My history hero: Simon Farnaby chooses Félix Kir (1876–1968)

Actor Simon Farnaby chooses French resistance activist Félix Kir as his history hero

Félix Kir in 1947, when he was the mayor of Dijon

Félix Kir: in profile

Félix Kir was a Catholic priest who supported the French Resistance in the Second World War. After helping 5,000 PoWs escape German captivity, he was sentenced to death, but managed to secure his release. After the war, he was elected mayor of Dijon several times and served in the national parliament. He is also famous for popularising the cocktail that bears his name.

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When did you first hear about Félix Kir?

A few years ago I wrote a book about Maurice Flitcroft, a crane driver from Barrow who entered the 1976 British Open golf championship. I like strange characters with peculiar stories, and so when I read about Félix Kir in a newspaper a little while back, he instantly appealed to me. He was this clergyman who did extraordinary things.

What was Kir’s finest hour?

That has to be the role he played in supporting the French Resistance during the Second World War – most particularly, in helping 5,000 PoWs escape a Nazi camp at Longvic in the Côte-d’Or. He procured their release on the pretence that they would be used as slave labour for the German regime. In short, he totally hoodwinked the Nazis.

What made him a hero?

As a man of God – he was a priest in the commune of Auxonne, near Dijon – Kir could easily have chosen not to get involved. But he had a strong sense of morality. And that morality put him in grave danger. After liberating the PoWs, he was arrested and sentenced to death – but was somehow able to secure his release. Then, in 1944, members of a Vichy militia tried to assassinate him, wounding him in the arm and the leg and forcing him into hiding.

As a man of God, Kir could have chosen not to get involved. But he had a strong sense of morality, and that put him in grave danger

What sort of character was he?

He was a bit of a showman. There’s even a drink that’s named after him, the Kir. He popularised this cocktail – in fact, some say he created it – which is made by mixing white wine with crème de cassis in order to turn the drink red. I must admit that I’ve had a few of them in my time!

And there’s also a story (quite possibly apocryphal) that, when Dijon was liberated in 1944, he was seen standing on a tank waving to the crowds. This, so the story goes, upset Charles de Gaulle, who was worried that Kir was attempting to steal the limelight. Even if this tale isn’t true, it gives us a flavour of Kir’s larger-than-life personality. That personality must have struck a chord with the people of Dijon, as he was elected mayor of the city five times and died while still in office, at the age of 92.

Do you see any parallels between your life and Kir’s?

I don’t like being told what to do, and I like to stand up for the little guy. But would I do that in such extreme circumstances as Kir? I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure.

Finally, if you could meet Kir, what would you ask him?

How do you see the role of God in war? You experienced some terrible things during that conflict – did that make you question your faith?

Simon Farnaby was talking to Spencer Mizen

Simon Farnaby’s acting credits include the BBC series Horrible Histories, Detectorists and Ghosts (currently on BBC iPlayer). His first book for children, The Wizard in My Shed, was published by Hodder in October 2020. He was talking to Spencer Mizen

LISTEN: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the January 2021 edition of BBC History Magazine