Review - Much more than two men in a boat

20th July 2012 at 01:00

The Olympics are almost upon us. And so it is time to show off what Britain does best: period drama.

Bert and Dickie ticks all the requisite best-of-British boxes. Garnished with countryside, bicycles and Spam, it tells the story of Bert Bushnell and Richard "Dickie" Burnell, who competed in the sculling doubles at the 1948 London Olympics. (Sculling, as Bert explains, is not the same as rowing. Rowers hold one oar, scullers two.)

Bert (Matt Smith, only occasionally sounding like Doctor Who) is a single sculler; Dickie (the strapping Sam Hoare) is originally paired with another athlete. It is their coach who teams them with one another. They are an unlikely duo: Dickie rowed in Eton and Cambridge eights, while Bert lives in a two-up two-down with his parents. Dickie writes for The Times; Bert reads the Daily Mail.

But just as I was about to dismiss Bert and Dickie as "Downton-on-Thames", with a little bit of sporting Hollywood cliche thrown in for good measure, it turns out to be really very good. The film is barely off the starting block before the class-differences-getting-in-the-way-of-working-together problem is dealt with. And, instead, we are left with something much more interesting.

Both men have complex relationships with their fathers. Dickie's dad is a master of the backhanded compliment, while Bert worries that his does not care enough. Each man looks to the other's father for paternal inspiration. Each father finds it easier to inspire a man who is not his own son.

The writer, William Ivory, has a keen eye for telling period detail. So we see British hosts - who were still struggling with food rationing - salivate lustfully as they watch an American athlete eat a steak. And, because gold medals will help lift post-war spirits, ministers announce the inclusion of some new austerity sports: Olympic poetry and etching.

The ultimate result is a film that is both emotionally engaging and unequivocally feel-good. Although we all know from the outset how it is going to end, I nonetheless found myself a little bit breathless during the sculling final. Forget poetry and etching. If we really want to lift national spirits, I suggest we introduce period drama as an Olympic sport.

Bert and Dickie will be broadcast on BBC One on 25 July at 8.30pm.

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