Brief encounter and a royal tale

PUBLISHED: 13:39 03 April 2008 | UPDATED: 13:08 06 May 2010

Producer Lynne Rothwell (second from right) and co-producer Candice Allen (third from left) at the Luxembourg premiere of the film

Producer Lynne Rothwell (second from right) and co-producer Candice Allen (third from left) at the Luxembourg premiere of the film

A CHANCE encounter on a train platform led to the creation of a film about the legendary life of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg during the Second World War. TV producer Lynn Rothwell, from Harpenden, was heading into London three years ago when a landsli

Liz Smith styling Jo Coleman's hair

A CHANCE encounter on a train platform led to the creation of a film about the legendary life of the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg during the Second World War.

TV producer Lynn Rothwell, from Harpenden, was heading into London three years ago when a landslide on the track prevented her from going on her usual route.

While waiting for a train at an alternative station she struck up a conversation with the half-Luxembourgish Candice Allen, who was to become her co-producer on the documentary film Léif Lëtzebuerger which charts the Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg's time in exile during WW2.

"I was never meant to be on that platform. She overheard me talking on the phone and asked me afterwards if I was in the media. She said she worked in news but would love to do documentary," recalls Lynn, who has been producing documentaries for more than 15 years.

Lynn works with director Ray Tostevin of GRACE Productions and by the end of the train journey she had invited Candice to meet them to find out more.

Then following a trip to Luxembourg, Candice approached Lynn and Ray with the idea of making a film about Duchess Charlotte, who was renowned for broadcasting to her people from a BBC studio while in wartime exile in England.

Their imaginations were fired and earlier this March, three years after the idea was born, they were brushing shoulders with the Luxembourg Royal Family at the country's premiere of the film.

It was an unforgettable experience for Lynn, especially since she met Duchess Charlotte's son, Grand Duke Jean, whose time in the Irish Guards from the age of 17 was the subject of endless research and investigating.

Lynn, who is originally from Northern Ireland, was particularly touched by the eye-witness accounts she collected from his former comrades.

She said of the premiere: "I was shaking the Grand Duke's hand and his eyes filled up with tears and he said, 'thank you very much, it was a beautiful film' - for me that was the highlight. The Royal Family were quite bowled over by it because there were a lot of things in it they didn't know about themselves."

Duchess Charlotte's iconic tale begins in May 1940 when, along with her family and most of the government, she fled from the invading Nazi troops and was given sanctuary in the USA and Britain.

Sometimes referred to as a "propaganda queen," she travelled between the two countries throughout the war galvanising support for her tiny nation and was snapped with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Hollywood.

A strong focus of the documentary is Duchess Charlotte's blossoming wartime friendship with President Roosevelt who famously told her: "My child, I will give you back your country."

Her plight was one of his justifications for America entering the war and more than 19,000 US troops were to lose their lives liberating Luxembourg during the Battle of the Bulge. One poignant scene of the film sees President Roosevelt's grandson, Curtis, visiting their cemetery during an eerie snowfall such as the one which drifted down upon the battle 60 years earlier.

Although her stricken nation initially felt abandoned, to stay in Luxembourg would have rendered Duchess Charlotte a puppet queen in her own country as had happened to her sister during WW1 - she was forced to abdicate for being too friendly with the enemy. But through tuning in to her BBC broadcasts and risking their lives in doing so, people in Luxembourg soon realised that she had no choice but to seek help from the allies.

Her speeches became iconic, offering people a lifeline and giving them a steely determination not to give in to the enemy. Wherever possible Lynn and her team used original archive footage to depict Duchess Charlotte's incredible tale but there were only audio recordings of these BBC speeches.

One of Lynn's biggest challenges was casting someone to portray Duchess Charlotte in the recording studio as she not only had to resemble her in looks, but she also needed the correct poise, grace and "special presence" so often referred to. Amazingly, an old colleague from her days in local television who lived less than a mile away in Harpenden fitted the bill - Jo Coleman, ballet dancer and performer for the St Albans and Harpenden Light Operatic Societies.

Jo has also worked as a radio broadcaster as well as a television presenter in the US so she was no stranger to long hours recording in a studio.

Further adding to the film's local ties was Liz Smith of Harpenden hairdressers Capelli Cutting Company in Station Road, who recreated the Duchess's 1940s' hair style for Jo's scenes in the film.

Backers of the film also include Luxembourg-based satellite group SES whose senior vice-president, John Purvis, lives in Harpenden. So, for a film based upon a foreign ruler, Léif Lëtzebuerger has become widely linked with Harpenden.

Through making the film Lynn, who has lived in the area for the last 14 years, built up a strong respect for Duchess Charlotte who died in 1985.

An English version of the film has been made and Léif Lëtzebuerger is set to premiere in Europe, America and the UK in the summer before hopefully being released on television.

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