The Dambusters Declassified documentary shown on BBC a couple of weeks ago wasn’t widely reviewed in the national press, but has been the subject of debate on a number of internet forums. One of these discussions, on a forum widely frequented by modern day pilots, had a surprising intervention from the film’s producer, Ian Cundall. Posting under the pretty cool name of ‘TVflyer’ he explained that they only had a short time to fix up the camera shots, so couldn’t get an exterior view of what it felt like to fly only 100 feet above the ground.
He countered the grumbles from some quarters that there was ‘nothing new’ in the programme:
Some of the stories told in the film are well known to aviation historians but – I’d suggest – not to most general viewers who base their knowledge of the raid on the movie.
That’s my view now, some time after transmission. When the programme finished my immediate conclusion was exactly that – there was nothing in it that I hadn’t read or heard about already. But some of the material which was used has only been previously published in pretty obscure books. One example is the story of how shot-down bomb aimer John Fraser was interrogated by the Germans, which to the best of my knowledge has only been discussed in detail in Helmuth Euler’s The Dams Raid through the Lens. It took a certain degree of bravery for his daughter Shere – a doughty defender of her father’s memory – to stand in front of a camera and say that he did reveal some details of how the weapon worked.
The only bit of the documentary which got picked up in the national press was the interview with Margaret Masters, the woman Guy Gibson was seeing in the run up to the Dams Raid. Again, this is well known to aficionados, as she was interviewed at length by Richard Morris for his 1994 biography of Gibson. But she has never spoken on camera before, which led the Mail on Sunday to cobble together a predictably sensationalist story based entirely on quotes from the programme.
What I think didn’t work was the use of Martin Shaw as a front man for the film. He’s a good enough actor, and has a private pilot’s licence, but I don’t think this necessarily qualifies him to ‘investigate’ on our behalf. There are real experts who could have fronted the programme – one, John Sweetman, appeared as an interviewee – but, of course, they are not as good box office as a hunky middle aged actor in serious spectacles, which he was able to take off several times with a theatrical flourish.
Shaw was also absent for some parts of the film – a woman’s voice could be heard during one of the interviews – and this betrays the fact that some parts were cobbled together from other BBC projects. Long term readers of this blog will know that as far back as June 2009 a BBC South West researcher had contacted me looking for information about the youngest Dambuster, rear gunner Jack Liddell. The last 15 minutes or so of Dambusters Declassified appeared to be made up of this material, tacked onto the end of Martin Shaw’s description of the difficulties of low flying.
Ultimately, it was a serious programme, with some interesting material, and well worth catching again if you can find it on iPlayer or other sources.