people know that.