The Silver Sword was a BBC seven-part serial based on the book of the same name by Ian Serraillier. Although the character names used in the story are fictitious (from records kept by the Red Cross) they are, in actuality, based on factual events and real people. Serraillier spent five years researching the true events that took place in war-torn Europe in the 1940s, researching into the military side of the story, taking eyewitness accounts from a book entitled East Wind Over Prague, by J. Stransky and drawing on his own observations.
The book, published in 1956, was serialised on BBC Children's Television in 1957. The setting is a bleak and freezing winter in Poland during the German occupation and tells the story of a Polish family, The Balikis; father Joseph and mother Margrit and their three children, Ruth, Edek and Bronia, who are torn apart when Nazi Storm Troopers arrest Joseph for turning a picture of Adolf Hitler towards the wall, contravening an edict imposed on the Polish people that they show the same respect and adoration of their leader as their own people. Following Joseph’s arrest, Margrit is taken away by the Germans, who then burn the family home to the ground, leaving the children parentless and homeless.
With both parents sent to slave camps, the children, living in the ruined cellar, must fend for and feed themselves whilst depending on each other for survival. When summer arrives, they leave the city and set off to camp in the countryside. Unbeknownst to them, their father has escaped from the labour camp where he was enslaved only to make his way back to Warsaw to find the family gone.
Picking over the rubble of his home, Joseph spots a letter opener his wife had given him in the shape of a silver sword. He turns to see a boy watching him. The boy is Jan, a street child orphaned in the war, wild and almost feral as a result of taking care of himself on the streets of Warsaw, Jan wants Joseph to give him the sword. Joseph agrees to do so on the condition that Jan tells his children (should he run into them) that Joseph is making for their grandparents' home in Switzerland, and that they should meet him there.
The Silver Sword was adapted for television by C.E. (Cecil Edwin) Webber, best remembered for his contribution to the creation of Doctor Who while working as a staff writer for the BBC in the early 1960s. And Barry Letts, future ‘Who’ producer played the father, Joseph. The series was deemed “family entertainment” and was broadcast late afternoon on Sundays. As such it was billed as an "exciting wartime adventure" in the Radio Times and didn’t dwell too much on the horrors of warfare. And that’s exactly how it was presented – an epic journey across Europe. Unfortunately, the BBC budget didn’t stretch far enough for location filming and the entire production was studio bound (at Lime Grove) and turned to narration as a way of explaining some of the journey as well as some of the more dramatic incidents, such as the capsizing of a boat and the near drowning of the children as they try to cross Lake Constance.
With so many serials from this era no longer in the archives it is refreshing to note that copies of The Silver Sword are held in the National Film and Television Archive. When the NFA appointed the first Television Acquisitions Officer in 1959, this was the first serialized television drama made for children to be chosen, and the earliest in this category to be donated by the BBC.
Few of the young cast were known actors at the time but the likes of Melvyn Hayes (Edek) and Frazer Hines (Jan) would become well recognised faces in the coming years. Other recognisable names in the cast included Alan Browning, Gwen Watford, Patrick Cargill, Roger Delgado and Shaw (“keep ‘em peeled”) Taylor.
In 2011, Jane Serraillier, the daughter of Ian Serraillier, told the BBC:
“The first time I saw my father's book The Silver Sword being transferred to another medium was in 1957. I was 7, and Dad took me and my older sister Helen up to Shepherd's Bush, where a black-and-white television version was being filmed. We watched the young actors scrabbling through the studio rubble.
Over 50 years later, a question was sent to the Daily Mail's 'Answers to Correspondents' page: "Does anyone remember a TV programme from the Fifties about children looking for their parents in war-torn Europe? I think it was called The Silver Sword". One of the excellent replies came from Frazer Hines, who wrote, "I played Jan, a ten-year-old Polish tearaway. This was in the days when families sat down together for Sunday lunch then watched the afternoon serial. The Silver Sword was a popular show, and even today people will come up to me and say, 'Aren't you off the TV?' When I say, 'What, Emmerdale?', they say, 'No, that thing about the sword.'”
Published on December 10th, 2020. Written by Marc Saul for Television Heaven.