Television review

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The Independent Culture
Decisive Weapons (BBC2) was narrated by Sean Bean in the sort of grim northern tones employed by that very cross man who sells Thompson's Flat Roof Sealant, a similarity which is not always helpful. You keep expecting Bean to stop mincing words and give it to you straight; "If your landing zone is overrun by Vietcong insurgents then don't come complaining to me. Do it right! Do it with a Bell Huey Helicopter." It raises the whole question of narrators, a production detail which often has a powerful subliminal effect on an audience, and not always that intended by the producers. The most conspicuous example of this was the recent use of Chris Langham to narrate a serious, morally concerned documentary about American gun culture - the authority of his voice rather undermined, for me at least, by the fact that he's also used it to poke fun at serious, morally concerned documentaries. Sean Bean, by contrast, is an example of the pin-up voice-over, the employment of dependably seductive vocal chords to add a bit of gloss to a film, and he has no shortage of competitors, turning an extra penny in the dubbing studios. Juliet Stevenson, Brian Cox, Alan Howerd and many others have all done their bit to drape some aural glamour over films which might otherwise come across as pedantic or mildly nerdy.

The alternative, adopted more frequently by human interest documentaries, is the anonymity of what you could call "reporter's drab", a tone of voice which John Pitman and Mark Halliley have made their own - a sort of Eeyorish drone which could make the application of pebbledash sound like a glum moral drama. But Decisive Weapons survives both the unfortunate echoes in Bean's voice and the war-gamers' obsessiveness of its subject. With the Huey helicopter it could hardly fail. The sight of one, flaring into a landing amid a swirl of red dust, has become the visual epitome of the Vietnam War; "I'll hear those blades going whup-whup-whup-whup-whup for the rest of my life," said one combat veteran and, in diminished form, the same might be said for anybody who has ever watched a newsreel or movie about that war. The T-34 tank, the subject of last week's programme, is likely only to stir the nostalgia of those who fought in it, but the chopping beat of a Huey resounds even in non-combatant heads, made part of our imaginative armoury by cinema and television.

Decisive Weapons was canny about the way in which soldiers' stories can play on the viscera of the least bellicose viewer. We might not want to go to war, but some part of us thrills to the supernatural amplification of bodily power that weapons offer - the ability to fly or to break through walls as if they were paper. That such martial fantasies play their part in a weapon's history - just as much as technological advances or dependability - was nicely brought home by the fact that Hueys were taken into action by the First Cavalry Division, an airborne recreation of one of America's most myth-drenched military units.

The original for Colonel Kilgore, the manic, stetson-toting commander in Apocalypse Now, was John B Stockton, who inculcated in his pilots a historic pride in service. For a while it even looked as if the Bell Huey's first large-scale engagement might turn out to be a reprise of Custer's Last Stand, after American troops engaged a much larger force of Vietcong soldiers. The Huey - laying down fire, evacuating the wounded and bringing in supplies - saved the day, though it could eventually do little to win the war. And if it seemed an irony to include such a defeat under the programme's implicit promise of triumph it was an irony the makers had under control. The Huey's ability to ferry journalists to the very heart of the conflict may finally have done more to drive America out of the war than Vietcong attacks - which is, after all, a decisiveness of sorts.

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