Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun and The Day Mountbatten Died

Benjie Goodhart / 14 August 2019

TV reviewer Benjie Goodhart takes a look at a look at the first of a three-part series about young fighter pilot recruits, plus a moving documentary about the IRA bombing of Louis Mountbatten's boat in 1979.

Fighter Pilot: The Real Top Gun 1/3, Tuesday 20th August, 9pm, ITV

Inevitably, we all have things that keep us up at night. For some, it’s work stresses. For others, it’s having a wife who snores like a malfunctioning jackhammer. (Of course I am not referring to my own dearest darling here, whose mellifluous, if occasionally rather sonorous, breathing could soothe to sleep even the most active mind.) But having seen this documentary, I’m going to be kept awake by the knowledge that the fighter pilots charged with keeping the skies above us safe all look about 12. I’m serious! I don’t mean to come across all “Don’t policemen look young these days” but genuinely, the pilots in this series look like they could be playing conkers in their shorts and blazers.

This is the first in a three-part series following pilots who are training to fly the F35 Lightning, the newest jet in the RAF and Royal Navy. The series stakes some rather big claims by calling itself “The Real Top Gun”, and right from the off, it’s clear that it’s not going to measure up. For a start, there appears to be very little in the way of bar room high jinks featuring Righteous Brothers songs. And none of the course instructors are comely astrophysicists in the mould of Kelly McGillis – instead, they all seem to be rather calmly-spoken, balding middle-aged British men. And most glaringly of all are the nicknames. Instead of Maverick, Iceman, Viper, Cougar and Wolfman, we have Andy, Sedge, Danners, Bally and George. This mustard is simply not being cut. Even worse, the flying school instructor is called Puppy. How is that ever going to put the fear of God into our enemies?

Having said that, while the programme falls down in these areas (and is also notably short of any, you know, actual war) it is a really entertaining watch. This is in no small part down to the aerial footage featured – of which there is no shortage. The flying sequences are nothing short of spectacular, and don’t become any less striking and beautiful the more you see. I would absolutely never call myself fighter pilot material – I am more frayed-at-the-edges, slightly moth-eaten material – but watching the aerial footage in this film, I can absolutely see the attraction of becoming a fighter pilot. If only it weren’t for all those scoundrels shooting at you!

The programme charts the efforts of a trio of trainee pilots in Wales, desperate to get on to the elite F35 training programme. The course looks both thrilling and dangerous, and it’s a worrying moment when instructor Bassy says “We do lose people along the way.” I’m hoping he doesn’t mean ‘lose’ lose. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in South Carolina, British And American pilots are training together to operate this extraordinary piece of machinery.

The helmet alone costs £250,000 (I will never again complain about my wife’s hats) and is part of the aircraft. It relays huge amounts of information to the pilot, can sense where he is looking, and offers 360-degree vision thanks to built-in cameras. The whole plane is operated by an incredibly sophisticated computer. It is refreshing to witness that even the well-trained pilots can occasionally struggle with the same technological mishaps that are a daily occurrence for me on my laptop. Bally is about to embark on his first ever F35 flight. But first, he has to submit his username and password and, like usernames and passwords everywhere, there is a problem logging in. He is given technical assistance which, almost unbelievably, consists of switching the aircraft off and on again.

The programme is a pleasing mixture of thrilling footage, jaw-dropping information, and the odd spot of self-deprecating humour from the understated British pilots. In short, it’s as much fun as you can have, unless you happen to have £100m burning a hole in your pocket, and access to a runway in your backyard.

The Day Mountbatten Died, Monday 19th August, 9pm, BBC One

I don’t remember much of 1979. That’s not in a rock’n’roll, if-you-can-remember-the-60s-you-weren’t-really-there sort of a way. It’s just that I was six. I very much suspect that I spent rather a lot of it playing with my battalions of little plastic soldiers. I don’t, therefore, have any recollection of 27th August of that year, a day when real violence was inflicted upon real soldiers, and horror was visited upon too many families, not least among them the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace.

This one-hour documentary, being shown to mark the 40th anniversary of the fateful events of that day, is a meticulously detailed, riveting and profoundly moving account of what happened, told by those who were directly affected.

Many of you (dare I say it, who might have a few years on me) will remember that day with startling clarity, as is so often the way with something both shocking and historic. Louis Mountbatten and some of his party went out on his boat, Shadow V, when it was blown up by the IRA.

Mountbatten, and three others were killed, two of them teenagers. But Sam Collyns’ film isn’t just a re-telling of what happened, a bland exercise in dot-joining with a bit of archive footage thrown in. Thanks to a role call of interviewees that includes everyone from historian and Mountbatten-biographer Philip Ziegler to the protection officer on duty that day, from eyewitnesses to senior members of the IRA, this is a story told from every angle.

As ever, though, the most moving testimony comes from the bereaved. Even now, India Hicks (so named because her grandfather was the last Viceroy of India) cannot recall that day without sobbing. Meanwhile, the mother of 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, the Enniskillen-born boat boy killed that day, is still visibly caught up in a prison of her own grief.

The killing took place at 11:30am, but the carnage of that day was far from over. Across the border in Southern Armagh, a convoy of two trucks packed with Paratroopers was blown up near the town of Warrenpoint. The first detonation killed seven of the nine Paras in the front truck. With sophisticated planning, the IRA had predicted where the survivors would take cover, and when a second device was detonated there half-an-hour later, eleven more troops were killed. The recollections of the survivors are vivid and visceral.

One more tragedy was still to take place. A British man, Bill Hudson, visiting his Irish cousin Barry, heard the explosions, and the pair went to investigate. Barry recounts the moment the terrified Paras saw movement on the opposite riverbank and opened fire, and the moment he had to call Bill’s father to tell him his son was dead.

In among all the moving recollections and fascinating detail, some extraordinary moments stick out: Then-trainee reporter Nicholas Witchell’s fateful meeting with an IRA representative; the photographer on the scene at Warrenpoint who never took another photo after that day, and joined the fire brigade the next week; Mrs Thatcher’s courageous walkabout in Belfast city centre 36-hours after the attack; and India Hicks recalling how her then 11-year-old self was given a Valium before being told what had happened to her beloved grandfather. And, ultimately, the moment of reconciliation that took place in June 2012, when the Queen shook hands with the man, Martin McGuinness, who had probably approved the attacks of 33-years previously.

In the end, one is left not just better-informed, and emotionally affected by this admirable film, but also filled with a sense of gloom and despair about the future. All of a sudden, the hard-won peace that led to that handshake, and put an end to the brutality so vividly illustrated by this film, is under threat again. It is a road we travel at our own risk.

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The best… and the rest

Saturday 17th August

Secrets of the Royal Train, 8pm, Channel 5: The only thing Channel 5 loves more than train documentaries is documentaries about royals, so I suppose this was bound to happen eventually. Sadly not available for preview, as I love a royal train, me.

Monday 19th August

Call the Cops: Juggling Chainsaws, 9pm, Channel 4: This oddly-titled film looks inside the police communications control centre, known as Force Control, to find out what happens at the nerve centre of British policing.

Tuesday 20th August

Train Your Baby Like a Dog, 8pm, Channel 4: Dog-trainer Jo-Rosie Haffenden believes frazzled parents should turn their back on discipline, and instead embrace the values of positive dog-training. As long as we don’t end up with kids pooing on the lawn, I don’t really mind…

Inside the Tower of London, 9pm, Channel 5: Return of the observational documentary series

Wednesday 21st August

Jamie Oliver: The Naked Chef Bares All, 8pm, Channel 4: Documentary, presented by Davina McCall, marking 20 years of cooking and campaigning by the inimitably marvellous Mr Oliver.

Thursday 22nd August

The Octopus in My House, 9pm, BBC Two: Extraordinary documentary following Prof David Scheel and his daughter as they bring home an octopus, Heidi, that proceeds to unravel puzzles, recognise individual human faces, and even watches TV with them.

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