Skilfully blending fact with fiction, The Wrong Hero tells the story of the last days of Leslie Howard (Simon Williams), as he concluded a goodwill tour of
Portugal in 1943 and boarded a passenger plane bound for Britain, only to be shot down by German bombers. The play began and ended with a framing device, where an elderly nanny Dora (Doreen Mantle) and her former charge Derek (John Evitts) looked back from the perspective of 2008 at that fateful day sixty-five years previously, when both of them had given up their seats on the doomed aircraft to enable Howard and his manager Alfred Chenhalls (Kenneth Cranham) to get home safely. Even after such a long period of time, Doreen was clearly upset about what happened; like many young women of her generation, she idolized Howard both as a screen actor and an ambassador promoting British interests in World War II in neutral territories like Spain and Portugal. Burgess explained in detail why this was so: Williams’s Howard was a quiet, unassuming man, ever ready to give of his time, and treating everyone – diplomats and autograph-hunters alike – with the same immaculate charm. At the same time this was shown to be a carefully cultivated fašade: Howard was tormented by the early death from TB of his lover Violette, and at the same time regretful of the effect his love-affair had on his wife Ruth and their children. Chenhalls acted as his amanuensis, friend, confidante and agent; the two were not only inseparable but appeared very good company, which made their untimely deaths seem all the more poignant. Howard was certainly a target for the Germans, following the success of the propaganda film Pimpernel Smith (1941), but he travelled in a civilian aircraft that was clearly marked as such. By shooting him down the Germans wilfully violated the Geneva Convention. However perhaps we do not yet know the full story of Howard’s disappearance; in a chilling coda the Radio 4 announcer informed us that the official British government documents relating to his death will not be released to the public until 2025. Maybe there was a conspiracy to remove him as a potential threat to war interests. But perhaps fans like Dora should never know about such things, so that their memories of the iconic actor can be sustained.