Bert and Dickie: Oars of Glory

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With the much-anticipated (and expensive) opening extravaganza due tomorrow, Olympic fever is truly in full swing. A couple of weeks ago, I was stuck in a jubilant crowd as the Olympic Torch passed through Cambridge, looking slightly insignificant after the corporate outriders of giant buses publicising Lloyds, Coca-Cola and Samsung. Now, it seems that every other show on the BBC is Olympics-related. The sitcom Twenty Twelve has been running for two series (and will presumably now have to end), documentaries about British Olympians like diving pinup Tom Daley ooze from our screens, and Ab Fab returned with an Olympic special that I haven’t seen yet, but was less than favourably received. Even the News is currently being broadcast from a studio overlooking the stadium.

It’s reached the feverish point where even the gentlest of criticism of this massively expensive, corporately-controlled sporting event is seen as unpatriotic, and anyone who says they won’t be watching is either a liar or a traitor to their country. Well, I don’t much care for sport (or corporate tax avoidance) and I’m an old curmudgeon. But I will, I suppose, be watching the diving, if only to lust after Tom Daley.

With all this going on, it was a relief to step back to the more innocent 1948 Olympics for the BBC’s heartwarming if formulaic sport drama Bert and Dickie. Centring on the British rowing duo who won gold at a time of national austerity, it was a story that felt tailor made for dramatisation, because it had so many real elements that might so easily be dismissed as heartstring tugging cliche if they weren’t actually true. Well, true-ish; the film did have a little disclaimer at the beginning saying that “some scenes and dialogue have been invented”, which might explain some of the more mawkish moments.

Still, the facts themselves would have seemed sprung from the mind of a less than imaginative screenwriter were it not for being actually true. Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell (true life drama often has to deal with awkwardly similar names) were chalk and cheese rowers from wildly different backgrounds. Dickie wrote for The Times, came from a very wealthy family and drove a gorgeous Mk IV Jaguar. Bert’s family were lower middle class, his father with a boat building business, and while the family owned a car, Bert himself had to get about on a bike. Dickie was a member of all the right clubs, while Bert was just an oik who couldn’t get past the doorman.

Pushed together by rowing coach (and former gold medallist) Jack Beresford, this mismatched pair had to learn to work together to beat the rest of the world to Olympic gold. That they would was never really in doubt even if you didn’t know the story; the BBC would hardly make a ‘feelbad’ drama in the runup to the Olympics in which the British team lost. To add to the reality that seems like cliche, both men had domineering fathers who were former rowers themselves, and Bert had a sweetheart whose distractions caused his pushy dad some concern, leading him to banish her back to her distant home of Dumfries.

What followed was more or less the standard stuff of sporting drama, but with the validity of truth. Bert had class-based fights with ’gentleman’ Dickie, while Dickie berated Bert for the chip on his shoulder. Both men suffered crises of confidence as they advanced through the rounds, finding solace in each other’s fathers’ advice. Along the way, Bert overheard his father telling Dickie of his own, thwarted Olympic dreams as a younger rower. Dickie’s father revealed to Bert that he himself won a gold in 1908, and if his son was successful they would be the first father and son ever to win Olympic gold in rowing. Contrived? No, again, this is absolutely true; Charles and Richard Burnell are still the only father and son to have achieved this.

The rowing was handled very well by the director, with the actors visibly doing it for real in most shots. I don’t know much about rowing, but the script didn’t talk down to the audience and we were left to work it out as best we could from the plot and dialogue. Which worked surprisingly well. I now know the difference between a rower (one oar) and a sculler (two oars), and while I could make little of the byzantine rules governing passing through to the next stage of the tournament, it was clear enough that winning would send you through. The alternative was tried, of intentionally losing to rig who our heroes would face in the next round, only for it to blow up in their faces when the expected winners of the stage also lost and would face them anyway.

Other tactical rowing strategies were tried, but it was really all about the build up to the Big Match That Would Decide It All – the Men’s Double Sculls final on August 9, 1948. This went as expected; the build up of tension as our heroes adjusted their boat, as Bert’s dad watched from the stands and his fiance watched on a tiny TV in a shop in faraway Dumfries, TVs still being mostly the province of the very rich.

They were off! And then, as expected, they pulled ahead, and everything went slow motion as swelling, inspirational music soared on the soundtrack (a convention of every sporting drama ever – think of Rocky and Chariots of Fire). Bert’s dad had left him an inspirational note: “make the boat sing”. And sing it did, as the race was intercut with Bert’s nervous mother, unable to watch, listening to Puccini on her gramophone.

Formulaic it may have been, but it was done well enough to still be tense and rather entertaining. Screenwriter William Ivory had delivered a script rich in sucrose but still occasionally barbed about class and standing to be insightful. And the cast, of course were excellent. Matt Smith was as impassioned as usual as Bert, but this was a distinctly different performance to that as the Doctor; it’s worth noting that Smith aspired to a sport career himself earlier in life, which felt like it informed his performance here. Between this and his decadent turn as Christopher Isherwood recently, I’m glad to see that he can still find a variety of roles while working on the punishing grind of Doctor Who. Mind you, when he put on the little white hat his mother had made for him, along with his round black-framed glasses, I couldn’t help being reminded of something:

MattSmith                      Gumby (2)

Sam Hoare was similarly good as Dickie, while Douglas Hodge put in a nuanced performance as Bert’s dad. But for me the best thing was the still-amazing Geoffrey Palmer as Burnell Sr, an incredible performance that was all British restraint while hinting at the passion beneath that only broke through for a moment when his son won the gold.

In order to provide a context relating to today’s Olympics, the drama also contained numerous cutaways to the offices of then Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a role Clive Merrison was surely born to play. These were, technically, a little extraneous, as Attlee and his ministers (including a young Harold Wilson) had no actual contact with the people the rest of the drama was about. But they served to remind us that an Olympics had been pulled off at a time of even worse national austerity, when food was still being rationed and half of London lay in bomb-smashed ruins. This served to let the writer make some barbed points relating to the criticism of today’s Olympics; ruminating on the surprisingly successful advertising and sponsorship, one minister commented, “that could catch on.” And while corporations had provided sponsored Y-fronts, athletes still had to supply their own shorts!

The BBC had obviously thrown a fair bit of budget at it, so the production was rich in lavish period detail, mostly accurate. Even so, I’m not sure the word ‘knackered’ would have been used so freely in gentleman’s conversation in 1948; and while there were some gorgeous cars on display, it was noticeable that they all looked brand new. Surely even in the traffic-thin streets of 1948, there still would have been a few relics of ten year old bangers, or ex-military vehicles from the war that had only ended three years earlier? Plus, the valve radio in the Bushnells’ car warmed up amazingly quickly when switched on – in less than a second, in fact!

Well, that’s just quibbling really. The rest of the details were good – the brylcreem, the bakelite television, the snobby gentleman’s clubs, the giant BBC Outside Broadcast cameras. It was an unashamedly stirring, patriotic bit of sporting drama that even an Olympic sceptic like me could enjoy, with some good direction and fine performances all round. Lucky really, as it may well be the only Olympic-related TV I watch that isn’t the diving contests…