Olympic Rowing: Bert and Dickie

I finally caught up with the BBC1 drama ‘Bert and Dickie’ last night, and it was fitting I should watch it on the same day as GB got their first gold medal in the London 2012 Olympics in a rowing event involving a pair. Of course, yesterday Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won in the rowing pair, but this programme was about Bert Bushnell and Richard (Dickie) Burnell who won gold in the double sculls. Sculling uses two oars you see, and rowing just one. But they also won at London – in 1948 – when the economy was taking a battering and Gold was needed in the Olympics to improve public mood.

Matt Smith (Doctor Who) played Bert, and Sam Hoare played Dickie. Set in the 1940s, the sets all felt very much like an Agatha Christie production on ITV, and similarly had various various familiar faces from tv acting turn up. John Bird (or was it John Fortune?) as one of the Olympics organisers alongside Mr Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. Geoffrey Palmer as Dickie’s father. The actors who played Bert’s parents were familiar, and the actor playing James Bereford, the Olympic rower who trained Bert and Dickie was in The Buccaneers and a host of other dramas.

Apart from a story about how Bert and Dickie won the Olympics – after only beginning to train together 5 weeks before the finals as Bert used to be a single sculler – it also had a subplot about the Olympics Committee and how they managed to earn money. Various knowing glances when they have a young Harold Wilson talking about economic stimulus, and later when John and Wickham congratulate themselves on the idea of gaining advertising for their programme and wondering if sponsorship of the Olympics will take on. In fact, the writer – William Ivory – probably felt very clever with himself but it wasn’t always amusing. Wickham takes a phone call from a certain Matt Busby asking for more footballs to be sent over – but John has never heard of Matt Bubsy – oh how humorous. Anyway this subplot didn’t add to any of the drama but I get why they wanted something else other than just rowing training going on.

As for the main plot – Bert is working class and Dickie is middle/upper class. Dickie is a member of a rowing club, went to Eton, Oxbridge and writes for The Times. Bert’s father is a boat-builder, while Bert has to keep down an office job and is not allowed in the rowing club even though he is on the Olympic team. Bert thinks Dickie was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while Dickie thinks that Bert is not respecting the ‘amateur’ aspect of the game. Of course by the end of it they’re best friends and they win gold. There’s no real suspense. Another fitting coincidence to watch it yesterday though was that Bert and Dickie deliberately went for second in their first round match to avoid meeting the Danes (the favourites) in the semi-final and get into the other half of the draw. Here, it was presented as something quite clever, although they almost didn’t pull it off as other good teams had the same idea. But in reality, as with the Women’s Badminton’s teams at London 2012 on Tuesday – this was not in the Olympic spirit  and they could have been disqualified if found out.

The main emotional focus of the piece was on the relationship the two scullers had with their fathers. Dickie Burnell’s father was also a Gold medalist and they were the first (and I think still only) British father and son pair to win Gold at the Olympics. Geoffrey Palmer, though, kept on asserting the principles of fair play to his son and hardly every encouraged him – until the end of course. Meanwhile, Bert’s father had once wanted to row for Gold but had been too scared. He didn’t want Bert to meet with his girlfriend, Margaret, as he was anxious that his son should not get distracted and should win the Gold. So as not to put him off, he also pretended that he didn’t watch his qualifying matches – but only came in person to the finals. His wife, meanwhile, was too nervous to even listen to the radio for her son’s matches and stayed at home. Watching these fathers I could only think of the brilliant South African swimmer Chad le Clos’ father who came on to the BBC to be interviewed by Clare Balding after his son beat Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly final on Tuesday. Highly emotional Bert le Clos gave a very warm interview about his beautiful son and the happiest day of his life – but was also very funny as whenever he looked at the camera and saw himself on screen he tried to cover up his tummy. There have been some highly emotional moments in London 2012 so far, but ‘Bert and Dickie’ failed to transer some of the emotions from London 1948 to the screen. In the end it was a predictable, staid drama, but how could it compete with the real thing?

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