Friday 15 December 2017

Fitting tribute to brave men

bomber boys (bbc1, sun) too late to talk to billy (bbc2, sun)

CELEBRITY-LED documentaries should be approached with caution at the best of times. Ones where the celebrity in question is Ewan McGregor and he has a companion with him should come with a double health warning.

Remember those awful biker travelogues he made with his best mate Charley Boorman?

But Bomber Boys, in which the Scottish movie star and his brother Colin paid tribute to the Lancaster bomber and the courageous men who crewed it during World War II, was excellent.

As in the Battle of Britain documentary the brothers fronted in 2010, having two McGregors for the price of one was more than a gimmick. Colin is a former RAF pilot with 20 years' experience, so when it came to taking the only remaining airworthy Lancaster in Britain up for a spin at the end of the film, it never felt like a piece of self-indulgence (one can only recoil in horror at what the programme have been like if either Clarkson, May or Hammond from Top Gear were involved).

The sight of Colin guiding the massive but surprisingly nimble plane into the sky was an awesome, breathtaking sight, even on a medium-sized television screen, and the look of fear mixed with exhilaration on his face said it all.

Of the 7,377 Lancaster bombers built, 3,500 of them were shot down. Between 1939 and 1945, 125,000 RAF pilots, gunners, navigators and other crew members -- some as young as 18 -- went up in the air; 55,000 of them never made it back alive.

Former pilot Reg Barker was 22 when he flew a Lancaster for the first time -- an even more remarkable feat given that he'd never even driven a car, let alone piloted a plane. "But what a privilege it was," he recalled. "Who wouldn't enjoy flying that?"

The Lancaster did more to turn the tide of the war than any other aircraft, yet the remarkable thing is that it was two-and-a-half years into the conflict before it took to the skies.

"The bombers alone provide us the means of victory," Churchill declared after the Battle of Britain.

When the Luftwaffe levelled Coventry, bombing not just strategic targets but also the city's infrastructure, Churchill's response was to form Bomber Command and appoint Arthur 'Bomber' Harris its commander in chief. Warning what Germany could expect, Harris said: "They have sowed the wind, now they can expect the whirlwind." He meant it, too. Harris's policy of bombing everything in sight, upping the quantity of incendiaries to explosives as the war wore on, was effective but ruthlessly brutal.

It led to a terrifying new concept called the firestorm, the horror of which was movingly recalled by a German couple who lived through the bombing of Hamburg.

The indiscriminate bombing of Dresden in 1945, however, which killed 25,000 civilians, led to a public relations backlash.

When Churchill took to the radio at the end of the war to thank those who'd saved the world from Hitler, he failed to mention either Harris or the men under his command.

This compelling, even-handed film restored the balance a little.

Those of us who remember watching J Graham Reid's Too Late to Talk to Billy know it was a television landmark.

First screened under the Play for Today banner in 1982, the first of Reid's Belfast trilogy about a working-class Protestant family at war with itself offered a fresh, revelatory view. But to anyone under 30, the shaky sets, grainy film inserts and overly theatrical performances -- especially from James Ellis as the drunken, abusive father -- must have made it look like a museum piece.

Actually, even to those of us long past the big three-zero, it now looks stilted and melodramatic. Its real value is as a record of the then-emerging talent of Kenneth Branagh, fresh out of drama school and already displaying huge charisma.

bomber boys HHHHI too late to talk to billy HHIII

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