TELEVISION / Dambusters have gone from history to myth

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a small growth industry in television for getting in there and clearing up the messes popular myth-making has left behind. Last week Timewatch (BBC 2) gave us a fascinating account of the life and times of Rasputin. Oddly enough, it offered confirmation of Boney M's contention that 'Russia's greatest love machine . . . was a cat that really was gone', a thesis that has perhaps not been treated with the seriousness it deserves because it was backed up by a synthesized percussion track rather than a scholarly bibliography. Even so, Timewatch was able to show that the Hammer Horror image of Rasputin, of a demonic and evil priest manipulating the Tsarina, didn't take account of his great generosity and somewhat complicated spirituality.

Last night Secret History (C 4), something of a Timewatch clone, looked again at the story of the Dambusters' raid on the Ruhr dams, an event which was almost immediately recast as heroic myth in the newspapers of the day, and which found its canonical form in the 1954 film. It was an intriguing programme, which set out to demythologise the incident but only served to reinforce the elements which make it such a powerful story. Perhaps this is only something that afflicts small boys but I found the images of three Lancaster bombers flying low over coastal dunes so thrilling that I temporarily lost interest in the arguments about strategic value and Air Ministry bureaucracy.

Secret History was more sober, though, carefully detailing Barnes Wallis's battle to get his idea accepted and the early difficulties with the design. There was startling footage of tests, particularly one practice run in which the splash of the bomb ripped a flap off the plane that had dropped it, but their principal interest was in the consequences of the raid. Wallis was wrong about the most important target, the Sorpe dam, which resisted the attack, and the damage from the collapse of the Moehne dam wasn't as strategically important as had been assumed. On the other hand, one historian argued, the courage and audacity of the raid had direct diplomatic consequences, helping to persuade Stalin that the British were serious about defeating the Nazis in Europe. In America and Britain, too, the dramatic front-page pictures of the damage (released at exceptional speed by a normally secretive Air Ministry) boosted morale.

Secret History had done its research well, finding survivors of the raid from both sides and detailing the human cost - 53 air crew were killed and 1,300 people suffered the grim fate of drowning in their beds. But the glamour of those aircraft and the difficulty of the mission couldn't be suppressed by such scholarly accounting. It's reasonable enough to ask whether the raid was 'worth it' I suppose (though mildly impudent to ask men whose friends had died in it) but by the end of the film the question still struck you as a little odd, a failure to see that the event has already escaped from history into myth.

Scotland Yard (ITV), a department-by-department account of the Metropolitan Police, is too much like an induction video to be comfortable. Last night the series covered the Special Branch and Anti-Terrorist squads. A tricky area, you might have thought, but this series is not in the business of ruffling feathers. 'You're right, we have had some success of late, but we're not complacent,' one officer replied to a searching question. Elsewhere we were assured that it would be quite impossible for Special Branch officers to bug without authorisation because they don't have the relevant technical knowledge, a claim I filed alongside the lifetime guarantee for my fake Rolex. If you read out some of this narration in a Pathe newsreel voice you would know what you were dealing with ('Peace will eventually come to Northern Ireland and the IRA will stop their attacks on the mainland. But until then the police response to the atrocities of the IRA will be led by the men and women of Special Branch and the Anti-terrorist branch') but they had wisely gone for the reassuring gravity of Philip Tibenham.