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Along for the Ride with David O’Doherty and The Great Escape

Benjie Goodhart / 19 November 2021

Richard Ayoade joins comedian David O’Doherty exploring Kent and East Sussex by bicycle, and a documentary looks at the real events that inspired classic film The Great Escape.

Along for the Ride with David O’Doherty, Monday 22nd November, 10pm, Channel 4

Like most kids, I loved my bike. I used to trundle around on it, pretending I was Jon from CHiPs, patrolling the highways of California and meting out justice to the bad guys. (In fact, I was a rather risk-averse eight-year-old wobbling about on a bike that was too small for him because I was too scared to go up a size).

In the intervening years, I’ve not actually had a bike, until recently. Earlier this year, my wife bought me one, after we’d spent the previous 12 months locked down together with the kids. I am still not entirely sure whether the bike was a gift of love, because she knows how much exercise helps with my anxiety, or an entreaty to go and wobble about in heavy traffic in the hope that she can move on to husband number two. Come to think of it, I had to buy the helmet myself… Just to be on the safe side, I think I’ll check my brake cables.

Anyway, truth is, I’ve become really quite fond of cycling. It’s good exercise, out in the fresh air, and it’s generally a quicker way of getting around Brighton than going by car. A fondness for life on two wheels is something I share with Irish comedian David O’Doherty, whose new show on Channel 4 sees him embarking on two-day-long cycling trips with a host of celebrities (later episodes will feature Mel Giedroyc, Grayson Perry and Joe Wilkinson). Tonight’s series opener, though, sees him travelling from Winchelsea, in East Sussex, to Dungeness on the Kent coast, in the company of fellow comedian Richard Ayoade.

The pair meet up in Winchelsea, and start to plan their route on a map. Like, an actual, physical Ordinance Survey map. When was the last time you saw one of them? O’Doherty explains that the point of the trip is to get away from the modern world, including the apps and maps of the modern smartphone, and instead enjoy the tranquillity of nature. Quite how this fits in with having your every move scrutinised by a film crew, with drones flying overhead, is anyone’s guess, but you get the idea.

As the two embark on their ride, it becomes clear that there is something of a gap in quality of their bikes. O’Doherty has bought his state of the art racing bike with its 18 gears. Ayoade is on one of those fold-up bikes that commuters use, complete with its tiny wheels. Nevertheless, he pushes on gamely, and it soon becomes apparent that, underneath the geeky, neurotic persona, Ayoade is in seriously good shape.

At this point, I’d normally tell you what happened in the programme – where they went, what they got up to, the people they met, the things they saw. But, in truth, there’s not an awful lot to report. They just chatted, really, and tried to make each other laugh. I could tell you about their stop at a tea room, or their overnight stay in a safari lodge, complete with bonfire, marshmallows and edible whistles. But really, it’s just the pair shooting the breeze.

And very charming it is too. Watching two amiable, witty men gently teasing one another while freewheeling along the leafy lanes of Kent is a more than agreeable way of spending an hour. It’s very redolent of Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, but less aquatic, and with more arguments about the correct gear to use on a hill.

This is a travelogue that seems to be all about the journey, rather than the destination. Which is just as well, as Dungeness, where they conclude their trip, looks hellish. It seems to be a windswept, barren, flat and treeless corner of the country, where on one side of the road you have prefabs, and on the other, a nuclear power station. But, in truth, you barely notice, such is the gentle joy of this little gem.

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The Great Escape, Tuesday 23rd November, 9pm, Channel 5

You are, no doubt, familiar with the story that this documentary tells. Or, at least, you think you are. The tremendous 1963 film of this historic escape, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn and Gordon Jackson, is rightly celebrated as one of the great war films. But inevitably, a degree of poetic licence was taken when the film was made – not least of which was the fact that the role of the American prisoners was wildly exaggerated to make the film more attractive to US audiences.

Yet there was, in fact, absolutely no need to diverge from the truth of the story because, as this documentary lays out in forensic detail over the next three nights, it is an absolutely extraordinary tale of courage, ingenuity and determination. The simple facts are these: In March 1944, 76 men clambered along a claustrophobic, dimly-lit tunnel under the wire of their camp and out into Germany. But the story of how they did it, and what happened to them next, is nothing short of jaw-dropping, and is told here using reconstructed dramatic footage, expert testimony, and the recollections of family members of those involved.

Stalag Luft III was opened for business in March 1942, a prison camp for captured airmen, run by the Luftwaffe, and built to house those prisoners who had made something of a habit of escaping from their previous camps. Escape was considered all but impossible. The accommodation was built on stilts to prevent tunnelling, and the ground underfoot was sandy, making tunnel-construction well nigh impossible. Furthermore, strategically-planted microphones were buried around the camp to detect any digging.

Life on the camp was relatively comfortable for the airmen. They had parcels from home, a library and a theatre. As historian Guy Walters reflects: “The analogy between somewhere like Stalag Luft III and a minor boys’ boarding school in a somewhat brutal part of Britain is absolutely perfect.” Although the prisoners probably had it easier than the schoolboys, on account of not having to learn Latin.

In spite of their relative comfort and safety, many of those in the camp were determined to escape and create havoc behind enemy lines. None more so than Roger Bushell, an ‘alpha male’ whose dreams of having a ‘good war’ were seemingly shattered when he was shot down on his first mission as a pilot. He was initially imprisoned, before escaping and finding refuge with a Czech family for seven months. When he was eventually discovered, the family was executed.

Bushell’s determination to escape, and to wreak chaos, was profoundly intensified by this experience, and after being sent to Stalag Luft III, he became head of the Escape Committee, and introduced escape planning on an industrial scale. Three tunnels were begun, circumventing the raised huts conundrum with remarkable ingenuity. Tom, Dick and Harry were extraordinary feats of planning and engineering.

While huge numbers of prisoners set about making German uniforms and forging papers, under the ground enormous tunnels began to take shape, with men slaving away in unimaginably hot and dangerous conditions. Fresh air was pumped into the tunnels using an extraordinarily elaborate billows system, and they were even rigged up with electric lights. The tunnel walls were propped up with bed slats, and the earth was removed from the tunnels using a pulley on rails, before being distributed around the camp by men walking around with sand in easy-release bags in their trouser legs.

This first episode is filled with astounding details, and the overall effect is one of boundless awe and admiration for all of those involved. The reconstructed footage is beautifully done, and creates a sense of atmosphere, time and place – and an awful lot of pipe smoking. In a month where we remember the heroism and sacrifice of young men in conflicts throughout the ages, this is a salutary reminder of what courage and duty really means.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 20th November

Paul McCartney at the BBC, 7:55pm, BBC Two: Feature-length compilation of clips from the great man’s numerous appearances on the BBC over the past 60 years, including chat show interviews, live performances and backstage footage. Followed by McCartney’s live performance from The Cavern Club in Liverpool, recorded in 2018.

Sunday 21st November

An Audience with Adele, 7:25pm, ITV: The songstress, back with her new album, submits herself to the cheesiest of all TV formats, the ‘Audience with…’ Between her (doubtless magnificent) vocal performances, she will answer bland, pre-vetted questions from members of a specially invited audience, almost certainly including people from EastEnders.

I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, 9pm, ITV: Ant and Dec return to Gwrych Castle in North Wales for a new series of the nightly reality show, which sees some slightly famous people eating weird stuff and getting up close and personal with creepy crawlies in the name of entertainment. This year’s campmates include Richard Madeley, Louise Minchin, David Ginola and Arlene Phillips.

Monday 22nd November

The Princes and the Press 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: Amol Rajan examines the different approaches towards the media adopted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge compared to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and how the media has responded in turn.

Guy’s Garage, 9pm, Channel 4: Engineer, motorcyclist and daredevil Guy Martin returns for a new series, which sees him transforming everyday road vehicles into custom racers, before taking them to tracks all across Europe to race against fellow enthusiasts. Tonight, he takes a Volvo to Sweden. Coals to Newcastle, anyone?

Tuesday 23rd November

The Great British Bake Off, 8pm, Channel 4: The grand final. They came, they saw, they baked, and now only three remain, one of whom will be crowned champion tonight.

Thursday 25th November

The Martin Lewis Money Show Christmas Special, 8pm, ITV: the money-saving expert answers the burning questions ahead of Black Friday, and gives advice on how to keep costs down this Christmas.

Friday 26th November

Womanhood, 9pm, BBC Two: Six famous women spanning different age ranges, background and experience come together in Leeds to tackle some of the mostly hotly contested issues. Broadcast Kirsty Wark is joined by dancer Shirley Ballas, writer Chidera Eggerue, businesswoman Jacqueline Gold, singer Sinitta Malone, and comedian Suzi Ruffell.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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