Black war hero hailed by young animators

MARYLEBONE children – inspired by rare colour footage of the Blitz and an exceptional war-time hero – have created an animated film in his honour.

The footage was filmed by wartime Marylebone mayor Alfred Coucher and shows the West End and Marylebone during the Blitz. It was discovered in an attic after more than 70 years.

Westminster Council’s lead education officer Peter Daniel saw it and realised it showed Ita Ekpenyon – the only recorded black air raid warden at a Remembrance Day march 1941.

“It was amazing footage to see – so rare,” Mr Daniel said. “We decided that we wanted to do something to mark its significance.

“We already knew about Ita Ekpenyon’s story. Originally we heard it on the BBC World Service broadcasts on a show called Calling West Africa. But we hadn’t seen any footage of him, definitely not in colour.”

During the broadcast, Mr Ekpenyon told the story of how he brought people from a bombed-out air raid shelter to another shelter in Marylebone.

Some of the people were foreign nationals and, in the cramped conditions, tensions grew between them and the local people who were already seeking refuge.

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Eventually, the British people started to tell the ‘outsiders’ to get out and go back to their own country.

“It was a really stirring moment,” said Mr Daniel. “He made this wonderful speech to these angry people.

“He told them that he, being from Africa, was the true outsider but that he was also the chief air raid protection warden.

“Now, he said, was a time for people to pull together in the face of adversity for the sake of Britain and the empire. That these people deserved the protection of the Union Jack as much as anyone else.

“It is a wonderful story and we wanted to find a way to tell his story using the radio broadcast and the film footage.”

As a result, Mr Daniel asked local children to make an animated version of Mr Ekpenyon’s story with the help of BFI animator Tom Hillenbrand.

Each character they designed had to have moving parts and for every second of footage each character had to be moved slightly 25 times to create a smooth moving image.

The film will be screened for children, visitors and Mr Ekpenyon’s daughter Oku next Tuesday.

It combines the children’s animation with Ekpenyon’s own account of his experiences read by Nigerian actor Wale Ojo.

This is interspersed with clips from Mr Coucher’s iconic film.

Ms Ekpenyon is delighted that her father is getting the acknowledgement he and his comrades deserve.

She said: “While, of course, it is important we remember the people fighting on the ground, it is also important we remember the people who risked their lives back home.

“My father was a highly intelligent man who had been a headmaster in Nigeria. Without hesitation, he signed up to be an air raid warden and documents show he was at the top of his class in his exams.

“There were people in civil defence who had a very important role to play. People forget that air raid wardens like my father saved many lives and were responsible for the safety of the whole community.”

Ms Ekpenyon also believes this memorial to her father is important as it highlights the role black people played in the war effort.

She said: “People of colour, people from the former colonies on whom Britain relied, whose support they needed for man power during the war and for the raw materials that they provided for the war effort, are not adequately celebrated.”