In 2007, Sir Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in the West End. Dressed in military fatigues and carrying an AK47, he stared in the mirror and came face to face with the past. “I realised that looking right back at me was my father and it was shocking.” He realised he’d been channelling his father for years.
It was a profound revelation not just because the actor’s father was a military man, but because Alfred Stewart was violent towards Patrick’s mother, Gladys. “Sometimes we had to call an ambulance,” says Patrick of his Yorkshire childhood. Yet Alfred was also a “good raconteur” who told spellbinding “adventure stories” of his Second World War service. Patrick wants to reconcile these sides of Alfred’s character.
First up, Patrick meets Joshua Levine at the Imperial War Museum and sees Alfred’s service record. It reveals that Alfred, a soldier from 1925-33, was called up when the Second World War broke out. Serving with the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI), he went to France in 1940, where he expected to work in a support capacity behind the lines.
Patrick’s father never spoke of this time, why not? An answer emerges when Patrick travels to Abbeville in northern France. With the Germans breaking through, Alfred was sent to the front. As the KOYLIs retreated, Alfred saw the horrors of mechanised war and the way the Nazis targeted civilian refugees. Back in England, Alfred discussed his experiences with the local newspaper, a report that talks of Alfred’s “shell shock”. Despite this, Alfred joined the newly formed Parachute Regiment in 1943. Now a sergeant major, he took part in Operation Dragoon in August 1944, dropping into southern France ahead of seaborne landings. In the company of veteran Dick Hargreaves, Patrick flies over the site of a decisive Allied victory where Alfred had a key job, heading up the men guarding the brigade HQ. Later, Alfred became regimental sergeant major, acting as a kind of father figure to a unit decimated by the disastrous landings at Arnhem. Patrick’s view of his father has changed radically: “I don’t think he’d been a human being for me before.”
Back in England, Patrick still wants to know more. In 1925, Alfred ran away from marrying Gladys (the couple eventually wed), who had given birth to an illegitimate child, Patrick’s brother Geoffrey. Was Geoffrey Alfred’s son? Court records show Gladys, someone Patrick had hitherto seen as meek, bravely taking Alfred to court for maintenance, in effect forcing Alfred to acknowledge Geoffrey as his own.
Finally, Patrick visits Robert Bieber, vice chairman of the charity Combat Stress. Seeing violence against civilians, Patrick learns, often affects soldiers particularly profoundly. Alfred probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, plagued by feelings of “isolation, inability to communicate, nightmares, flashbacks”.
Without excusing Alfred’s domestic violence, Patrick understands him better: “I suspect that [my mother] knew these things about my father that I have only just discovered, and that’s why she loved him and never stopped loving him.”