TV blog: The RAF at 100

Benjie Goodhart / 22 March 2018

Actor Ewan McGregor and his pilot brother celebrate 100 years of the RAF. Plus, the best of the rest of the week’s TV highlights.

The RAF at 100 with Ewan and Colin McGregor, Sunday 25th March, 8:30pm, BBC One

There are three letters that epitomise courage, sacrifice and indefatigability in this country, and much as I’d like to convince you those letters are QPR, it’s an argument that holds as much water as a sieve. Those letters are, of course, RAF. Without the glamorous flyboys of yesteryear, we’d all be eating sauerkraut and listening to dodgy heavy metal (mind you, we’d be better at penalty shoot outs…).

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This year, the RAF is 100, and to mark this milestone, the BBC have asked former-RAF-pilot-turned instructor Colin McGregor and his younger brother Ewan (some unemployed actor hanging on to Colin’s coat-tails) to make a documentary looking at the history of this august and venerated institution. The result is a feature-length film that takes a fascinating, comprehensive, if necessarily shallow, overview of the organisation, from its uncomfortable beginnings forged above the battlefields of France in World War I, to its hi-tech, astonishingly sophisticated present-day iteration.

First off, they’re up in a couple of old WWI machines, which appear to be made from coat hangers and paper, and look about as airworthy as a brick in a plastic bag. Being a WWI pilot was, it turns out, not much fun. (Mind you, nor was being a soldier, or a sailor – it’s almost as if war isn’t actually much fun for anyone…). Mind you, Ewan seems to be having a high old time (quite literally) as his rickety old tub takes on a tri-plane Fokker.

The Second World War is dealt with in much more detail, as befits the RAF’s finest hour. There are remarkable interviews with a Battle of Britain Pilot, a gunner from Bomber Command, and two women who served as Air Transport Auxiliary pilots. There are fascinating, devastating details, like the devil-may-care desperation of the Bomber Command crews, amongst whom venereal disease was rife, such was their eagerness to experience life while they could. (With 55,000 deaths out of 125,000 Bomber Command servicemen, theirs was the most dangerous role in the force).

There’s a nod to the Berlin airlift, and an absolutely riveting interview with a pilot who recalls a lethal dogfight over the Falkland Islands in 1982. And there’s a look at the RAF today, in all its high-tech, jet-propelled, computer-controlled glory. To illustrate this, Ewan takes a little spin in a Typhoon, £60m of military hardware that takes off in an extraordinary, almost vertical climb, travels at twice the speed of sound, and has over 200 on-board computers. It all seems a frightfully long way from the flying bathtubs of WWI, though the common factor is the bravery and calm precision of those behind the joystick, to whom we all owe a considerable debt.

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Indian Summer School 1/3, Thursday 29th March, 9pm, Channel 4

In British schools today, one group of students is struggling more than any other: Working class boys. As far as solutions go, it’s a toughie, all right. Do we throw money and resources at the problem, or try and understand weed out the root causes? Do we attempt to change the entire culture surrounding education, or do we tweak the syllabus to make it more relevant and appealing. Or… and this is just an idea… do we get them all together, in groups of no more than five, and send them to what may be the world’s most prestigious boarding school, 4,000 miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they can embrace a strict and structured regime that all but guarantees results.

Okay, there are drawbacks to this idea. One is that it would cost the government several trillion pounds, which isn’t exactly in line with the policy of austerity. Another is that it’s not exactly a quick process. Assuming that around one-in-eight of the 8 million pupils in UK education is a working class male, sending five of them every year to India would mean the whole process would see the last students receiving their education 200,000 years from now. That’s assuming that no other children are born during that time, and also that people can live for over 200,000 years, neither of which seems entirely likely.

So it’s not a solution in and of itself. What it is, though, is a very good idea for a television programme, and revealing social experiment. Five working class boys with pretty disastrous academic histories are to spend six months at the Doon School, 150 miles outside Delhi. They’re moving to a community of short haircuts, traditional Indian garb and Indian values, rigid adherence to rules, hard work and discipline. Oh, and where alcohol and social media isn’t allowed. What could possibly go wrong?

Things don’t get off to the best of starts when one of the boys, a cheeky chappie called Jake, smuggles alcohol into the school. Now, in the UK, this would instantly result in Jake achieving godlike status among his peers, who would all get roaring drunk at the earliest possible opportunity. At the Doon School, there is incomprehension and dismay among the pupils, followed by a swift report to the housemaster. Clearly there’s no omerta in operation here.

Another of the boys, Ethan, is wrestling with aspects of conformity. He is gay, and says that he wants to become a woman in a few years. He’s less-than-thrilled with the traditional Indian outfits he’s asked to wear, but that’s as nothing to his reaction to being told to cut his hair short. Samson himself could not have set more store by his locks. Luckily, the benign figure of the (English) headmaster intervenes, and Ethan can keep his hair, as long as he dispenses with his fake nails. He is also battling boredom, without access to screens and social media. “Do you read?” asks the headmaster. “Only OK! magazine and Katie Price’s book.” That’ll be a no, then.

But while Jake and Ethan are struggling, Harry, Jack and Alfie are showing the first signs of blossoming. Particularly touching is Jack’s reaction to one class. “I didn’t want my English lesson to end… She put a smiley face on my work. I’ve never had a smiley face on my work before!” And, like that, you realise that these alcohol-guzzling, rule-breaking rebels are actually still just little boys who have lost their way.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 24th March

The Boat Race, 3:50pm, BBC One: Does Clare Balding ever sleep? She’s back again, this time with coverage of the men’s and women’s Boat Races. This year, to spice things up, they’ve changed it to a speedboat race, and the crews involved are from Clerkenwell Art College and Nottingham Polytechnic.

Who Dares Wins, 7:40pm, BBC One: Gameshow presented by Nick Knowles, possibly the five scariest words in the English language.

Picasso’s Last Stand, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary speaking to the artist’s family and friends about the prolific last decade of his life.

King Tut’s Treasure Secrets 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: New series looking at the precious artefacts found with Tutenkha… Tutenca… Tooten… with King Tut’s body. Whoever said “You can’t take it with you” hadn’t met many pharaohs.

Sunday 25th March

Reggie Yates: Searching for Grenfell’s Lost Lives, 9pm, BBC Two: The presenter speaks to family and friends of the victims of last June’s horrendous tragedy.

Monday 26th March

The Queen: Her Commonwealth Story, 9pm, BBC One: George Alagiah explores the history of the Commonwealth, and the Queen’s relationship with it, ahead of next week’s Commonwealth Games. Sadly, no programme was available for preview at the time of writing.

Hospital 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: Return of the outstanding documentary series following the reality of daily life working in a frantically over-stretched NHS. This time around, the show comes from two Nottingham hospitals.

Inside the Railway 1/20, 9pm, Channel 5: Return of the show charting life behind the scenes on the nation’s railways. Tonight, will the Beast from the East close Padington?

Tuesday 27th March

Live International Football, 7:30pm, ITV: England take on Italy, who may well be out to prove they are better than their non-qualification for the World Cup suggests. Alternatively, this being yet another International Friendly, they may not give a stuff.

Come Home 1/3, 9pm, BBC One: Paula Malcomson and Christopher Ecclestone star in a new drama. Marie (Malcomson) has abruptly left the family home. This being a prime time drama, she’s unlikely to have nipped out for a pint of milk, and so it proves, as a tangled web of secrets begins to unravel.

Wednesday 28th March

The Real Full Monty, 9pm, ITV: If your heart’s desire is to witness daytime TV presenters and reality TV personalities stumble their way through a striptease routine, your Christmasses have all just come at once. Fun feature-length show, with the important goal of raising awareness of prostate cancer.

Grenfell Tower: Minute By Minute, 9pm, Channel 5: Survivors recount their recollections of the terrible fire that left 72 dead. Grim, sobering and disturbing.

Thursday 29th March

The Real Full Monty, 9pm, ITV: Following last night’s display of macho posturing, tonight it’s the turn of the women, including Coleen Nolan and Hi-de-Hi’s Ruth Madoc as they seek to raise awareness of Breast Cancer.

Friday 30th March

Kensington Palace: Fit for a Princess, 6:35pm, Channel 5: This feature-length one-off doc, charting the history of the palace, is an odd bit of scheduling. A 6:35pm start time suggests it may not be Bafta-winning material.

Britain’s Great Cathedrals with Tony Robinson 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: The man can make as many documentaries as he likes, he will continue to be known as Baldrick in most households. Tonight, his cunning plan is to visit York Minster and tell the story of its history. Will he be paid in turnips?

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