‘Bert and Dickie’ review

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An Olympics in trouble? Taking place during some austere times? With the population not really sure if they’re interested or not? AND it’s in London? No, this isn’t 2012 but, in fact, 1948.

Bert and Dickie is a new 90-minute drama for BBC One starring Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith and actor Sam Hoare concentrating on the hastily arranged endeavours of two British scullers (that’s rowers to everyone else) in the run-up to the “Austerity Games”.

The titular Bertram Bushnell and Richard Burnell, played by Smith and Hoare respectively, are put together by five time Olympic gold medal winner Jack Beresford to compete in the double sculls (again, that’s rowing to us laypeople). Portrayed with infinite suaveness by James Frain (True Blood, The Tudors), Beresford coaches the pair with barely six weeks to go to the big event.

But the pair not only have post-war rationing to battle but also their fathers. Bert’s dad seems indifferent to his skills whilst Dickie’s pa (played by TV legend Geoffrey Palmer), a former gold medal winner himself, is almost a parody of pure British good sportsmanship; believing that being a gentleman is more important than winning.

Indeed, Bert and Dickie is a very British affair, exploring the stilted and unemotional relationship between father and son. Though some viewers may find it incredibly old-fashioned in that respect (especially in an X Factor world where parents have infinite belief in their offspring and cannot be differentiated from their children’s friends).

The pace, it should be noted, is slow (not necessarily a bad thing). But, no matter how many dynamic shots of Smith and Hoare’s rowing (sorry, sculling) and quick edits of the boats and the audience in anticipation, the sport is not rendered exciting enough for the casual viewer.

Having said that, the piece is beautiful on the eye and Scottish director David Blair (the man behind the camera on such brilliant series as Taking’ Over The Asylum and Accused) captures the time perfectly. The era is wonderfully evoked if made slightly parodic by the script from William Ivory (Made in Dagenham), who rather over-eggs the point from time to time; dumbing it up for the audience on a number of occasions.

Matt Smith buries his Doctory traits firmly away in some hidden room of the TARDIS portraying Bushnell as, it has to be said, a bit of a prick. Although not quite unlikable, his treatment of his colleague Burnell will leave you sympathetic for the more unknown of the two actors. Both Smith and Hoare do a fantastic job of young men dealing with the inner demons of unspeakable family issues whilst trying to prove their physical prowess on the world stage.

Elsewhere the cast are bolstered by telly greats like Ron Cook, Alexandra Moen, John Bird, Clive Merrison along with the aforementioned Fraines and Palmer; an excellent ensemble, worthy of an actoring Olympic team (though, apparently, that doesn’t exist).

Frustratingly the parallels between then and now aren’t explored as fully as they could have been, merely suggested. The politics of the games, during the scenes with the Olympic Committee and the Prime Minister, are both fascinating and a hoot. These moments could have easily have made for a far more interesting film than what is presented here.

Bert and Dickie is an earnest and well-meaning affair but its meandering pace, lack of drama and familiarity may well have you looking at you watch or Tweeting in the final third. Full of potential and British spirit, but not a gold medal winner.

Airs on Wednesday 25th July 2012 on BBC One.

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