Sunday, May 09, 2010

Formation Flying

According to a report from the marketing body Thinkbox UK viewers currently watch an average of four hours (and 18 minutes) television a day. If that’s the case then there’s some couch potato out there with their eyes glued to the goggle–box making up the time for me because over the last fortnight or so I doubt I watched that many hours each week, let alone per day.

Last Friday, deciding to knock off relatively early, I dug the listings magazine out from under the clutter on the desk to find it still open on Monday’s schedule. I think I’d only turned the set on for Thursday’s Have I Got News For You only to find three complete plums flapping their mouths at the camera, so that went off pretty darn quick. Although to be fair I hadn’t been stuck in every evening, deciding what not to watch as I cracked on with the work.

Midweek I’d scooted out in the afternoon to join an actress friend celebrate her agent’s birthday, then hooked up with the Luminous Beauty for a drink in Covent Garden’s piazza before we headed off to the Cartoon Museum for Collaborative Visions, Brian Sibley’s excellent, authoritative and entertaining talk on Ronald Searle’s career as an illustrator, as part of the museum’s season celebrating Searle’s 90th birthday. From there it was on to meet friends for dinner at the Italian restaurant within St Pancras International. Then during the long May Day weekend a 31–hour power cut had left me rotating between cleaning, exercising and reading before everything was eventually sorted out.

This week I hadn’t even bothered with perusing any TV listings in advance, simply watching NCIS on Wednesday, Lost on Friday and, sandwiched between the two, Wallander to blot out all the flapdoodle surrounding X Marks The Box Day. When I did flick over to the BBC’s reportage, Andrew Neil was asking Bruce Forsythe for his insight on the election at some Thames–side bash, which had me comment to an equally incredulous friend of facebook that they should have spiked the partygoers’ drinks with the rage virus and had them paint every inch of that boat with Neil's and Brucie's blood.

There had been the odd evening when I’m absently flip through the channels, alighting on various programmes here and there to catch up on shows I didn’t have the slightest interest in. That past Friday, if I remember rightly, I did alight on the usually torpid BBC3 to catch the odd few minutes of an old edition of Top Gear, where the Hampster, behind the wheel of a Bugatti Veyron, faced off against an RAF Typhoon jet fighter in a drag race. Watching that particular challenge reminded me that it was a shame they hadn’t reformatted the show sooner, turning it from the initial, rather dry, consumer programme to three overgrown boys dicking around in expensive cars and all the stuff and nonsense that came with it.

Back in the Spring of 2003 I’d been sent along to interview the Wing Commander in charge of the Directorate of Corporate Communication (RAF). Calling to arrange a time to meet up, unfortunately I’d caught him at a bad time. “I’m a bit busy with the war!” he explained, which initially threw me, having spent the day at the Imperial War Museum’s Archive before heading off to the rather unimpressive wrap party of the last major animated series I had worked on. My first thought was, what’s he talking about the war’s been over for ages? But once the penny finally dropped he suggested I call back the following Thursday when things would be a little quieter. On the Wednesday, while working from home, I watched as tanks entered Baghdad and marines from the “Thundering Third” helped topple the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

At the time the DCC (RAF) was housed in the old Grand Metropole Hotel on Northumberland Avenue. Requisitioned by the government in the lead–up to the Second World War, the building had been the home of MI9 and the SOE before they moved out to Wilton Park and since the early 1950s it had been wholly taken over by the Air Ministry. Formed three years previously from RAF PR, the role of the DCC (RAF) was to provide all manner of assistance to television and film companies, producing everything from short news broadcasts through to light entertainment, documentaries and dramas.

Although they continued to provide assistance to Eon Productions’ series of James Bond films, recently granting them access to RAF Odiham in Hampshire where a hanger stood in for the US Army base south of Korea’s DMZ in Die Another Day, and supplied Chinook helicopters and safety advisers for the scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider shot on Salisbury Plain, the department didn’t simply acquiesce to every request that landed on their desks. Looking to raise the profile of the third branch of the armed services, the DCC (RAF) have to carefully assess each project in turn and decide whether it is a good thing for them to do. Even if an idea passes muster with the department, the chances of it making it to the television screen are still slim.

At the time the main body of work presented to the DCC (RAF) were documentaries coming from independent production companies rather than the major broadcasters themselves. During the initial stages the department would work on spec to help flesh out the idea, providing the necessary background to help try and get the programme commissioned. If it reached the next stage and development money was forthcoming they would do a lot more research and come up with a solid plan. If the project passes all the hurdles and gets the full funding, then the DCC (RAF) becomes intimately involved and adds a lot of value to the production.

The ideal subject for the department is one that mixes the old with the new. A purely historical documentary relying more on archive footage needs little assistance from the DCC (RAF). “There are always benefits to doing historical perspectives,” the WC explained, “but obviously when we look at it in terms of what’s in it for us, we want to get the modern Air Force in there as well.” A case in point was the 2003 documentary The Dambusters made by Tigress Productions for Channel 4 and The Discovery Channel to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Chastise, carried out by bombers of 617 Squadron led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

A number of documentaries had already been made about their raid on the Ruhr Valley in Germany’s industrial heartland dams raids so the project was never going to be a simple historical account. Although telling the story through the eyes of three surviving crew–members of one of the Lancaster bombers would provide a centre piece, not least because they successfully breached the Eder Dam, the initial idea was to try to recreate the raid to show how difficult the job their squadron had to perform was.

Still considered one of the most technically difficult pieces of flying ever attempted, the Lancaster crews had to navigate their way to the targets for almost seven hours, at night, flying at an altitude of only 100 feet. “From our point of view we were not interested in the strategic moral elements of the story,” explained the programme’s producer. “I only wanted to know one thing: what was it like to be there?” Throughout the filming, the DCC (RAF) proved to be incredibly helpful to the production team, opening many closed doors and dealing with unexpected issues.

When a physical reconstruction proved unfeasible, the DCC (RAF) suggested the production company meet with flying instructors at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire to use a specially created flight simulator. Because the RAF couldn’t afford to take anyone out of training or operations, the programme-makers were offered a selection of holding officers who were between courses, choosing a mixture of non-commissioned officer air-crew and officers that reflected not only the situation sixty years ago but also the modern air force of today.

While documentaries continued to raise the RAF’s profile by focusing on past and present achievements, the DCC (RAF) were still eager to see the service portrayed more in television drama. At one point Kudos Productions were looking to insert footage of RAF fighters in a second series episode of Spooks where a microlite flying toward Chequers sparks fears of a terrorist attack, though ultimately they relied on existing stock footage instead. Where the department did score a minor victory was with the BBC’s Red Cap, starring Tamzin Outhwaite as a member of the army’s Special Investigation Branch. Although the drama involved no flying sequences whatsoever, the department took the programme–makers to a training area and put four Harriers in the air for inclusion in the opening title sequence.

“No doubt the army were extremely upset about that,” the WC gleefully explained. Once the new Top Gear got going and began to involve the armed services, the rivalry between them certainly came to the fore. It began late in 2003, at the beginning of the show’s third series, when the original black–suited Stig in a Jaguar XJS attempted to reach 100mph on the 200 metre–long runway of HMS Invincible, ultimately driving off the deck and sinking into the water below. Two episodes later the new white Stig, driving a Saab 9–5 competed against a naval Sea Harrier to see which could post the fasted lap time.

A year after I had spent the morning in Northumberland Avenue, the new series began with Clarkson driving the super–lightweight Lotus Exige while a WAH–64D Apache attack helicopter tried to get a missile lock on him. In recent years the show has upped the ante with the armed forces involvement, having Clarkson take part in one of the Royal Marines’ beach–landing exercises on Instow Sands while road testing the Ford Fiesta, and later playing British Bulldogs against the army’s latest military hardware on their Dorset testing grounds.

Back in the DCC (RAF) offices the Wing Commander had explained that when it came to reviewing requests they had to ask themselves, what’s in it for the RAF? Is it going to be interesting and exciting? What are the resource implications? After an initial assessment, around seventy–five per cent of the submissions go straight in the bin, especially with the ideas that ranged from the really daft to the totally barking. Probably the most ridiculous request had come from the team behind LWT’s Saturday challenge game show Don’t Try This At Home, hosted by Davina McCall, who asked “Can we land a Harrier on the Millenium Dome?” His curt response was, “Yes, but only once.”


At 10:10 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

A fascinating insight. All that hardware, and willing co-operation... but the only respectable subject for our domestic movie industry seems to be urban despair.

Have you seen THE GADGET SHOW lately? They seem to have OD'd on Top Gear and are determined to ape it. It's not a pretty sight.

At 11:20 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

hey were very interesting people but there were some frustrations, obviously. At the time of the interview, the department had helped out in the English–based scenes in Pearl Harbor but probably the last film that concentrated on the RAF was The Battle of Britain. And of course now, because the bigger budget films are American–funded, they’re obviously shown from an American perspective.

Although there are films that glorify America and bend history a little bit, the Wing Commander was greatly impressed with Black Hawk Down because it portrayed the mistakes that were made and portrayed them quite vividly. The operation might have been a complete screw–up, it was a great story of heroism.

When it came to the staffers who oversaw the television offers, they wanted to get into dramas and soaps. Because continuing dramas occasionally write various characters out of the storylines, they had contacted the production offices to suggest an outgoing character joins the RAF. Every time the answer would be no because it would smack too much of propaganda. If it’s their idea production companies want co – operation, if the DCC (RAF) had the idea they didn’t want to know.

But a good idea that benefits both parties and they’d be willing to help out.

I keep meaning to watch The Gadget Show and always miss it, usually because it would be on at the same time as University Challenge. This evening I only turned the box on a little while ago to watch Newsnight. The thing is, if you’re going to try and ape Top Gear you really need a comparable budget, and I suspect both The Gadget Show and Fifth Gear don’t have anything like it.

At 10:22 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

I gave up on The Gadget Show when their 'comparison test' of handicams involved tying two examples to a car bumper and dragging them around to see which still worked afterward. Like Top Gear, they abandoned useful and tried instead for entertaining; but their lame gadget-themed foot races just don't cut it.

At 9:37 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Great, discursive post! Thanks for all the fascinating insights and anecdotes...

Mind you, I did miss several hours of telly while reading it! ;)


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