Start a free trial

Acting genes and wartime ancestors: Here's what we've discovered about the family history of The Great Escaper's cast

8-9 minute read

By Daisy Goddard | September 18, 2023

The Great Escaper movie

As part of our exciting partnership with The Great Escaper, we've delved into the family trees of some of the film's cast. These are the moving stories that we uncovered.

Starring Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine, The Great Escaper is a moving drama that's inspired by real events. Set in both Britain and France, it tells the story of 89-year-old war veteran Bernard Jordan.

Bernard made headlines in 2014 when he made a 'great escape' from the Hove care home in which he was living. In an eventful 48 hours, he travelled to Normandy to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings with other former veterans.

Having left his care home wearing his war medals hidden underneath a raincoat, Bernard caught a ferry and made it to France in time for the memorial proceedings. Written by William Ivory and directed by Oliver Parker, The Great Escaper brings Bernard Jordan's inspirational adventure to life.

Findmypast has partnered with The Great Escaper to bring even more fascinating stories from history to life. As part of this partnership, we've harnessed the power of our billions-strong record collection to research the family histories of the stars involved in the film.

With unlikely twists that parallel the story portrayed in the film, here's what we've uncovered within the family trees of three of The Great Escaper's cast: John Standing, Laura Marcus, and Will Fletcher. John, Will and Laura were delighted to learn more about their family's histories - read on for their reactions to these exciting discoveries.

The stars react to our discoveries

When we revealed our research to John, Will, and Laura, here's what they had to say.

From militaries heroes to jet-setting ancestors, read on to find out more about these exciting discoveries.

John Standing

John Standing is a British actor with a long career that spans film, television and theatre. He's best known for his roles in V for Vendetta (2005) and David Lynch's 1980 adaptation of The Elephant Man.

John Standing.

John Standing.

John, whose birth name is John Ronald Leon, was born in London on 16 August 1934. His mother Kay Hammond (née Dorothy Katherine Standing) was a stage and film actress, while his father Sir Ronald George Leon was a stockbroker and Baronet. John succeeded his father as the 4th Baronet in 1964.

Herbert Standing: a story of scandal and intrigue

Our research revealed scandal on John's mother's side, which is a far cry from the respectable high society figures on the paternal branches of his family tree. Although their acting eminence is well-known, there are stories on the Standing side that have been so far lost to history.

John's great-grandfather Herbert Standing (b. 1846) was the patriarch of this renowned acting family. He himself made a career on the stage and screen and later even appeared in Hollywood silent films.

Herbert made his way into acting from quite humble beginnings - as our marriage and census records reveal, his father and paternal grandfather were both iron founders.

How, then, did Herbert become a Hollywood star? And what scandals did he find himself caught up in?

From an 1878 biography of Herbert Standing that was published in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, we learn that Herbert's parents were Quakers. Before finding work in the theatre, Herbert reportedly 'ran away' from the civil service to become a sailor. His travels took him to South Africa.

A newspaper extract describing Herbert Standing acting career

A description of Herbert's career from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 1878.

In 1875, Herbert married Emily Brown in London. Unusually for the time, Emily had previously been married, to one William Charles Brown. Their marriage had been dissolved by the courts and the church in 1874 after William argued that Emily had committed 'multiple acts of adultery'... with none other than Herbert Standing.

But the controversy didn't end there. William also accused him of stealing a 'quantity of jewellery' from him in 1873. In 1887, the Edinburgh Gazette reported that Herbert was bankrupt, perhaps giving some credibility to this claim put forward by a jilted husband.

Shortly after this, Herbert moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. This is where we find him in the 1920 US Census. At this time, Herbert and his family were in the process of becoming naturalised US citizens.

When he died in 1923, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported on his death.

From adultery to Hollywood stardom, Herbert Standing led a colourful life. To see what his great-grandson John had to say about these exciting discoveries, watch our reveal video below.

Will Fletcher

Will Fletcher is another member of The Great Escaper's supporting cast. Trained at RADA and with a background in theatre, he recently appeared in Amazon Prime's Lord of the Rings TV series, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).

Will Fletcher, who plays a young version of Michael Caine's character Bernard in The Great Escaper.

Will Fletcher, who plays a young version of Michael Caine's character Bernard in The Great Escaper.

A little digging revealed some interesting findings about Will's ancestors.

Wartime sacrifice

Three generations back from Will himself, we uncovered a tale of war heroism that's pertinent to the story depicted in The Great Escaper. Will's great-grandfather Jack Hambleton was born in London in 1889, to parents John and Mary Ann. With six sisters and three older brothers, Jack was part of a large, bustling family.

Born in 1898, Jack's brother Alfred (and Will's 2x great-uncle) served as a private with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during World War 1. He sadly died from war wounds in France, on 24 August 1918, aged just 20. He was awarded a posthumous medal for his bravery and is one of 1,231 Commonwealth servicemen to be buried at the Daours Communal Cemetery Extension in the Somme.

But the Hambletons' war story doesn't end there.

Another of Jack's brothers, George Frederick (b. 1897), also served in World War 1. He was a private with the Rifle Brigade, having enlisted aged 19 in 1916. Despite receiving a gunshot wound to his left foot in 1918 and having a few hospital stays due to tonsillitis and abdomen pain, George survived the war and was discharged in 1920.

George's service record provides us with a very detailed glimpse of what he looked like.

As his great-nephew Will was delighted to discover, George had a tattoo on his left forearm, of the words 'True love' and 'two hands joined together'.

A family of romantics?

In addition to war heroes, it seems Will Fletcher is descended from a long line of romantics. On his father's side, we uncovered something surprising. Will's great-grandparents, John Fletcher and Henrietta Battson, married in 1909.

As revealed by their marriage record, John and Henrietta were in fact next-door neighbours - John lived at 9 Prospect Place, Cable Street, while Henrietta lived at number 10. Using the 1901 Census to jump back by almost a decade, we found both John and Henrietta in these same houses. They likely both grew up on Cable Street, making them childhood sweethearts.

A 1921 Census record for John and Henrietta Fletcher of Cable Street, East London.

John and Henrietta in the 1921 Census. Explore their record.

John and Henrietta went on to have four children - Alfred (b. 1910), John (b. 1913), Rose (b. 1917) and William (Will's grandfather, b. 1920). The family still lived at Prospect Place in the 1921 Census, indicative of their strong ties to their local area in East London.

Laura Marcus

London-born filmmaker, writer, and actress Laura Marcus depicts the young version of Glenda Jackson's character Irene in The Great Escaper. Although she's far from a stranger to the acting world, The Great Escaper is Laura's first feature-length film.

Laura Marcus.

Laura Marcus.

A little digging into Laura's family tree revealed a few interesting stories.

Laura's globe-trotting grandfather

Our records revealed that Colin Dudley Marcus, Laura's paternal grandfather, led a rather interesting life travelling the world. Born in 1921 to parents Lottie and Rudolph Benjamin, Colin spent his early life in Hampstead, London.

In 1947 (aged 26), passenger lists reveal how he travelled to Alaska via Manila in the Philippines. This was a stopover on his journey to Kingston, Jamaica. His records reveal that his end destination was 'Breezy Castle', a private residence on Harbour Street, Kingston. It was between 1950 and 1954 that he met Laura's grandmother, Dorothea Mercedes Chinn.

Over the next few decades, Colin travelled to the US, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Brazil, with some of these journeys made for his job as an accountant.

A passenger list which documents a journey Colin and Dorothea made from London to Kingston, Jamaica in 1954. Explore this record.

A passenger list which documents a journey Colin and Dorothea made from London to Kingston, Jamaica in 1954. Explore this record.

In 1961, both Colin and Dorothea applied for immigration cards from Brazil, indicating their intent to settle there.

While The Great Escaper centres around a journey that captured the heart of the nation, it seems Laura Marcus' own ancestors made more than a few exciting journeys over the course of their lives.

A tale of World War 2 tragedy

We also made an interesting discovery about Colin's brother and Laura's great-uncle, Derek Julius Marcus. Born in 1916, Derek's military service record indicates that he enlisted with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve during World War 2.

While he was training as a Sergeant wireless operator and air gunner, Derek lost his life.

He was sadly killed on 5 December 1941, when the Vickers Wellington aircraft he was in collided with a Tiger Moth N6968 near Denton, Northamptonshire. All eight men aboard the Wellington were killed in the accident.

Derek is buried in the Kempston Cemetery in Bedfordshire. His headstone reads: 'With a full heart and eager spirit he gave his all'. Derek had married Regina Amelia Fooks just two months before his death, meaning that she was tragically widowed in 1941.

Uncover the stories of your own military ancestors

Much like the story depicted in The Great Escaper, Laura Marcus' ancestors clearly know a thing or two about wartime sacrifice. As shown by both Will and Laura's family trees, many of us have moving military tales within our family's history.

With untimely deaths, unfortunate situations and so much more, there are a wealth of fascinating World War 1 and World War 2 stories to be uncovered. Findmypast's ever-expanding collection of military records makes it easier than ever to bring these heroic tales to life.

To get started, search for the names of your military forebears within our record collection. Once you've started to fill in the dots, you can store your discoveries within your family tree. From the Anglo-Boer War to World War 2, our records can illuminate the fighting lives of even your most distant ancestors.

Be sure to check out the advice of our experts via the Findmypast blog. With top tips on everything from understanding military records to finding relatives that served on the Home Front, there is a wealth of information to help you.

More on this topic:

Share this article

About the author

Daisy GoddardDaisy Goddard