TELEVISION REVIEW / On scuttling ships and cutting throats

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The Independent Culture
THE PLUMP Tory lady lobbied at the Blackpool party conference on behalf of 'Swan's' was startled when it became clear that she wasn't being asked to support native waterfowl. The man on the other side of the crash barrier wasn't campaigning for lead-free fishing weights but for salvation for a Tyneside shipyard. 'You can count on me,' she assured him with a jolly smile - if she kept her word she was one of only two Tories who actually turned up to his meeting.

But then large white birds are a lot easier to protect than large white elephants, even if the elephant in question turns out some of the finest warships in the world. Time and time again in Fighting Ships (C4) people offered unsolicited testimonials to the quality of the work from the Swan Hunter shipyard, politic in some cases but heartfelt in most; it was part of the melancholy truth of Alan James's film that merit is no protection against the cold decisions of the market.

Gordon Horsfield, appointed as receiver to a company that owed around pounds 40m and had just lost a major order, used a surgical metaphor. If the patient is bleeding to death on the table, he suggested, you may have to cut off the odd limb. The men under the knife knew that he couldn't afford any anaesthetic. 'It's part of you getting cut away,' explained a solid man in overalls, who'd survived the latest round of redundancies but had seen old friends laid off. He held out his hand to show it trembling. 'I wor frightened, really frightened,' said another, describing the canteen meeting at which men had waited to hear their names called.

It didn't look like a clean amputation as the men trudged up the long sloping road out of the yard, at the beginning of their uphill battle against unemployment. It looked like a haemorrhage of skills that couldn't find a buyer any more. In the empty hangers, the lockers stood ajar, the names daubed on their doors a roll-call of those departed.

Gordon Horsfield was preparing a beast for market, which in industry means thinning down rather than fattening up. Even the trade unionist campaigner found himself using management vocabulary, telling a television interviewer that he was promoting a 'slimmer, more effective establishment than it was 10 months ago'. That accommodation with reality told its own sad story. The men, like him, were pinning their hopes on a new owner, but at the time even the freshening prospect of a sale to a German or French company didn't necessarily mean a reprieve. As Horsfield pointed out, the highest bid might come from a competitor who simply wanted to close the yard down, in which case he had been fittening up the business for slaughter. In the event it went to the French, a deal that was cleared by the Ministry of Defence only this week, but which is conditional on the yard getting the contract to refit the Sir Bedivere. They've finished with the surgeon's knife but the axe is still suspended.

Hang on a Second (C4) alerted you to the fact that at midnight last night an extra second was added to Universal Time. As far as I could work out from an enjoyable programme that leaned more to the Salvador Dali model of chronology than the Swiss version, this is because the earth has slipped a gear and fallen behind atomic time. This matters considerably to Martine Feissel (who has the splendid title 'Keeper of Universal Time') and so a leap second has been added. In case you think this is a trivial matter, the film pointed out that in one second Britons will eat 54 digestive biscuits. If only I'd known I would have stocked up against the extra demand.