The Weekend's TV: Operation Crossbow, Sun, BBC2
PhoneShop, Fri, Channel 4

How the Spitfire called the shots

Is there anything more British than the Spitfire?

The fastest, most beautiful plane in the world symbolised British defiance and daring, and has retained its hold on our imaginations largely because of its success. But the manner in which the Spitfire won the war for us is largely shrouded in ignorance for my generation. Many of us have been brought up to believe that the Spitfire bombed those rascal Germans into submission. In fact, the Spitfire secured Allied victory not by dropping bombs from thousands of feet, but by taking pictures from up there.

This was the terrain of Operation Crossbow, and if there is no more British a symbol than the Spitfire, then there is no more British a story than the cerebral manner in which it defended civilisation against Teutonic barbarism. It turns out, you see, that the main benefit derived from the Spitfire was that by flying a camera over enemy ground, our country was able to detect the deepest malevolence in enemy plans and, by extension, take precautions against them.

What this implies cannot be overstated. At RAF Medmenham, a team of photo interpreters used an extraordinarily simple device – the stereoscope – to imbue airborne images with three-dimensional qualities. This means that images seen from thousands of feet high suddenly provided information not just about length and breadth, but about height too; so that with profound imaginations, and a deep regard for detail, those interpreting the images returned by Spitfire reconnaissances could build a detailed picture of life behind enemy lines.

An astonishing 80 per cent of British intelligence during the war, we learned, came from aerial photos, and over 10 million photographs, now delicately preserved in Edinburgh, provided endless data for our finest to pore through. The result, argued the magnificent interviewee Elizabeth Hick, a former photo interpreter herself, was that this work was "more important than Bletchley".

And who could disagree? In a brilliant set of interviews with former RAF servicemen, we were left in no doubt about the importance of these photos. "There was nothing in Europe we didn't film," said Jimmy Taylor, a former pilot who felt he had the best job in the RAF. It was eventually the most crucial too; a comrade of his described, in a gripping finale, how the 3-D images reported back by the Spitfire meant that "strange structures in France", seen from an altitude of thousands of feet, actually "meant something". What they meant was: the Germans had ramps on the grounds, not just tilted skyward, but pointing V-2s towards Portsmouth, Southampton... and London. This jolted the Allies into pre-emptive action. It was no exaggeration to say that the images brought back through Operation Crossbow "saved London", as one ex-serviceman put it, "from total obliteration".

The sheer thrill of this fact elevated the programme from the potential tedium of yet another show about a secret campaign that won us the war. That it presented the Spitfire in an unusual light, in the context of scientific investigation rather than brute military strength, was also irresistible. But above all, what made for an ideal Sunday night was the characters that we met along the way.

The recent death of Claude Choules robbed the world of the last known combat veteran of the First World War and stoked the growing realisation that the cataclysmic world wars of the 20th century will shortly no longer be accessible to us through the lived experience of those who were around to endure it. Soon it will be history – not the living kind, but the dead stuff, and therefore less knowable.

That is what the brilliant heroes who, one by one, were paraded in front of us, all represented. To them, the fight against the Germans was not theory, but practice. It was felt. And they felt so intensely, so warmly, that it was impossible not to feel that they deserve greater recognition, that waiting for these heroes to die before celebrating their virtue and valour is about as short-sighted as it is possible to be.

All of which – and it's a terribly middle-aged way of thinking about it, I know – rendered PhoneShop, which I'd recorded on Sky Plus, difficult viewing. A species of comedy has lately triumphed on the stage and on Channel 4, which celebrates the mediocrity of middle-class life. Think Michael McIntyre. There is nothing greatly wrong about this, and much moderately right. In this sitcom, for example, there were some hilarious moments as another crack squad went to work with a new recruit. They all wear drab suits and the gag lies in their realisation of just how mundane their life is. It's like Tim from The Office, but stretched into a whole cast.

What didn't work, alas, were the accents. The manager talks in a soulless Slough accent, but two of the central characters riff in possibly the most unconvincing roodboy patois Channel 4 has yet been blessed with. This was a shame, because these actors could really act; they'd simply been told to deliver their lines in a "street" manner. It ended up sounding like Ali G, without the attendant bling to tell you this was a joke. For all that, this comedy aimed to capture the tedium of many modern working lives, and did so well. I wonder what those Spitfire pilots would have made of it.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk;

twitter.com/amolrajan

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