Frankly, you would have needed a lot more than eau-de-Cologne to cover up the smell, had I been sent down with them. The first episode of Nautilus (BBC2), a history of undersea warfare, was subtitled "To War in Iron Coffins". Every fear you can imagine - enclosure, water, death - had to be overcome, and that was just watching the programme.
The awfulness of the working conditions - the smog of petrol fumes, the total lack of privacy, the way condensation dripped on your face as you slept at night, making you dream the vessel had sprung a leak - were neatly reconstructed in the programme, through liberal readings from seamen's diaries, archive film of torpedoed ships gracefully fading beneath the waves and studios filled with dry ice. Michael Gambon's doom-laden voice- over hit the tone, too: there weren't a lot of light moments in the history of the submarine, a history of innovation through death. Almost all the advances under the waves were driven by the urge to kill. One British officer, stuck in a dripping-wet submarine for weeks on end, took to popping his socks in an old biscuit tin, fitted with an electric light bulb, to keep them dry. Much more congenial to drown with dry socks, you felt.
As hazardous as submarines were, most of the deaths associated with them tended to take place up on the surface. In the early days of the war, U-boats were instructed to challenge merchant ships and ensure their crew had taken to lifeboats before engaging torpedoes. By the end of the conflict, expediency being what it is, they were putting them down, without warning, all over the Atlantic, in an attempt to starve Britain into submission - with more than 100 merchant ships sunk in April 1917 alone. As a war- winning strategy it rather backfired, however, as one of the main reasons the Americans entered the fray, the programme suggested, was because it grew fed up with the number of its ships that were being attacked. You couldn't help feeling, as Gambon doomed on, that if Britain had been led by lions instead of donkeys, someone in authority might have had the foresight to realise that, had we gone out, hijacked a few U-boats and used them to sink half a dozen American ships in 1915, the war could have been brought to a much quicker conclusion.
A man looking roughly as I felt watching Nautilus, was Rick Stein. The jovial chef began his series, Taste Of The Sea (BBC2), standing aboard a trawler 10 miles off the Cornish coast, his face a delicate shade of avocado.
"A lot of people think of fishing as romantic," he said, his skin colour, as the boat bucked comically beneath him, plainly indicating he was not of that inclination. "The reality is far beyond your wildest, most horrific imagination."
It didn't take long for Stein to return to his school-of-Floyd, lad-chef form, however. Once back in his kitchen, what he did with the fish he hauled up on his trip (the few sad flappers the Spanish have left off Cornwall, presumably) looked as effortless as it looked astonishing. Fish soup, grey mullet, scallops, were all set off to such mouth-watering effect by the programme, it made you want to go off and book his much-mentioned restaurant in Padstow immediately. Part of the new commitment to the BBC's public service charter presumably includes these half-hour long free commercials for chefs and their restaurants.Reuse content